Bin Laden Found By Trolling The Weeds, Not By Torture

Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo have a nice and fascinating article out today telling the story of a single CIA career analyst who was the critical cog in collating the information that led to Osama bin Laden’s capture and death:

He examined and re-examined every aspect of bin Laden’s life. How did he live while hiding in Sudan? With whom did he surround himself while living in Kandahar, Afghanistan? What would a bin Laden hideout look like today?

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.”

Goldman and Apuzzo have done good work here; it is a great story, please read it in its entirety. But I want to play off their work to take it the step further that they did not. This is not just a feel good story about what worked and went right to capture bin Laden, it is an instructive primer on what didn’t work, to wit: torture.

So, while we congratulate CIA analyst “John”, let us also remember that years of effort, centuries of founding principles and an eternity of American morality was lost to the Bush/Cheney torture brigade. Ever since Osama bin Laden’s take down, the torture apologists have come out of their caves bleating at full voice in a vain attempt to justify their war crimes and save their face. Even yesterday, as the nation celebrated its founding, one of the most craven torture toadies of all, Marc Theissen, was back at it, saying the country owed the torture freaks an apology.

But torture is not what caught Osama bin Laden, good solid human intelligence and analysis were what did the trick.

That ability to spot the importance of seemingly insignificant details, to weave disparate strands of information into a meaningful story, gave him a particular knack for hunting terrorists.

Yes. Around here, we call that digging and trolling in the weeds. It is what works; not torture.

29 replies
  1. phred says:

    The CIA would undoubtedly benefit from your talents EW, but I am enormously grateful that you employ them here, out in the open, for all of our benefit : )

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Izzy Stone and Marcy Wheeler are better models for government investigators than Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. That is, if you want to get to the heart of the matter and not just enrich contractors and the executive’s power.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Goldman and Apuzzo talk about how quickly CIA analysts and executives changed jobs, citing as reasons burnout: “They become jaded. They start missing things.” They might have also inquired into how many CIA personnel “retired” to work in the private sector, doing the same or more important intel functions they were doing for the government, but with even less oversight and for considerably more money.

  4. Arbusto says:

    But, but Obama’s latest CIA troll says we need torture to deter the mushroom cloud scenario. And of course to be effective, we need continuing practice, don’t you know.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The pace at the CIA lost or moved analysts and executives also seems strange. I appreciate the burnout rate in high-pressure, life and death jobs involving angry, powerful politicians demanding convenient results. In days of yore, however, the DoJ, SEC, Customs and IRS kept top lawyers involved in high-profile antitrust, criminal, securities, customs and tax investigations for years. The IBM litigation took more than a decade; it took years to nail NY metro mafia bosses. Corporations keep investigatory, product and research teams intact for years, too. Ditto offshore. Which tells me the rationale proffered here does not fully explain the rapid turnover.

  6. BoxTurtle says:

    This guy is the hero, not OBamaLLP, BushCo or any of the Generals.

    Boxturtle (But if he’d used torture, he’d already have his Medal of Freedom)

  7. Frank33 says:

    I myself am not convinced that any of this should be believed. “John” is portrayed as a brilliant analyst. But “John” was also part of the undeclared Robot Murder Drone War, that kills mostly innocent civilians. This suggests he is a major neo-con warmonger.

    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.

    There are many questions that defy logic. Bin Laden was living near a Pakistan military installations for five years, and ISI did not know about him. But reports say that Bin Laden was actively planning and assisting ISI terrorism. I am thinking Bin Laden’s usefulness as the reason for the Phony War On Terrorism was no longer wanted or needed.

    The cellphone of Osama bin Laden’s trusted courier, which was recovered in the raid that killed both men in Pakistan last month, contained contacts to a militant group that is a longtime asset of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, senior American officials who have been briefed on the findings say.

    The discovery indicates that Bin Laden used the group, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, as part of his support network inside the country, the officials and others said.

    We have also had no information at all about Bin Laden financial networks that supported “Al Qaeda” terrorism. Bin Laden’s only real talent was financing terror.

  8. Starbuck says:

    There is one person, Dr. Steve Pieczenik, who claims Bin Laden died years ago, and this fellow seems to have credentials!

    I did a survey on line before posting this and found little to either confirm or deny his claims.

    I would appreciate any links to sources which amplify on his climes, pro or con.

  9. lysias says:

    Of course torture worked. It worked to produce false confessions that could at least be used to frighten the American people (and the people of other Western countries,) as well as to furnish arguments to claim that the authorities were doing their jobs. Those confessions also seemed to support the official 9/11 narrative.

    • dopeyo says:

      torture worked to produce false confessions to scare the american people…

      we have a winner in aisle 9!

  10. bobschacht says:

    I think Michigan (Go Blue!) ought to offer a special course taught in their school of journalism called “Digging and trolling in the Weeds,” along with an endowed chair for your exclusive use.

    Bob in AZ

    • MadDog says:

      Latest via Pete Williams at MSNBC:

      Member of terrorist group brought to US to stand trial

      …Ahmed Abdulqadir Warsame, a native of Somalia, was arrested April 19 in the Persian Gulf region by the U.S. military and kept on a Navy ship at sea where he was questioned by a team of U.S. interrogators…

      …The officials said Warsame was questioned for two months before he was given a Miranda warning about his right to remain silent.

      “After waiving those rights, he spoke to law enforcement agents for several days,” the Justice Department said, and then his cooperation stopped…

  11. MadDog says:

    More OT – It’s not just American drone wars:

    RAF tackles Taliban in Afghanistan – using joysticks in Las Vegas

    In a corner of Creech air force base near Las Vegas, Nevada, an RAF flag marks the home of 39 Squadron, an elite unit formed in some haste during 2007 and yet to return to the UK…

    …In just four years, the five Reapers at Creech have become an essential part of Britain’s 21st-century weaponry, and there are already plans to buy a new fleet of a successor aircraft for use in the UK…


    …The 110 members of 39 Squadron do not endure six- or nine-month tours, the standard across the armed forces. They remain in America for three years at a time, making them, argues Thirtle, “our most experienced people in Afghanistan”. Except they are not in Afghanistan.

    Once they have been briefed about a mission, the pilots rely on an array of systems to run the aircraft; the decisions they make in Nevada travel by fibre-optic cable to Europe, where they are beamed up to a satellite and then back down to Afghanistan. There is two second delay…

  12. Deep Harm says:

    Unlike technology, traditional analysis offers little opportunity for fat profits by crony contractors. So, it’s not surprising that we see less and less of it.

    Years ago, I predicted that a certain government official would leave his job and that another official’s proposal–admired by one of my coworkers–would fail. The coworker initially scoffed, because he had worked more closely with the two officials and had greater entree to high-level officials. But, he relied on what they said; not how they said it and certainly not on the things that were left unsaid. He failed to notice the little things, like how high level officials stopped taking notes when one official began speaking. How the other officials signatures became increasing large and angry looking. When my predictions finally proved true, my coworker was shocked.

    Like my coworker, technology relies on what is said or written. It’s terrible at understanding nuances of how something is said and confounded in terms of analyzing what isn’t said. And, very pricey contract for equipment or software…every Trailblazer….comes at the expense of hiring traditional, well-trained analysts.

  13. fatster says:

    O/T Greenwald on leaks and Pakistan.

    Major new leak investigation needed into Pakistan revelations

    ” There are, broadly speaking, three categories of political “leaks”: (1) ones that reflect well on the U.S. government and its allies (here’s the glorious leaked story of how the U.S. got bin Laden); (2) ones that reflect poorly on the U.S. government (U.S. officials are guilty of waste, corruption, illegality); and (3) ones that reflect poorly on foreign governments the U.S. wishes to demonize (Pakistan murdered a journalist). Obama’s highly selective war on whistleblowers is design to eliminate category (2) leaks — that’s what it’s been aimed at thus far . . .”


  14. Jeff Kaye says:

    Actually, the Goldman/Apuzzo story perpetuates the myth that the hunt for Bin Laden went on since 9/11, and I’m sorry to see you perpetuate it as well.

    As Jason Leopold and I have documented, and was verified by a 2008 DoD IG report declassified last year, the tracking of Bin Laden goes back to at least the late 1990s. In fact, intelligence analysts for the military’s Joint Forces Intelligence Command (Asymmetrical Threats Division) believed they had tracked down Bin Laden, utilizing a “fusion” approach. Captain Kirk von Ackermann in particular felt that he had identified where Bin Laden was, but according to his wife, there was not “political will” to go after Bin Laden at that time. By 2000 (or early 2001), the analysts were told not to track Bin Laden anymore.

    We know this because the former Deputy Head (later Acting Head) of the Asymmetric Threats Division came forward on this (1st to the IG, then later, frustrated by their cover-up, to Truthout, after TO had published the only major article on the IG report, which I also covered here at Firedoglake).

    Interested readers who really want to know the history, and not just CIA after-the-fact get-the-glory propaganda, can read all about it here, here, and here.

    Susie Dow, of ePluribus Media, has also picked up the coverage at her own blog. It is a great disappointment that the story has not found its legs elsewhere, but I will continue to be writing about it and expanding the coverage of it.

    Two major questions follow from this:

    1) Why were military intelligence officers called off the hunt for Bin Laden even after they believed they had produced excellent intel on where he was circa 2000?
    2) Why did JFIC lie to Congressional investigators (and DIA also cover up documentation of the Aysmmetrical Threats Division work) when Congress came asking questions as part of the 2002 Joint Intelligence Committees investigation of the lead-up to 9/11?

    To report the story that AP does, without reporting the context around the approach to the intelligence work done on locating Osama Bin Laden, is to misrepresent the history of that work, and our understanding of why it detoured into the horrific byways of torture, as it did.

    • bmaz says:

      Neither this post, nor the story of Goldman and Apuzzo has anything in the least to do with your or Leopold’s story. And it does nothing to contradict, whether facially or superficially, the thought that the realization of, or hunt for, bin Laden started in the late 90s with Clinton. I have no clue where this false outrage is coming from, but it is bogus.

      • bobschacht says:

        I think you’re over-reacting, perhaps over-protective of EW. She can defend her own work very well, without your assistance. And this is Jeff Kaye you’re responding to, not some troll from an unknown universe.

        I appreciated Jeff’s comment as providing a good back-story for what EW wrote, and relevant to EW’s headline theme on “finding Bin Laden.”

        You got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?

        Bob in AZ

        • bmaz says:

          Nope, I fully meant what I said; I do not think the “Iron Man” stuff is directly relevant or germane to a discussion of Goldman’s story, nor do I think it undercuts it. I was not defending EW, I was simply stating that Goldman’s story, for whatever value it has, is not effectively attacked from a collateral posture from “Iron Man”.

          • Jeff Kaye says:

            When a post reads, “Bin Laden Found by Trolling the Weeds, Not by Torture,” and a recent report details how Bin Laden was found a year before 9/11 by “trolling the weeds,” and that fact was briefed to the CIA, then it was all covered up when Congress came asking, consciously so by the lead military command, then I think it is relevant. The cover-up continued by the DoD Inspector General for Intelligence, and I will be writing more on that presently.

            One can disagree, of course. And you do, evidently.

            The children of the man who found Bin Laden in 2000 might not ever know what their father had done, if IM had not come forward. (He went missing mysteriously in Iraq, where he was working as a contractor in 2003.) And we still are in the dark as to why that operation was shut down, or why Bin Laden was not pursued at that time. Important? Obviously, that’s up to the reading public to decide.

            • Jeff Kaye says:

              Furthermore, bmaz, if my point about the revisionist history of the hunt for Bin Laden, as exemplified by the AP article, weren’t directly relevant, consider the way this “hunt” is already referenced in, for instance, the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings (a href=””>PDF) of Gen. Petraeus for CIA director (Bold emphasis added)

              QUESTION 5: In your view, what lessons should a new D/CIA draw from:

              The Khowst suicide bombing incident;
              The decade long search for Usama Bin Laden;
              The operation that resulted in his death; and
              The pre-Iraq war intelligence….

              [Petraeus, from the pre-hearing questions, as published at the SSCI website]

              CIA learned several lessons from the 10-year hunt for Usama Bin Ladin that will assist in its efforts to hunt down other elusive high-value terrorists.

              I am totally correct in challenging this revisionist history. And I think it’s relevant to ask why this revisionism to begin with.

  15. alinaustex says:

    What I inferred from Jeff Kaye’s comment @ 20 was that Bushcheney did not heed the Clinton warnings about the threat from al Qa’ida . The other inference could be that Bushcheney by not acknowledging the threat posed by ‘the Base” furthered the likely success for the attacks on the Twin Towers . When you think about why the search for the Sheikh was called off – one must also think about Richard C Clarke runnnig around the Bushcheney White house ” with his hair on fire ” warning of an immeninent terrorist attack ” .
    Its still very troubling to me that Bushcheney chose not to vigorously pursue UBL – then we wind up with Camp Nama after the GWOT is instituted .

    • Jeff Kaye says:

      Actually, so far as I can tell, the pushback on the Bin Laden information came in the late summer/early fall of 2000. The full shutdown of the operation may not have occurred until early 2001. This was not, so far as I can tell, a Bush/Cheney operation, but emanated from the Pentagon, and possibly the IC.

      My “outrage” begins when you consider that the CIA was briefed on the DO5-JFIC intelligence during 2000, as I have elsewhere documented, as was DIA and NSA, and USJFCOM higher-ups as well. Hence, the story being put out about “John” smacks of a cover story. I nice cover story, but certainly not the real goodies about what went on. It may be nice to think that there was this bulldog who pursued what he thought was a good way to find Bin Laden, but that dog won’t hunt. — It was Goldman and Apuzzo’s essentially uncritical reporting of what their sources told them that rankled me. And I know they know about the Iron Man story, so they can’t plead ignorance, but choose to prefer the CIA’s own version of events.

      The further “outrage” comes when you consider that the U.S. press and blogosphere has ignored the story of a man who was actually there, who was pursuing Al Qaeda couriers to Bin Laden before 9/11, for instance, and who has risked his career, I would think, to come forward in the name of truth, to reveal that operations were shut down, and lies told about this to Congress, while the respectable crowd continues to lap up uncritically what the CIA chooses to tell it.

      Meanwhile, there will be more to report on that history, and I will report it as it comes in.

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