Spymaster to discuss hunt for bin Laden

Staff WriterAugust 22, 2011 

— The organizers of Raleigh's annual spy conference have scored an espionage coup: The keynote speaker will be Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the only person who has headed both the National Security Agency (1999 to 2005) and the Central Intelligence Agency (2006 to 2009).

And his topic will be one of the hottest and most current in the world of spying: the operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

The three-day conference begins Wednesday night with a reception. Hayden will deliver his talk, "Killing Usama Bin Laden: Building a Bridge Pebble by Pebble," at 11 a.m. Friday, then take questions from the audience.

In a telephone interview, Hayden outlined the speech he'll give, revealing what the United States knew about bin Laden's whereabouts over the years following the terrorist leader's escape from U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan's Tora Bora (not much), and discussing the challenges of spying in the era of terrorists with websites and satellite phones.

Q: The very nature of the work that will be the topic of your speech depends greatly on details that can't be disclosed. How far can you go, and what should the audience expect?

I'll begin with a fairly deep backdrop of what the agency looked like before9/11, what changes were made after 9/11, the kinds of broad things we did to establish knowledge of al-Qaida. I won't dwell on it, but part of that is the programs that President Bush authorized - rendition, detentions and so on. I'll talk a bit about covert action, and how that's authorized, what are the rules, how it's governed. It's not lawless, but it's different from other things and frankly is one of the things that make the agency very unique.

Then I'll begin to get a bit specific about the hunt for bin Laden, what I know about it, ... and the dynamic of how you give the president enough confidence to take an operationally, physically and politically risky step like that without flooding the zone so much that you tip off your prey and lose maybe the one opportunity to get him.

Then I'll probably give an assessment of where al-Qaida is now globally, the impact of bin Laden's death, and maybe what's on the next stage or in the next chapter.

Q: What do the details of the bin Laden raid tell us about what spying has become, about what's new and also what hasn't changed?

I can't go into detail - one, because I can't, and in part because there is only one layer I know - but all the forms of intelligence contributed to this. It had human (gathered by agents in the field) intelligence, signals intelligence, imagery intelligence. And an analytic shop that was obsessed with doing this.

Here is a case that was tremendously successful because there were no seams between the collection and the analytic task, and that is something that in terms of how we do our work, that's gotten significantly better in the last 10 years.

Q: For most of the past decade you were in lead roles for the top U.S. intelligence agencies - a decade in which they were keenly focused on bin Laden and al-Qaida. What did you feel when you heard that he had finally been killed?

Overwhelming satisfaction. Probably not quite the celebratory mood you saw outside the White House that night. Probably because those who have been doing this knew that this was important, but not a climactic moment, that they would have to go to work tomorrow and pretty much be doing the same thing they were the day before. But there was great, great satisfaction.

Q: What's the likelihood that members of the Pakistan government knew where bin Laden was?

I can give you something reasonably definitive, with the words chosen carefully. If someone wants to convince me that the senior levels of the Pakistani government knew where he was, the absolute burden of proof is on them. Because I can't think of a logical reason for senior levels of the Pakistani government to know this and not share it with us. ... Now, you've heard me say "senior levels," ... so I'm making a distinction here.

Q: Between bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora in December 2001 and the discovery of this compound, did the United States have any solid information about his location?

No. I can only speak with authority through 15 February 2009, but the trail was cold. When people would ask, "How are you doing on bin Laden?" "Well, that's a tough problem." "OK, when's the last time you really knew where he was?" My answer was Tora Bora.

Q: As CIA director, you held what has been called "The most important job in the U.S. government when it comes to fighting the global war on terrorism." Can that fight ever end?

You now, I'm sorry, but the answer is yes and no. You get to a certain success level, that you've pushed their capabilities down below a certain threshold. We aren't quite there yet, but we've had great success. What they're capable of doing now is well below what they were capable of doing 10 years ago, and that's really good news and cause for celebration, but we're not yet done.

Q: Right after 9/11, many said we were too reliant on technology and had far too few human sources of intelligence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Where are we at with that balance now?

I was tasked with increasing the number of case officers by 50 percent. And I did; we got to the end of the journey on my watch. But we have kind of jumped over that, and now the grand dispute isn't between the disciplines: human intelligence, imagery and signals and so on. ... The real issue facing us now is how much of all our energy from all of the disciplines we've put into the counterterrorism target at the expense of everything else.

Q: A big goal for you going into the NSA in 1999 was to lift the technology into the 21st century. I'm assuming the NSA and other government intelligence agencies have the same problems as the rest of us in keeping up with the pace of change in communications technology.

The purpose of the NSA is to be a party to communications of which it's not the intended recipient, and that's hard. And yes, if your target goes from 2G to 3G and you have a magnificent 2G infrastructure, guess what? You're deaf. And so given the pace of change in global telecommunications, you really had issues if you were working along government planning, programming and budgeting cycles.

Q: Can the NSA stay on top of those challenges? Bandwidth and the different kinds of channels available for moving information seem to grow exponentially every time you blink.

It is hard, but look on the bright side: Never in human history has so much of what the NSA cares about been pushed out there into the electromagnetic spectrum. Think where we were 50 years ago. Communications were limited. Now, just about everything is out there in ones and zeroes. So, although the challenge is really hard, the payoff is really great if you master the technology.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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