Monday, 23 May 2011

Osama Done In By Spy Ring Backed By Military Network

In January, the chief of the military's elite special-operations troops accepted an unusual invitation to visit Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. There, Adm. William McRaven was shown, for the first time, photos and maps indicating the whereabouts of the world's most wanted man.

Adm. McRaven—one of the first military officers to be brought into the CIA's latest hunt for Osama bin Laden—offered a blunt assessment: Taking bin Laden's compound would be reasonably straightforward. Dealing with Pakistan would be hard.

A Wall Street Journal reconstruction of the mission planning shows that this meeting helped define a profound new strategy in the U.S. war on terror, namely the use of secret, unilateral missions powered by a militarized spy operation. The strategy reflects newfound trust between two traditionally wary groups: America's spies, and its troops.

The bin Laden strike was the strategy's "proof of concept," says one U.S. official.
Last month's military strike deep inside Pakistan is already being used by U.S. officials as a negotiating tool—akin to, don't make us do that again—with countries including Pakistan thought to harbor other terrorists. Yemen and Somalia are also potential venues, officials said, if local-government cooperation were found to be lacking.

The new U.S. strategy has roots in a close relationship between CIA Director Leon Panetta and Adm. McRaven. In 2009, the two inked a secret agreement setting out rules for joint missions that provided a blueprint for dozens of operations in the Afghan war before the bin Laden raid.

The reshuffling of the Obama administration's national-security team will likely reinforce the relationship between the nation's spies and its top military teams. Mr. Panetta is expected to take over the Pentagon this summer armed with a strong understanding of its special-operations capabilities. Gen. David Petraeus, who is expected to become CIA director, made extensive use of special operations while running wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This account of the planning of the raid on bin Laden's home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is based on interviews with more than a dozen administration, intelligence, military and congressional officials.

Officials and experts say the new U.S. approach will likely be used only sparingly. "This is the kind of thing that, in the past, people who watched movies thought was possible, but no one in the government thought was possible," one official said.

2004 CIA learns the nom de guerre of one of Osama bin Laden's trusted couriers.
2007 CIA learns the courier's real name.
2009 CIA and special-forces commanders ink a secret deal to conduct joint operations.
May 2009 CIA briefs President Obama on bin Laden.
Aug. 2010 Courier is tailed by the CIA to his home in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Sept. 2010 Mr. Panetta briefs Mr. Obama on the Abbottabad compound.
Dec. 2010 CIA station chief's cover is blown in Pakistan; U.S. blames Pakistan's intelligence agency
Dec. 2010 Mr. Panetta updates Mr. Obama, who calls for attack planning to begin.
Jan. 2011 CIA briefs Adm. William McRaven, commander of military special-operations troops.
Jan. 27 CIA contractor Raymond Davis is charged in the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis.
Feb. 25 Select group of CIA and military officials meet to discuss intelligence and uncertainty regarding bin Laden's presence.
March 14 Obama decides on urgent unilateral action.
March 16 Mr. Davis is freed in Pakistan, easing the path to attack bin Laden's compound.
April 11 Mr. Panetta meets with Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha.
April 19 Mr. Obama gives provisional go-ahead for helicopter raid.
April 28 National Security Council meets to present final plans for helicopter raid to the president.
April 29 Mr. Obama authorizes raid on the Abbottabad compound.
April 30 Mr. Obama calls Adm. McRaven for final status check.
May 2 An early-morning raid kills bin Laden deep in Pakistani territory.
May 2 Adm. Mullen calls Pakistan Army Chief Gen. Kayani to tell him of the raid.
May 7 Pakistan appears to out the CIA's station chief in Islamabad.
May 9 Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani gives a speech saying Pakistan didn't harbor bin Laden and criticizing the U.S. strike on its territory.
May 16 Sen. John Kerry travels to Pakistan to smooth tensions.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama said in an interview with the BBC that he would be willing to authorize similar strikes in the future. "Our job is to secure the United States," he said.

Salman Bashir, Pakistan's foreign secretary, said earlier this month in an interview that a repeat of the bin Laden raid could lead to "terrible consequences." Other officials have said Pakistan would curtail intelligence cooperation with the U.S. in the event of another such attack.

A more traditional approach would have been to simply bomb the bin Laden property using stealth aircraft, perhaps in cooperation with Pakistani troops. But from the outset, Mr. Obama decided to cut Pakistan out of the loop.

Top U.S. officials—in particular, Defense Secretary Robert Gates—worried how keeping Pakistan in the dark would affect relations with the country, a close but unstable ally. But mistrust of the Pakistani intelligence services drowned out that fear.

In the end, several hundred people in the U.S. government knew about the raid before it happened. But it didn't leak.

U.S. officials took extraordinary measures to keep it quiet, often speaking in code to each other. One decided to refer to the operation as "the trip to Atlantic City" to avoid accidentally tipping off colleagues.

In August 2010, after 10 years of a largely fruitless hunt for the man who killed nearly 3,000 Americans, the CIA caught a break when it followed a courier believed to be working with bin Laden to a home in Abbottabad, about 40 miles from Pakistan's capital. After months of observation, the CIA eventually decided that one of the three families living there was most likely bin Laden's.

In December, Mr. Panetta laid out CIA's best intelligence case for Mr. Obama, which pointed to bin Laden's likely, but not certain, presence at the compound. The president asked Mr. Panetta to start devising a plan.
Mr. Panetta turned to Adm. McRaven. It was his visit to CIA headquarters in January, and his quick analysis of the pros and cons, that sealed the two men's partnership, officials say.

Their ties mark a significant historical shift. During the Cold War, there was little interaction between the Pentagon and CIA, as the military focused on planning for a land war with the Soviets and the spy community focused on analysis. That started changing in the 1990s, but only the past few years have the CIA and military begun working particularly closely.

Adm. McRaven assigned one senior special-operations officer—a Navy Captain from SEAL Team 6, one of the top special-forces units—to work on what was known as AC1, for Abbottabad Compound 1. The captain spent every day working with the CIA team in a remote, secure facility on the CIA's campus in Langley, Va.

On the evening of Feb. 25, several black Suburbans pulled up to the front of CIA's Langley headquarters. The meeting was planned after dusk, on a Friday, to reduce the chances anyone would notice. Around a large wooden table in the CIA director's windowless conference room, the Pentagon's chief counterterrorism adviser Michael Vickers, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. James Cartwright and senior CIA officials joined Adm. McRaven and Mr. Panetta. Over sandwiches and sodas, the CIA team walked through their intelligence assessment.

In the middle of the conference table sat a scale model of the compound. Measuring four feet by four feet, it was built by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency based on satellite photos. It was accurate down to every tree.

Analysts told the group they had high confidence that a "high-value" terrorist target was living there. They said there was "a strong probability" it was bin Laden.

The planners reviewed the options they had developed. The first was a bombing strike with a B-2 stealth bomber that would destroy the compound and any tunnels under it. The second was a helicopter raid with U.S. special operations, which immediately evoked visions of "Black Hawk Down," the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in which a U.S. helicopter was shot down and 19 U.S. soldiers killed.

The third option was to offer the Pakistanis an opportunity to assist in the raid, perhaps by forming a cordon around the compound to ensure U.S. forces could carry out the operation without obstruction.

Kicking planning into higher gear, the president reviewed these options at a March 14 meeting of the National Security Council. Among his first decisions was to scotch the idea of gathering more intelligence to make sure they had found bin Laden. The potential gain was outweighed by the risk of being exposed.

Mr. Obama also rejected a joint Pakistani operation, officials say. There was no serious consideration of the prospect, said one administration official, given the desire for secrecy.

Weighing on the minds of several officials was the fate of a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, being held in a Lahore jail after having shot two Pakistanis in disputed circumstances. Mr. Panetta, pressing hard for his release, worried Mr. Davis might be killed if the U.S. couldn't spring him before the bin Laden raid.

The B-2 plan had many supporters, particularly among military brass. A bombing would provide certainty that the compound's residents would be killed, and it posed less risk to U.S. personnel. At the time, Mr. Gates, the defense secretary, was skeptical of the intelligence case that bin Laden was at the compound.

At the end of the meeting, officials believed Mr. Obama favored the bombing raid, too. Gen. Cartwright asked two Air Force officers to flesh out that proposal.

They immediately faced a challenge. CIA analysts couldn't tell if there was a tunnel network under the compound. Planners had to presume it existed, which meant the B-2 bombers would have to drop a large amount of ordinance. But a bombing raid of that magnitude would likely kill innocent neighbors in nearby homes.

Another other option would use less powerful ordinance, sparing the neighbors. But any tunnels would be spared, too.

Gen. Cartwright made no recommendations. But the team's PowerPoint presentation, created just after the meeting with the president, laid out plainly the disadvantages of the larger bombing run. It showed another house besides bin Laden's clearly in the blast radius and estimated that up to a dozen civilians could be killed. The ability to recover evidence of bin Laden's death was also minimal—meaning the U.S. wouldn't even be able to prove why they violated Pakistani airspace.

By the time the National Security Council gathered again March 29, the president had grown wary of the bombing-raid option. "He put that plan on ice," a U.S. official said.

Instead, Mr. Obama turned to Adm. McRaven to further develop the idea of a helicopter raid. Adm. McRaven assembled a team drawing from Red Squadron, one of four that make up SEAL Team 6. Red Squadron was coming home from Afghanistan and could be redirected with little notice inside the military.

The team had experience with cross-border operations from Afghanistan into Pakistan, and had language skills that would come in handy as well. The team performed two rehearsals at a location inside the U.S.
Planners ran through the what-ifs: What if bin Laden surrendered? (He likely would be held near Bagram Air Force base, a senior military official said.) What if U.S. forces were discovered by the Pakistanis in the middle of the raid? (A senior U.S. official would call Pakistan's chief military officer and try to talk his way out of it.)

The U.S. was pretty sure it could get in and out without alerting the Pakistanis. Officials say the choppers used in the raid were designed to be less visible to radar and, possibly, to make them quieter.

In addition, because the U.S. helped equip and train Pakistan's military, it had intimate knowledge of the country's capabilities—from the sensitivity of the radar systems deployed along the Afghan border to the level of alert for Pakistani forces in and around Islamabad and Abbottabad.

If Pakistan scrambled F-16s to investigate, the U.S. knew how long it would take the planes to reach the area, officials said. The U.S. supplies F-16s to Pakistan on the condition they are kept at a Pakistani military base with 24/7 U.S. security surveillance, according to diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

On April 11, Mr. Panetta had a high-stakes meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Ties between the U.S. and Pakistan were already chilly, partly due to the spat over Mr. Davis, the CIA contractor jailed in Lahore. But Mr. Davis had since been freed, and the high-profile event at Langley was intended to improve ties between the nations.

At the event, Gen. Pasha asked Mr. Panetta to be more forthcoming about what his agency was doing inside Pakistan. Gen. Pasha also voiced frustration that the CIA was operating in his country behind his back—not knowing, of course, of the planning for the bin Laden attack.

Mr. Pasha has said the meeting involved a shouting match; American officials say that didn't happen. Mr. Panetta promised to review Gen. Pasha's concerns, according to U.S. officials. His goal was to try to improve ties so the bin Laden takedown didn't occur when relations were at rock bottom.

When the National Security Council met again eight days later. Mr. Obama gave a provisional go-ahead for the helicopter raid. But he worried the plan for managing the Pakistanis was too flimsy.

The U.S. had little faith that, if U.S. forces were captured by the Pakistanis, they would be easily returned home. Given how difficult it had been to resolve the case of Mr. Davis—which took more than two months of heated negotiations—one U.S. official said: "How could we get them to uphold an incursion 128 miles into their airspace?"

Mr. Obama directed Adm. McRaven to develop a stronger U.S. escape plan. The team would be equipped to fight its way out and would have two helicopters on stand-by in case of an emergency.

On April 28, a few days before the attack on bin Laden's compound, Mr. Obama held a public event in the East Room of the White House to unveil his new national-security team. From there, Messrs. Obama and Panetta went to the Situation Room, where Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained the final plan to the National Security Council.

Only at that meeting did Mr. Gates come around to fully endorsing the operation, because of his skepticism of the intelligence indicating bin Laden was there.

Mr. Obama told his advisers he wanted to speak directly with Adm. McRaven before the raid was launched. The admiral was in Afghanistan preparing his strike team.

That call took place on Saturday afternoon, Washington time, over a secure phone line. Mr. Obama asked Adm. McRaven for an update on final preparations. Mr. Obama also asked the admiral if had learned anything since arriving in Afghanistan that caused him to alter his confidence in the mission.

Adm. McRaven told Mr. Obama the team was ready, and that his assessment remained unchanged.

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