Meet John: the CIA kingpin who cornered Bin Laden

By David Usborne

There are enough people in Washington who know who "John" is, including President Barack Obama and his top security team.

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee won't forget him any time soon because of the way he almost choked up when he testified before them recently. And people of his sort don't usually do that.

As for the rest of us, we must satisfy ourselves with a deliberately obscured portrait of this man. We can be fairly certain that some version of him will come to the cinema, played by Harrison Ford or maybe Matt Damon. His gripping story culminates in decisions that could have sunk a presidency; instead they may have rescued one.

He may be murky - even his age has not been revealed and John is his middle name - but we do now know of his existence. This, according to the Associated Press, is the man who for almost a decade doggedly pursued every conceivable lead in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and who finally persuaded his then boss, Leon Panetta, and President Obama he had found him.

More accurately, he told them Bin Laden was probably among the residents of the fortified home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which - on the President's orders - was raided by Navy Seals on May 2. That John went ahead and recommended the assault on the compound while putting the chances of Bin Laden being there at only 80 per cent says something about his cool - and that of Obama.

Not knowing more about him is frustrating but understandable. If he is the man who did more than anyone to track down and snuff out the life of Bin Laden, advertising his identity would do little for his safety. The al-Qaeda leadership may be in disarray but the forces it helped unleash are still very much a threat. AP's reporters were forced to rely on information from other CIA insiders - all, with one exception, spoke on condition of anonymity.

It actually wasn't until 2003 that John joined the counterterrorism unit at the CIA that was tasked with finding America's Enemy No 1. Before that he had been working in the Balkan and Russian departments and had made his mark authoring what was seen at the time as the agency's definitive profile of Vladimir Putin.

He found a team lost in a warren of dead-ends and disappointments. Everyone knew that Bin Laden had slipped the noose when US forces closed in on him in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains in late 2001, weeks after the 9/11 attacks. It was assumed he had escaped into the wild tribal regions of western Pakistan across the border. As for solid leads, they had none.

Over the years, CIA directors came and went and so did members of the Bin Laden search unit. Convention in the agency dictated regularly revolving people and ensuring that important problems were periodically given fresh sets of eyes.

John was offered transfers and promotions but he declined them. He wouldn't let Bin Laden go. Doggedly, he logged every tiny piece of information that seemed credible, waiting.

"Just keep working that list bit by bit," one senior intelligence official recalled John telling his team. "He's there somewhere. We'll get there."

His skill in analysing every clue also hasn't been forgotten by John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director who agreed to speak on the record.

"He could always give you the broader implications of all these details we were amassing," he said. After the 9/11 attacks, John was among those who regularly gave McLaughlin his morning briefings.

Even some top CIA insiders were sometimes unsure who John was exactly, even if he was engaged in the same work as them and seemed uncommonly plugged in.

It was a woman member of the team - a former journalism student at a big American university; we are told no more - who in 2007 decided to focus on Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who had been identified as a possible al-Qaeda courier. She surmised - and John agreed - that he might lead them to Bin Laden.

"They had their teeth clenched on this and they weren't going to let go," McLaughlin said. "This was an obsession."

The big break on al-Kuwaiti came last year when he showed up on a National Security Agency wiretap. John's woman colleague sent out an email to a select few saying Bin Laden may not be in the mountains but close to Islamabad. After the al-Kuwaiti link was developed further, John sent out his own memo. Panetta was sufficiently persuaded to take the information directly to the President.

John's team kept squirrelling, identifying six other people who might be in the compound in Abbottabad. Yet, whichever way they shuffled the cards, the same conclusion was always reached - it was more likely to be him than anyone else.

But, according to one senior official, he never told his team members to stop searching for reasons to believe otherwise.

"Right up to the last hour," he told them, "if we get any piece of information that suggests it's not him, somebody has to raise their hand before we risk American lives."

That did not happen and John could only tell Panetta and Obama the plain truth: this was the best chance America had had since 9/11 to get the man responsible for it. That window of opportunity would not stay open forever.

And, yes, there was a chance they were wrong and it would not be Bin Laden. The risk that presented hardly needed to be spelt out and was pounding on the minds of Obama and his security officials in the Situation Room as they watched the Navy Seals go in.

That picture, if the angle had been a little wider, would have revealed the furrowed face of John. He was there too, sharing in the agony and, finally, the ecstasy of all that unfolded that day.

And when, days later, Panetta went before the Intelligence Committee to brief members on the triumph in Abbottabad, there he was again. And Panetta chose that moment to give John his due, asking him to give the senators the fullest version of the story.

It was just as he was finishing, when he reached the part when he knew he had been right all along, that he began to choke up.

- Independent

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