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In Abbottabad, Bin Laden Lived in ‘Prison of His Own Making’

May 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
For a decade after 9/11, Osama bin Laden was the most hunted man in the world. This week, more details emerged about the operation and the relentless, often frustrated intelligence effort that led to his death a year ago. Margaret Warner and author Peter Bergen, discuss Bergen's new book "Manhunt," which recounts the long chase.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now the American manhunt that found its target in a Pakistani suburb.

Margaret Warner has our look.

MARGARET WARNER: For a decade after 9/11, Osama bin Laden was the most hunted man in the world. This week, on the first anniversary of bin Laden’s killing by U.S. special forces in Pakistan, more details are emerging about the operation and the relentless, often frustrated, intelligence effort that led to it.

Journalist Peter Bergen has written a graphic and gripping account of all that in his new book, “Manhunt.” Bergen himself has been reporting and writing on bin Laden since meeting him in Afghanistan in 1997, as the producer of a CNN interview in which the al-Qaida leader declared war on the United States.

And Peter Bergen joins us now.

And welcome to the program.

PETER BERGEN, author, “Manhunt”: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in all this reporting you have been doing over a decade and in preparation for this book, what was the most startling, telling discovery you made about the hunt for this man?

PETER BERGEN: One of the most startling anecdotes that I found in the course of reporting the book was, Michael Morell, the deputy director of the CIA, several months before the operation went down went to President Obama and said to him that the circumstantial case that Iraq had weapons of pass destruction was better than the circumstantial case that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad.

So I think that is — you know, that shows the level of uncertainty that existed about the intelligence. And for people who — we have heard this week a number of people saying essentially anyone would have made this decision. That’s very easy to say sort of post facto, when you know how the operation turned out.

Another similar kind of anecdote, Michael Morell and his boss, Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, an hour before the operation had a discussion about the fact that they would be surprised if bin Laden — they wouldn’t be surprised if bin Laden was there and they wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: So it was — I think you wrote that the president knew the intelligence was, what, 50/50, but he had confidence in the operational abilities.

PETER BERGEN: Yes, I mean, 100 percent confidence in the operation.

And, you know, there was some percentages that people threw around about how confident they were, but at the end of the day you are either going to be 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong.

MARGARET WARNER: One hundred percent wrong.

Now, you were the only, I believe, Western journalist to be allowed into this compound before the Pakistanis demolished it. What did that tell you about the way he was living for the last six years?

PETER BERGEN: Well, he was living — I mean, the first adjective that leaps to mind is squalor.

The place was — they were living in a very humble way. Each wife had her own little kitchen, little bathroom. Bin Laden — you know, there were a dozen kids and grandkids of bin Laden’s on the compound. They were growing their own crops. They were growing their own — you know, raising cows, chickens, honeybees, rabbits, you name it.

It was a pretty cramped environment. It felt like a makeshift but very long-term camping site. I mean, the beds they had were just pieces of plywood hammered together.

MARGARET WARNER: And it sounded as if it was very confined.

PETER BERGEN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: I think you said prison of his own making.

PETER BERGEN: It was a prison of his own making because he had — you know, he oversaw the building of an extra floor which was for him, and it had very few windows. So that was great for people not seeing him, but it was very bad the night of the raid, because he couldn’t see what was going on.

MARGARET WARNER: But was this confinement in a way what — part of what made him so hard to track?

PETER BERGEN: Yes. He faced a dilemma, which is — I mean, if he had communicated with absolutely nobody, you know, he never would have been found.

But he wanted to retain some control over this organization. And we now — some of the documents now which I was able to look at for this book, whether they have been publicly released, demonstrated that he was sort of a micromanager and trying to send very long instructions to his group.

But he could have just stopped communicating, but then would have become even more irrelevant than he already was.

MARGARET WARNER: So what, some of the most fascinating chapters I think are just about — I think one is called just developing a theory of the case, and just about all these people, some of whom you name and many of whom you don’t, at the CIA and elsewhere who worked on just for years.

At what point did they realize that finding a courier or the courier was the key, and then that this particular fellow known as al-Kuwaiti was the courier?

PETER BERGEN: I think it is a matter of deductive logic.

Relatively early on, the couriers were something that they really thought were important, 2002, 2003 — there was a memo written in 2005 which sort of made the analytical case that was probably the only way we were going to find him or one of the key ways. But then his name surfaced, but it was an alias, and then attaching the alias to a real name, then attaching a real name to a real cell phone, then following that cell phone back to the compound.

This was, you know, more Agatha Christie than James Bond.

MARGARET WARNER: So there was never an aha moment, right?

PETER BERGEN: Not at all.

It was a very long, drawn-out process. And no one — there was — yes, there was no magic detainee who gave the information that was going to lead to bin Laden. There was nobody who dropped — picked up a cash reward for information leading to his capture.

MARGARET WARNER: Or succeeded in becoming a mole.

PETER BERGEN: Yeah. And I mean penetrating al-Qaida is very difficult. And one of the people I quote in the book is the head of CIA operations at the time, said recruiting a Soviet was relatively easy. You take him to Wal-Mart and say, look, this is what are you missing. An al-Qaida member motivated by religious ideology is not going to respond.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there’s been a big debate, especially this week, about whether some of the critical breaks or clues came through interrogations and through enhanced interrogation techniques, many of which have been outlawed now.

PETER BERGEN: Yes.

MARGARET WARNER: You detail a number of these. What is your conclusion about that? How much — one, how much of the vital info came from interrogations. . .

PETER BERGEN: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: . . . of captured al-Qaida figures, and, two, how much of that was through the abuse of some would call torture techniques?

PETER BERGEN: You know, I have a chapter in the bock and there is ammunition for both sides of the debate.

Some people who were coercively interrogated — interrogated, gave up useful information about the courier that lead to bin Laden. Other people who were coercively interrogated gave up disinformation about the courier.

MARGARET WARNER: Like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

PETER BERGEN: Khalid Sheikh — Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and one other guy.

At the end of the day, the interrogations produced some useful information. But the other piece of the puzzle, an incredibly important piece was given by a foreign country that the CIA wouldn’t name, but may be Pakistan, in terms of identifying this guy’s real name.

The National Security Agency tracked down the location of this guy’s cell phone. So that’s signals intelligence. And then there was human intelligence, spies on the ground, who followed this guy back to where he lived. So that is nothing to do with interrogations of any kind.

MARGARET WARNER: Speaking of Pakistan, you write very compellingly here that, in thinking and trying to decide whether to launch this raid, that the challenge, the thorniest questions confronting President Obama and his team were as much political, having to do with Pakistan, as they were technical, operational.

PETER BERGEN: Sure.

Well, you know, I have had an on-the-record interview for the first time with Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and one of the things he was very insistent on saying was President Obama was the person who said we — the premium is not on keeping Pakistan happy. The premium is on getting our guys out and making this operation as big as necessary to do that, because initially the operation was conceived of doing it in a slightly smaller fashion — or actually much smaller fashion, without as many backup helicopters and backup men.

And, obviously, that was good because, when the helicopter went down, there was a quick-reaction — quick-reaction force that came in.

MARGARET WARNER: A couple of critics have criticized this book or part of this book in saying you were — they thought you were too quick — they didn’t use that word — but to accept the idea that the Pakistanis didn’t know that he was living in their midst.

PETER BERGEN: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you — how confident are you of that? Or do you think it’s still a question that remains to be answered?

PETER BERGEN: Well, it’s impossible to prove negatives. So we have recovered 6,000 documents bin Laden wrote in the six years he was there. And if there was a smoking gun, we would have — you know, we would know it.

And we would reveal it publicly, because our relations with Pakistan are not. . .

MARGARET WARNER: We meaning the United States government.

PETER BERGEN: We the United States, yes, because there’s not — it’s not like our relations are so good, that we would keep that back.

And I have talked to multiple people who have read the documents, and they say there is nothing there. And also just as a matter of deductive logic, bin Laden was an enormously disciplined, paranoid, secretive guy. There were people living on that compound, adults, who didn’t know he was there.

He wasn’t going to clue in anybody who didn’t need to know. Al-Qaida had tried to kill Pakistani President Musharraf on two occasions in 2003. There was no love lost between these groups.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Peter Bergen, fascinating book, the author of “Manhunt.”

PETER BERGEN: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you.

PETER BERGEN: Thank you.