After bin Laden | Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

A vindication for intelligence

By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen
May 4, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

AS CITIZENS, we rightly expect the United States to do everything possible to protect us from terrorism.

When things go wrong, the men and women who work so hard to keep our country safe are criticized and their efforts are second-guessed.

So when things go right in an operation as complex and delicate as the killing of Osama bin Laden, we should take a moment to salute its success, and reflect on some of the reasons behind it.

First, in an era of WikiLeaks, the US government proved that it can in fact keep a secret when it matters most. While intelligence information-sharing among agencies is necessary as a rule, this success showcased the importance of tightly controlling the dissemination of source-sensitive information to those with an absolute “need to know.’’

The United States would not have been able to act if intelligence had been leaked or compromised. Strict compartmentalization of information over the nail-biting months and years that it took for all pieces of the puzzle to come together was crucial to the plan’s success.

Second, despite the increasing reliance in counterterrorism strategy on technical tools such as drone strikes, a big story here is the continued relevance of good, old-fashioned intelligence work. The counterterrorism community’s ability to follow people, honed over the years since 9/11, proved to be decisive; the intelligence officers’ patient and instinctive eyes for detail apparently helped identify and exploit a vulnerability in the Al Qaeda leader’s connections to the outside world. In the end, this human factor, which is so characteristic of classical intelligence work, ultimately led to bin Laden’s downfall.

Finally, and most importantly, the flawless execution of such a risky, complex operation would not have been possible without seamless cooperation between US military and intelligence agencies. This success should alleviate concerns about the “militarization’’ of intelligence, to the extent it applies to counterterrorism strategy.

This kind of a coordinated response is only possible if there are near-symbiotic working relationships between special forces, CIA clandestine officers, targeting officers, and analysts, all working toward a single goal.

Teamwork is the secret ingredient of all great successes in intelligence, and there were many men and women who quietly played their roles in a decade of intensive efforts to bring bin Laden to justice.

The lessons learned from this counterterrorist success story will hopefully inspire people to raise the bar in efforts to thwart other threats facing the United States.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA intelligence officer, is a senior fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.