CIA had safe house in Abbottabad, spied on Bin Laden for months

Alternate headline: “Much to Americans’ amazement, CIA appears to be competent.”

Kidding aside, this is the first evidence thus far that the Pakistani government wasn’t hiding Osama. If they knew the CIA team was in town and continued to let them operate, then either they were actively cooperating with us or they were double-dealing on Bin Laden by looking the other way at our spies. If they didn’t know the CIA team was in town, then it’s more plausible that they’re honest-to-goodness imbeciles who might have missed the fact that the world’s most wanted terrorist had been there for, um, five years. (If they were hiding him, wouldn’t they have been closely scrutinizing new arrivals in the neighborhood for fear that they were CIA?) Given the embarrassment OBL’s location has caused Pakistan, I assume there’s no way they would have willingly allowed us to take him out at the compound. Once they knew the CIA was there, either they would have spirited him away to a new location or they would have grabbed him and handed him over on the condition that we would say publicly that he was caught in the tribal areas, not a few blocks away from the national military academy.

Realistically, then, there’s no way that they knew the CIA was there. (In fact, according to a U.S. official, they’re reportedly “stunned” by the CIA’s penetration.) Which makes it slightly, but only slightly, more likely that they didn’t know Bin Laden was there either.

The C.I.A. surveillance team in the rented house near Bin Laden’s hide-out took pains to avoid detection not only by the suspected Qaeda operatives they were watching but by Pakistani intelligence and the local police.

Observing from behind mirrored glass, C.I.A. officers used cameras with telephoto lenses and infrared imaging equipment to study the compound, and they used sensitive eavesdropping equipment to try to pick up voices from inside the house and to intercept cellphone calls. A satellite used radar to search for possible escape tunnels.

Still, the spying operation had its limits: the American surveillance team would see a man take regular walks through the compound’s courtyard — they called him “the pacer” — but they were never able to confirm the man was Bin Laden.

Bin Laden took great care to conceal himself on the premises — another small point in the case for exculpating the Pakistanis — with his wife allegedly claiming that he didn’t leave the upstairs bedroom in five years. I doubt that’s true, though, as it contradicts the detail in the NYT story about “the pacer” strolling in the backyard. More likely is that it’s the wife herself who never left the upper floors, kept like a slave in a cell while Bin Laden, under de facto house arrest, at least got to stroll the courtyard for a few hours a day. It’s curious to me, though, why he wanted his wives and multiple kids with him given that it increased the risk of attracting attention. Maybe he thought they were insurance against a U.S. drone strike or bombing run: If we blew the house to smithereens, an option Obama once considered but ruled out in part due to fear of civilian casualties, the Pakistanis would find plenty of dead children in the rubble to use as anti-American propaganda.

Read WaPo’s piece on the CIA safe house too, at it explains how Abbottabad was risky for Bin Laden insofar as it’s a tourist town where strangers can assimilate more easily than they can in a jihadi stronghold. A tantalizing detail buried several paragraphs in:

U.S. officials provided new details on bin Laden’s final moments, saying the al-Qaeda leader was first spotted by U.S. forces in the doorway of his room on the compound’s third floor. Bin Laden then turned and retreated into the room before being shot twice — in the head and in the chest. U.S. commandos later found an AK-47 and a pistol in the room.

“He was retreating,” a move that was regarded as resistance, a U.S. official briefed on the operation said. “You don’t know why he’s retreating, what he’s doing when he goes back in there. Is he getting a weapon? Does he have a [suicide] vest?”

As for Bin Laden’s support network in Abbottabad, the Pakistanis have already arrested more than 200 people who knew Bin Laden’s courier. I wonder if that’s designed to start them talking to Pakistani authorities about Osama or to stop them from talking to third parties about Osama’s relationship with those same authorities. (Bin Laden’s wife remains in custody, likely for the same reason.) Either way, there are plenty of scapegoats coming; in fact, even the head of the ISI is rumored to be on his way out, maybe because he failed to detect Bin Laden or maybe because he didn’t do a good enough job in preventing Bin Laden’s detection. Pakistani officials have also ginned up some spin to downplay Bin Laden’s significance by claiming that he’d been sidelined years ago by Zawahiri. U.S. officials say that’s nonsense, though — and in fact, according to data recovered from his computer, he was much more active in directing plots against the west than counterterror experts had previously believed. “He wasn’t just a figurehead,” one official told the Times. “He continued to plot and plan, to come up with ideas about targets and to communicate those ideas to other senior Qaeda leaders.”

Exit question: If Bin Laden really was deeply in cahoots with ISI, how likely is it as of today that they have access to nuclear material?