After Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the White House released a photo of President Barack Obama and his Cabinet inside the Situation Room, watching the daring raid unfold.
Hidden from view, standing just outside the frame of that now-famous photograph was a career CIA analyst. In the hunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist, there may have been no one more important. His job for nearly a decade was finding the al-Qaida leader.
The analyst was the first to put in writing last summer that the CIA might have a legitimate lead on finding bin Laden. He oversaw the collection of clues that led the agency to a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. His was among the most confident voices telling Obama that bin Laden was probably behind those walls.
The CIA will not permit him to speak with reporters. But interviews with former and current U.S. intelligence officials reveal a story of quiet persistence and continuity that led to the greatest counterterrorism success in the history of the CIA. Nearly all the officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters or because they did not want their names linked to the bin Laden operation.
…The CIA had a list of potential leads, associates and family members who might have access to bin Laden.
“Just keep working that list bit by bit,” one senior intelligence official recalls John telling his team. “He’s there somewhere. We’ll get there.”
John rose through the ranks of the counterterrorism center, but because of his nearly unrivaled experience, he always had influence beyond his title. One former boss confessed that he didn’t know exactly what John’s position was.
“I knew he was the guy in the room I always listened to,” the official said.
While he was shepherding the hunt for bin Laden, John also was pushing to expand the Predator program, the agency’s use of unmanned airplanes to launch missiles at terrorists. The CIA largely confined those strikes to targets along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. But in late 2007 and early 2008, John said the CIA needed to carry out those attacks deeper inside Pakistan.
It was a risky move. Pakistan was an important but shaky ally. John’s analysts saw an increase in the number of Westerners training in Pakistani terrorist camps. John worried that those men would soon start showing up on U.S. soil.
“We’ve got to act,” John said, a former senior intelligence official recalls. “There’s no explaining inaction.”
John took the analysis to then CIA Director Michael Hayden, who agreed and took the recommendation to President George W. Bush. In the last months of the Bush administration, the CIA began striking deeper inside Pakistan. Obama immediately adopted the same strategy and stepped up the pace. Recent attacks have killed al-Qaida’s No. 3 official, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, and Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.