For U.S. Intelligence, A Trove Of Bin Laden Evidence

Originally published on May 5, 2011 8:08 pm

The Navy SEALs who stormed Osama bin Laden's house early Monday morning spent much of their time on the ground there collecting evidence. They swept up computers, thumb drives, DVDs and paper files, methodically working their way around the house. Intelligence officials in the U.S. are now chewing their way through the information, trolling for any hints of new plots that might be under way, the whereabouts of key al-Qaida operatives, and any other information that might provide fresh insight into the group.

"In the first pass, they are plugging in key word searches like 'the big wedding' or names of people to see if they can get something to pop up," said one intelligence official with knowledge of analysis process. "They are still trying to figure out how much information they really have."

"Big wedding" has been code in the past for an imminent attack.

Evidence For Later Trials

Officials tell NPR that the stash the SEALs picked up has all been sent to the FBI lab at Quantico, Va. The FBI is housing the evidence there and making it available to other agencies for analysis. Part of the reason for sending it to the FBI lab is to ensure a proper chain of custody for the information, just in case it is needed as evidence in trials later. Details gleaned from the cache of documents could end up, for example, in the military trial of the admitted Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or future al-Qaida defendants.

One top priority, officials said, is to find information that might give U.S. intelligence clues to where bin Laden's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, might be hiding. Zawahiri is expected to step up and take the helm of the group now that bin Laden is dead. He has been in charge of al-Qaida's operations arm for years and in many ways, analysts said, is even more important to the organization than bin Laden himself. Because of the manhunt for the fallen leader, some people argue that bin Laden was unable to do much more than inspire followers in recent years and had to leave the day-to-day operational details to others, like Zawahiri.

U.S. officials tell NPR that initially the bin Laden family members who were in the compound — at least one wife and a handful of his children — were supposed to go with the Navy SEALs. If the mission had gone off without a hitch, they would have been taken out of Pakistan in one of the U.S. choppers. But because one of the helicopters went down, the U.S. had to go to Plan B and leave the family in Pakistan. Bin Laden's fourth wife and children could have provided a trove of information. They would be able to say where bin Laden had been the past 10 years and with whom he had associated. Instead, the family is now in the custody of the Pakistani authorities, who have said, initially at least, that the U.S. won't be allowed to interview the family.

Downed Chopper

New details are also emerging about the helicopter that went down that night. It was a nonstandard Black Hawk, specially fitted to avoid radar detection and apparently much quieter than a traditional helicopter. That could go a long way toward explaining why the Pakistanis may not have seen the SEALs coming into their airspace.

According to one intelligence source, these particular helicopters have been in development for some time and this was the first time they had been on a mission. Officials say they don't think the helicopter malfunctioned, exactly. They are trying to understand whether one of the chopper's rotors hit the compound wall, causing a hard landing, or whether dust from the compound made the engine stall, causing the rotor to go into the wall.

As analysts comb through the bin Laden compound files looking for clues, intelligence officials say they are already seeing some interesting blowback from the raid. Officials tell NPR that al-Qaida leaders have done what they expected them to do: They have gone underground. Because they don't know what the U.S. now knows, they are having to change patterns. What's more, because it has been widely publicized that the U.S. followed one of bin Laden's trusted couriers to the compound in Abbottabad, al-Qaida's whole courier system now seems like a liability. The personal couriers were supposed to be a way to communicate without a cellphone or traceable Internet. It was supposed to be safe. Now even that is in doubt.

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BLOCK: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins me to talk about the investigation. And Dina, they've gotten all this stuff, data files, this kind of thing. What are they trying to learn from it?

DINA TEMPLE: Well, the first they're trying to do is make sure that there isn't evidence of new plots underway. So they're plugging in key words like the big wedding, which has been a code for attacks in the past. They're also looking for names and locations of possible operatives they don't know about. And that's essentially what they're doing in this first scrub of all of this.

BLOCK: And apart from the operatives they don't know about, what about the ones they do, specifically Osama bin Laden's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri?

TEMPLE: Well, they're looking to see if they can figure out from what they have where he might be so they might be able to capture him.

BLOCK: Now, the U.S. collected all these computers, hard drives, paper files, we mentioned, where is that material now? Where are they going through it?

TEMPLE: Well, officials tell NPR that's been sent to the FBI lab at Quantico, in Virginia. And the FBI is housing it there, and then making it available to other agencies for analysis. What's interesting is part of the reason for sending it there is to ensure a proper chain of custody for information, just in case it's needed as evidence in trials later.

BLOCK: In trials later, future trials, military tribunals of al-Qaida suspects, you're talking about?

TEMPLE: Exactly. I mean, there could be intelligence that ends up, for example, in the trial of the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Officials don't know what they have yet, but if turns out to be evidence, they want to be able to use it in a future trial without having any legal objections to it.

BLOCK: OK. We've been talking about the physical evidence taken out of that compound. What about people that officials in the U.S. might want to interview, the people who are with Osama bin Laden at that compound?

TEMPLE: And if you think about it, bin Laden's wife and kids could be a goldmine of information because they would know where bin Laden has been the last 10 years, who he's been associated with. They're in custody now in Pakistan, and Pakistani officials at least so far have said the U.S. can't interview them.

BLOCK: That's a striking detail, Dina, really, because there has been such turmoil between these two governments in the wake of this raid.

TEMPLE: Exactly. And this is one more thing where there's a question about cooperation between the Pakistanis and the U.S.

BLOCK: Dina, you're learning some new details about the raid itself, I understand.

TEMPLE: According to one intelligence source I talked to, this is the first time that these helicopters have been on a mission, and they've been in development for some time.

BLOCK: And, Dina, still no response, no statement from al-Qaida regarding Osama bin Laden's death.

TEMPLE: And it's been widely publicized that the U.S. followed one of bin Laden's couriers to find him, and the whole courier system was supposed to be a way to communicate without a cell phone or a traceable Internet. It was supposed to be safe. And now that courier system clearly is being seen as a liability.

BLOCK: OK. Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE: You're Welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.