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Intelligence Plays Starring Role in Bin Laden Operation

Photo: White House

Underlying President Barack Obama’s address to the nation — announcing the death of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces in a “surgical operation” in northwest Pakistan — was the power and importance of U.S. intelligence.

Describing the years-long search for the world’s most wanted terrorist, Obama noted the “painstaking work by our intelligence community.”

In his speech last night, the president said he directed CIA director Leon Panetta, who has since been tapped to be defense secretary, to “make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al-Qaida.”

Early intelligence-gathering efforts came to fruition in August, Obama said, where a vague tip led to a possible lead to bin Laden.

“It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground,” the president said.  “I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”

Obama notably praised the work of the intelligence community and counterterrorism professionals, “who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome,” he said. Intel observers have long lamented the fact that intelligence successes are often kept under wraps, while failures are front-page news and Obama echoed that sentiment.

“The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice,” he said.

As details slowly emerge, the Defense Department revealed today the National Security Agency, the CIA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency worked together for months to pinpoint the location of the Pakistani compound where bin Laden was eventually tracked down.

U.S. Special Operations carried out the raid, which the administration called a “surgical strike.”

According to official White House photos, some of the government’s top intelligence and counterterrorism officials were present for Obama’s speech.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Panetta joined White House national security adviser Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, among others, in the first row of a group of ornate high-backed chairs for the late-night announcement.

Obama also sought to hark back to the “sense of unity” after 9/11. “I know that it has, at times, frayed,” he acknowledged. “Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.”

This very public success of intelligence in this operation — 10 years in the making — may serve as a rallying point across the political spectrum. Nearly all of the public accolades and congratulations, even from political opponents of the president, have focused on the work of intelligence and counterterrorism professionals.

“I want to congratulate — and thank — the hard-working men and women of our armed forces and intelligence community for their tireless efforts and perseverance that led to this success,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). And former vice president Dick Cheney said the news was a “tremendous achievement for the military and intelligence professionals who carried out this important mission.”

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