The chain of intelligence that led U.S. operatives to Osama Bin Laden on Monday reportedly began with a tip from a detainee at the notorious American prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. That tip led the CIA to one of Bin Laden’s trusted couriers — and then to the Al-Qaeda leader himself. Fundamentally, it was a success of human intelligence, or HUMINT.
But air- and space-based sensors apparently played a vital role in helping corroborate the HUMINT and providing the assault team a detailed view of bin Laden’s compound — likely right up to the minute of the raid.
There’s still much to be learned about how the hunt for bin Laden unfolded — and much of what we think we know today could turn out to be wrong. CIA director Leon Panetta hinted at the importance of overhead imagery in his post-attack statement, however. He praised the Agency’s “partners” at places like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA, which specializes in exploiting pictures taken from space and from the sky.
“I would say, in terms of trying to get the initial confirmation of intelligence tips they got through the HUMINT, and all way up through the [final] mission planning, they would have found value in overhead assets and would have used them,” says Barry Watts, a senior analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.