Snowden leaks show gaps in official account of bin Laden raid

Osama bin Laden (Reuters/Pentagon)
While documents from the archive of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden don’t explicitly back the claims made by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, they do show gaps in the official US account of the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden.

The US government continues to insist that the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan was the result of the CIA’s signal intelligence (“SIGINT”) capturing the movements of an Al-Qaeda courier, identified as Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed (alias Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti). Likewise, the official version claims that Pakistan did not know about the raid or of bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Hersh’s recent expose in the London Review of Books challenges these assertions, and documents obtained by Snowden and published Monday by the Intercept show that “this apparent intelligence coup surfaces rarely” in internal NSA files.

A 2012 CIA budget request, also known as the “black budget,” claims that the agency conducted a “pattern of life analysis” on “a collection of assets in Pakistan to identify any potential linkages, as well as digital footprints.” This analysis, the document claims, “paired with other technical tests, increased confidence in each asset’s authenticity, reliability, and freedom from hostile control and directly contributed information leading to the successful mission on UBL’s compound.”

In the internal NSA newsletter, SIDToday, the agency’s associate deputy director for counterterrorism at the time, Jon Darby, claims the NSA “played a key role in identifying the compound where bin Laden was found.” However, Darby also said that the NSA lost “SIGINT access” to bin Laden back in 1998, and does not mention a courier.

A congratulatory article in SIDToday from November 2011, by Director of Signals Intelligence Teresa Shea, mentions “a dedicated group of SIGINT professionals” who would not give up the search for almost a decade, “and their persistence paid off in substantive contributions at critical points on the road to Abbottabad.” What those contributions may have been, though, Shea did not say.

READ MORE: Down the rabbit hole: Bin Laden raid was staged after extensive Pakistan-US negotiations – report

Four military intelligence reports quoted by the Intercept, meanwhile, do not suggest the death of bin Laden impacted the Taliban insurgency in any major way. A May 2011 NATO intelligence report speculated that the death of Al-Qaeda’s leader “offers an opportunity for the Taliban to highlight that they were not harboring [bin Laden], in an attempt to detach themselves from international terrorism and increase their political and moral legitimacy.”

There is little in the reports to show that Pakistani authorities were outraged by the US raid on Abbottabad, which seems unusual given Washington’s insistence that Pakistan was not consulted about the raid. The reports indicate that Islamabad’s hardening position towards the US was primarily due to the mounting pressure in the media and the general public.

The Intercept’s reporters caution that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.

“Given how vast the intelligence community is — and its compartmentalization and secrecy — its members may be unaware of what other agencies, or even units within their own agency, are doing,” the publication wrote.

Meanwhile, in the rush to take credit for the killing of alleged Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) leader Abu Sayyaf in Syria last week, the Pentagon has actually revealed its intelligence and operational capabilities – something US officials have groundlessly accused Snowden of doing, noted journalist Trevor Timm.

“Government officials will use any situation to say the most outlandish things possible in an attempt to smear his whistleblowing—regardless of their basis in reality,” Timm wrote. He used the example of Mike Morell, a “former CIA deputy director and torture advocate,” who told NPR last week that Snowden’s leaks caused Al-Qaeda groups in Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq to change their communication habits, and that they “morphed into ISIS.”

Timm contrasts that with the New York Times’ description of the Abu Sayyaf raid, citing “American officials” crediting “information gleaned from a small but growing network of informants the CIA and the Pentagon have painstakingly developed in Syria, as well as satellite imagery, drone reconnaissance and electronic eavesdropping.”

“Either leaks exposing the ‘sources and methods’ of surveillance are damaging to national security or they are not. Administration officials can’t have it both ways,” Timm argues.