Hidden from view, standing just outside the frame of that now-famous photograph was a career CIA analyst. In the hunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist, there may have been no one more important. His job for nearly a decade was finding the al-Qaida leader.
The analyst was the first to put in writing last summer that the CIA might have a legitimate lead on finding bin Laden. He oversaw the collection of clues that led the agency to a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. His was among the most confident voices telling Obama that bin Laden was probably behind those walls.
The CIA will not permit him to speak with reporters. But interviews with former and current U.S. intelligence officials reveal a story of quiet persistence and continuity that led to the greatest counterterrorism success in the history of the CIA. Nearly all the officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters or because they did not want their names linked to the bin Laden operation.
The Associated Press has agreed to the CIA’s request not to publish his full name and withhold certain biographical details so that he would not become a target for retribution.
Call him John, his middle name.
John was among the hundreds of people who poured into the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center after the Sept. 11 attacks, bringing fresh eyes and energy to the fight.
He had been a standout in the agency’s Russian and Balkan departments. When Vladimir Putin was coming to power in Russia, for instance, John pulled together details overlooked by others and wrote what some colleagues considered the definitive profile of Putin. He challenged some of the agency’s conventional wisdom about Putin’s KGB background and painted a much fuller portrait of the man who would come to dominate Russian politics.
That ability to spot the importance of seemingly insignificant details, to weave disparate strands of information into a meaningful story, gave him a particular knack for hunting terrorists.