Osama bin Laden: A public victory for the CIA

The Central Intelligence Agency operates in the shadows, far outside the public eye. Media attention is usually negative, often skewed and, regrettably, inaccurate. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, MAY 9, 2011 — ‘Humint,’ intelligence from human sources, collected, analyzed and evaluated by the Central Intelligence Agency, led US forces to Osama bin Laden.    

The CIA, like other intelligence agencies, most often operates in the shadows, far outside the public eye. Media attention on the organization is usually negative, often skewed and, regrettably, inaccurate.

Which makes CIA officers cringe when activities are reported inaccurately on the front page of any paper.  However, unlike other organizations, the CIA does not defend itself publicly. 

Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, left, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., talk at the White House (Image: Associated Press)

Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, left, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., talk at the White House (Image: Associated Press)


When public opinion skewered the Agency for failing to predict 9/11, no official spokesperson explained the nature of intelligence collection and analysis or blamed other government organizations; there was no attempt to put the lack of information in context.

More recently, no CIA official banged on the table and corrected critics who claimed the Agency “missed” the call on Egyptian unrest, explaining that lack of action by other agencies is not necessarily the result of lack of information by the Agency. 

Which begs the question, what did the public want the CIA to do with information regarding the Egyptian revolution?  Should they have stopper the unrest?  Or done something to start the unrest sooner? 

The CIA does not herald minor or major successes.  It does not seek public approval. 

Instead, the CIA swallows hard, shakes it head, and continues the often delicate and painstaking work of collecting, synthesizing, analyzing, and disseminating information.  It does not need, or seek, bylines or public accolades. 

Internal recognition is enough.  Personal knowledge that they did a good job is enough for an operative. That these officers often succeed in stopping a terrorist operation from happening makes it even more difficult to trumpet.  How do you advertise something like, “Thanks to intelligence that disrupted a terrorist cell in Afghanistan, the CIA succeeded in making sure that something bad didn’t happen.” 

That’s not the stuff of headlines. 

The bin Laden operation shows that at its best, the CIA is one of the most amazing intelligence organizations in the world.  For all the negative press, when it executes, the CIA is a stellar example of how the intelligence process is supposed to work. 

The cycle starts with identifying the target, in this case, bin Laden and his compound.  The CIA then identifies the best methods to find that information, whether it is human intelligence (humint), signals intelligence (sigint, or “information gathered from communications intelligence or electronics intelligence or telemetry intelligence”) or even open source information such as newspapers. 

Publicly available overhead photography like Google Earth, for example, can show irregular stockpiling or vehicles or other details that analysts can decipher for clues.

Officers then target potential sources, determine the potential motivation of those sources to cooperate with authorities, recruit them, and get the information.

After the CIA obtains that information, it goes to analysts at headquarters to evaluate accuracy and to identify potential follow-up questions.  Analysts synthesize that information, combine it with other sources, and determine the meaning of that information.  They sift through the data, the paper, the puzzle pieces, comparing, contrasting, determine what does and what does not make sense and rechecking facts, re-tasking officers to get more information, to vet more sources, to verify every piece of information big and small. 

All that information goes into an intelligence product that goes to decision makers for action. 

Operation Serpent, which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, almost certainly involved numerous agencies, but the heart of the intelligence came from the CIA, from the various directorates and divisions, carefully collected and examined, allowing policy makers to formulate a plan. 

Central Intelligence Agency

Central Intelligence Agency

The American public often misunderstands the CIA.  The perception of James Bond and Arnold in True Lies is not accurate.  CIA orchestrated coups and CIA paramilitary operations make headlines, but these are not rogue operations by CIA insiders; they are actions taken at the behest of decision makers in the executive or legislative branches.  Moreover, this type of high profile action is a miniscule part of what the CIA does. 

The primary purpose of the CIA is to provide intelligence to US policy makers.  The CIA does not make or implement that policy.

Most of the daily work of the CIA is intelligence collection and analysis that literally saves, serves, and protects the United States.  It is difficult, complex, intricate work, requiring officers to first understand foreign policy requirements, then understand motivations of potential sources, target sources, recruit sources, garner information, then pass it to analysts who meticulously dissect and evaluate that information.  It is amazing work, by an amazing group of people, and public appreciation for its actions, like the successful bin Laden operation, is long overdue. 

And if the Administration had decided to keep the bin Laden operation private, the CIA would have done what it always does; kept quiet and continue the work of information collection and analysis to support the US government. 

To those who know how it works, the success is no surprise.  It is business as usual.  


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Lisa M. Ruth

Lisa M. Ruth started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service and analysis.  After leaving the government, she joined a private intelligence firm in South Florida as President, where she oversaw all research, analysis and reporting.

Lisa joined CDN as a journalist in 2009 and writes extensively on intelligence, world affairs, and breaking news. She also provides investigative reporting and news analysis. Lisa continues to write both for her own columns and as a guest writer on a wide variety of subjects, and is now Executive Editor for CDN and edits the Global, Family and Health sections.  She is also a regular contributor to Newsmax and other publications.

Contact Lisa M. Ruth


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