(On Violence is devoting the month of May to a simple idea with complex ramifications: Intelligence is Evidence. Click here to read the previous posts.)
If only Osama bin Laden was named Richard Kimball. Because then, instead of treating Osama as a terrorist, we could had treated him as a fugitive. And then we could have sent US Marshall Samuel Gerard after him. He wouldn’t have lasted for more than a few months. (Or Special Agent Luke Hobbs.)
Alas, in America, intelligence is not evidence. Since I’m spending the month explaining how “intelligence is evidence”, I’d be remiss to not include the most celebrated example of intelligence in action: the capture of Osama Bin Laden. In the same way that I used prisoners at Guantanamo and CIA drone strikes as case studies, the “hunt” for Osama bin Laden can best be understood as a investigation.
Specifically, a criminal investigation.
(Before you read further, drop the terms “terrorism”, “intelligence” and “Osama bin Laden” from your brain. The issue of terrorism has been so polluted with politicization and emotion that it is hard to approach this issue rationally.)
Let’s start with the evidence. According to Mike Allen, two organizations provided a good chunk of the evidence to take down Osama bin Laden. The first organization is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. It “specializes in imagery and maps”, just like police detectives and federal agents tail suspects or use cameras to watch them. The second organization, the National Security Agency can “covertly watch and listen to conversations around the world”, in the same way that law enforcement in the U.S. can place wire taps on communication devices.
Like most investigations, though, the biggest clue came not from technology but good old fashioned police work. That’s a code word for talking to humans. Investigators identified a courier who multiple sources confirmed Osama bin Laden still trusted. Tailing him led to a suspicious compound.
Since bin Laden lived in Pakistan, far from where federal agents could reach him, elite commandos took the mission. To be clear, this isn’t much different than how a major crimes unit would approach the take down of a major drug dealer. A major crimes unit would combine multiple types of evidence--confidential informants, wire taps and observation of the suspects--into a compelling case, convince it’s boss it has enough evidence, and then plan the take down. Taking down a major drug dealer or mafia boss would require a huge amount of planning to succeed, just like the bin Laden raid.
Finally, after taking down Osama bin Laden, the agents confiscated loads of paper, electronics and other evidence to use to build future leads.
While the investigation or “man-hunt” was basic police work, it has been described in several forums as a vindication of the intelligence community’s approach. Sure apprehending Osama bin Laden presented agents with an incredibly difficult challenge, but when the bulk of the evidence is finally presented, it is clear: this was police work.
(All information in this article about intelligence comes from declassified or unclassified reporting.)