Osama Bin Laden – an earlier intelligence failure? 5 may 2011

Kym Bergmann / Canberra

The death of Osama Bin Laden is now being analysed, with new information emerging almost by the hour. He had been on the run for almost a decade and was able to frustrate US and allied intelligence agencies in their attempts to track him down, which added to his mythical status. In an extraordinary comment three minutes into his address to the nation, President Barak Obama revealed:

“Shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the Director of the CIA to make the killing or capture of Bin Laden the top priority in our war against Al-Qaeda.”

This raises the obvious question: what had been the CIA’s top priority until then? Obviously something else. So assuming that Obama issued the instruction early in 2009, by August 2010 – little more than a year later – the CIA had a fairly good idea that he was in a compound in Abbottabad. If all of this is accurate, it makes one wonder what were the intelligence services doing under the tenure of the Bush administration if it were necessary for an incoming President to issue a directive focusing on Bin Laden. The previous administration was known for several episodes of incompetence, such as not preparing for the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and not being able to produce a coordinated response to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. It might be possible that a failure to appropriately direct the intelligence agencies can be added to the list.

Is Bin Laden really dead?

It seems extraordinary that this is being seriously questioned. If he survived, a top priority for him and his supporters would be to send a video tape to Al-Jazeera proving he was alive – causing a huge humiliation for the US. Being aware of this, we can be certain that Washington has used every measure possible to make absolutely certain that he is dead. It was publicly revealed several years ago that the US had obtained genetic samples from at least one of his close relatives for just such a contingency.

Washington has decided not to provide photographic evidence of the body, arguing that such gruesome imagery would in all probability inflame feelings even further.

Choosing a careful form of words, the Obama Administration has revealed that they know that other senior members of Al-Qaeada believe that Bin Laden is dead – a reference to SIGINT intercepts.

The operation.

It must have been vast and many of the details will remain hidden or obscure. Several helicopters must have been involved to cover for the possibility of one or more of them being downed. Attack aircraft were probably in the vicinity with precision-guided munitions to completely demolish the compound should the Navy SEAL team somehow fail in their mission. There could well have been a back-up team in the air or on the ground. The real-time imagery watched in the White House situation room on the other side of the planet would probably have come from UAVs circling high overhead, possibly Predators or armed Reapers. Command and control would have been provided by one or more AWACs, kept aloft with the assistance if necessary of air-to-air refueling. Possibly electronic warfare RIVET JOINT aircraft were involved to shut down or spoof Pakistan’s air defence system. Osama Bin Laden escaped once before from the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan and no US administration would take the risk of starving this operation of resources.

There is an ongoing brawl – unlikely to ever be fully resolved – about the role, if any, of Pakistan in the operation. To most observers it seems extraordinary that Bin Laden could have lived in Abbottabad without this having come to the attention of the Pakistani security services. They, in turn, are arguing that they passed on their suspicions to the US several years ago. For this claim to have any credibility it will need to be supported by evidence, such as copies of emails and records of meetings.

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