I have been following the media reporting of the death of Osama bin Laden, including the recovery of a large quantity of hard drives, thumb drives, cell phones, CDs, DVDs and other electronic media – in other words we got his files and his phones. In the counterterrorism world, we have just witnessed the ultimate success. Kill the leader and recover all of his command and control data.
While many people may have been surprised at the voluminous amount of information recovered from Bin Laden’s lair, I was not – for a couple of reasons. First, I always believed that Bin Laden was, like Hitler, a power hungry leader who had not become a “figure head” for Al-Qaeda as many in the intelligence community seemed to have believed. He was the leader of Al-Qaeda, and he was never going to give that up. Like other tyrants, he was not one to share power and fame. In the end, it was all about him. Take a look at the video’s that have been released and how carefully he manipulated his image, dyed beard and all. I think it has been clearly established that he was in control of Al-Qaeda until SEAL Team 6 took him out.
Second, from what I have read, the FBI and no doubt the CIA gave the SEALs intensive training in what to look for and how to gather and preserve items of both evidentiary and intelligence value. Forensic examinations are part of the critical steps in exploiting the treasure trove of operational information that I predict will further diminish and defeat what is left of Al-Qaeda. Without a doubt, a lot will be learned about the Taliban and other Al-Qaeda-related organizations as well. This evidence/intelligence recovery training and the SEAL’s excellent execution of what they had learned resulted in the seizing of an incredible treasure trove of information. I am sure this is a story unto itself.
For many years there has been an important intersection between evidence collection and intelligence exploitation because there is so much intelligence information contained within evidence. There are investigative and intelligence leads that flow from good forensic work. Prior to 9-11, the exploitation of intelligence from collected evidence was not something that was done well, in my view. It was primarily about putting people in jail. But after 9-11, with funding support from Congress and the leadership of the Executive Branch, we experienced significant improvements in forensic science capabilities, including such areas as rapid DNA identification, enhanced fingerprint processing, and greater uses of biometrics overall that contributed to the war effort and saved many lives. Additionally, forensic examinations of hard drives, thumb drives and cell phones are routine in the law enforcement world as part of many investigative efforts across the board. These same examinations are of equal (if not more important) value in the counterterrorism and counterintelligence worlds. As these examinations are conducted of the items recovered, I can only imagine that the yield of actionable intelligence will be incredible.
War is a terrible thing. But the advances in forensic science and technology since 9-11 are astounding, and after all is said and done it will be the reason why terrorist organizations and other foes will be the big losers. These advances will further strengthen our country in the event we are confronted by new adversaries. It was money well spent.
Culling through the Bin Laden files is difficult work. Identifying immediate threats comes first. We must protect our country and our friends above all – that is our immediate duty. Moving on to other intelligence of military value and counterterrorism value will take time. But I believe that “connecting the dots” (that well-worn and silly phrase) has become a lot easier because of the bravery and diligence of the military, intelligence and law enforcement professionals who are protecting us on the front lines every day.