Navy SEALs stormed Osama bin Laden's compound, above, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, killing the al-Qaida leader and ending the manhunt for the world's most-wanted terrorist. (Aamir Qureshi / Agence France-Presse)
The daring raid that killed Osama bin Laden represents a triumph for thousands of anonymous federal intelligence employees, and a validation for scores of reforms made to the battered intelligence community over the last decade.
The government's inability to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, accurately assess Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capability, and stop the failed Christmas Day underwear bomber in 2009 drew harsh criticism and prompted drastic overhauls of the nation's intelligence operations. The government created an Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to oversee all 16 intelligence agencies, rebuilt the analyst workforce that withered during the post-Cold War 1990s, recruited operators and analysts with crucial Middle Eastern language skills and cultural knowledge, and broke down walls — both cultural and structural — that kept agencies from sharing vital information with one another.
As details of the mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan, emerged last week, several former and current intelligence officials told Federal Times that those reforms are now yielding big returns.
"This is the cumulative effect of a lot of small, medium and big things," said a former senior intelligence official who asked that his name not be printed. "But at the end of the day, it's a lot of small things, like the emphasis on collaboration — squishy as that may be — that ultimately changes the way people behave and the way organizations perform."
The 9/11 commission concluded that intelligence agencies' deep cultural resistance to sharing information with one another contributed to their failure to uncover that terrorist plot. But now, several agencies worked together to collect and analyze the data identifying the Abbottabad compound, and support the commandos that stormed it on May 2, local Pakistan time. Experts say this demonstrates that intelligence agencies are capable of effectively cooperating with one another.
The CIA led the operation, and the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), ODNI and the Defense Department also played critical roles.
A senior NGA analyst, who spoke to Federal Times anonymously, said his agency created detailed images of the compound using the National Reconnaissance Office's spy satellites. NGA's maps and images were used to create models of the compound, including a reproduction of the structure that Navy SEALs used to train for the mission. NGA also tracked the use of electricity in the area.
The analyst said the agencies worked together to provide SEAL Team 6 as much information as possible on what they could expect to find behind the compound's 12- to 18-foot walls.
"We say, when you can see it, you can believe it, and when you can see it, you can understand it," the analyst said. "In this case, that's what we helped provide for this operation."
Little-known agency plays critical role
For its role, NGA employed geospatial analysts, imagery analysts, image scientists, and other varieties of analysts, he said. Some employees helped model the compound or made sure information got to the right place at the right time.
The operation was so vast and secretive that NGA is now going back and trying to figure out exactly who did what, to fully understand and appreciate its scope, the analyst said.
"There are many folks who were working on this who weren't even fully cognizant of what they were working on," the analyst said.
The analyst said the increased focus on interagency cooperation and intelligence sharing in recent years — especially since the passage of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act — played a crucial role in the operation's success.
The reform law requires intelligence employees to take part in "joint duty" programs and temporarily transfer to other agencies to be considered for promotion to the Senior Executive Service. Joint duty is intended to foster collaboration and build up trust among counterparts at different agencies, though former DNIs Michael McConnell and Dennis Blair said last year its track record was spotty.
The road to intel ‘jointness'
Ellen McCarthy, former director of human capital management for the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence and president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, said the government also created joint centers for agencies to work together, trained analysts to share data, and developed new computer systems that allow easier sharing of information. For example, the ODNI created a Wikipedia-like program called Intellipedia and a social networking site for analysts called A-Space to foster collaboration.
"It's hard to measure the precise impact of any cultural shift until you look in the rearview mirror," the former senior official said. "Now we can look back at recent events and say, this wouldn't happen without a phenomenal degree of information sharing."
Leading up to the bin Laden operation, the NGA analyst said, employees weren't just working "virtually" with employees at other agencies. In some cases, they were embedded in person, working side-by-side with their counterparts to hunt down bin Laden.
"The amount it's improved has certainly been dramatic," he said.
He said information was restricted to a close-knit group of people at each agency — only as many as were truly needed.
"We kept it at an appropriate level, so those who really didn't have a need to know or need to be involved were not so," he said. "And in that way you were able to still keep the interaction and engagement across the community without having it get out to too many people, where you have greater opportunities for blowing the cover or leaking the information."
Loch Johnson, a former congressional intelligence committee staffer, said the Abbottabad operation underscored slow improvements in the collection of human intelligence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. He also said the personalities at the top are vital when promoting cohesion within the traditionally fractious intelligence community.
Roger Cressey, a National Security Council staffer during the Clinton and George W. Bush administration, said the intelligence community now has leaders who have "fully bought into" the benefits of information sharing.
"It's as much about people as it is about process," Cressey said.
He also said technical changes played a major role, such as making database access more efficient and reducing the time needed for analysts to compile, analyze and disseminate information.
Experts said the intelligence community's workforce reforms also helped make the bin Laden mission possible. More than half of today's intelligence analysts were hired after the Sept. 11 attacks, McCarthy said. That younger workforce brought unique skills, she said — particularly the ability to process vast amounts of data and use computers with ease — but also some weaknesses.
"They were a young community, a smart community, but not a very experienced community," she said. "You had a group of people used to dealing with large amounts of information, but are they asking the right questions? What am I missing? Just because you have a lot of information doesn't mean you have all you need."
But McCarthy and others said that the cadre of green analysts has seasoned over the years, which likely led to better intelligence and more dots being connected.
"They've had years to develop their contacts and information," McCarthy said. "This is not something that just happened because the president said, ‘I want him dead.'Ÿ"
It wasn't just analytic and critical thinking skills that atrophied during the 1990s. Language skills and cultural knowledge also plummeted.
For decades, the intelligence workforce was dominated by white men focused on the Soviet Union and other Cold War matters; but after Sept. 11, officials realized that lack of diversity in the intelligence community was a major weakness. So agencies reached out to immigrant communities and made recruiting so-called "heritage Americans," especially those who grew up speaking languages like Dari, Arabic and Pashto, one of their top personnel priorities.
The intelligence community also used to prohibit employees with immediate family members who were not citizens from receiving security clearances. But in 2008, DNI McConnell lifted that ban to encourage more heritage Americans to pursue intelligence careers.
The former senior intelligence official said he's convinced that increasing the intelligence community's diversity — especially at the CIA — helped contribute to the bin Laden hunt.
"There's no direct evidence … but it's just logical that as the agencies' workforce becomes more diverse, they're going to be that much better at their mission in all parts of the world," he said. "Whether that diversity manifested itself in analysts at Langley who can understand the nuances in the reports or intercepts they read, or whether it's the folks actually on the ground."
The official said he thinks the intelligence community is now stronger than it's ever been.
"Our objective was to rebuild the community back to its peak of the late '80s and early '90s," he said. "We've done that now, but numbers notwithstanding, I think the community is even more effective than it was then. Then we had a short focus on the USSR and didn't worry about the rest of the world. It's clear today that not only do we have to worry about the rest of the world, but we have the capability to do so."