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July 05, 2011

"John": The Man Who Lead The CIA's Hunt For Bin Laden

Interesting read.

From 2003, when he joined the counterterrorism center, through 2005, John was one of the driving forces behind the most successful string of counterterrorism captures in the fight against terrorism: Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Nashiri, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Ramzi bin Alshib, Hambali and Faraj al-Libi.

But there was no greater prize than finding bin Laden.

Bin Laden had slipped away from U.S. forces in the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora in 2001, and the CIA believed he had taken shelter in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. In 2006, the agency mounted Operation Cannonball, an effort to establish bases in the tribal regions and find bin Laden. Even with all its money and resources, the CIA could not locate its prime target.

By then, the agency was on its third director since Sept. 11, 2001. John had outlasted many of his direct supervisors who retired or went on to other jobs. The CIA doesn't like to keep its people in one spot for too long. They become jaded. They start missing things.

John didn't want to leave. He'd always been persistent. In college, he walked on to a Division I basketball team and hustled his way into a rotation full of scholarship players.

The CIA offered to promote him and move him somewhere else. John wanted to keep the bin Laden file.

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."

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.

One thing that's interested me over the course of this long war is the tension between the careerist nature of our national security institutions like the CIA and the military and the nee for these same institutions to be nimble and adaptive.

It's understandable to want to rotate people through different jobs to prevent burnout and bring fresh eyes to a problem but you also need continuity. On the other side is the simple fact that we haven't fully mobilized the country for the fight so a lot of people doing the work in this war are also trying to manage the normal challenges of managing a career. Thankfully, the CIA seems to have managed, at least in this case, to find a balance between the tensions of normal bureaucratic practices and the mission.


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posted by DrewM. at 10:44 AM

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