The bin Laden effect: How the Al Qaeda leader changed America
In life, Osama bin Laden made a huge impact on the US, all in the name of preventing another 9/11. If he and Al Qaeda fueled antagonism between the US and the Muslim world, they also pushed America toward a better understanding of the Middle East.
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As described by Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta, the intelligence operation that found bin Laden involved CIA agents, National Security Agency satellites, and Defense Department special ops forces, all working together over a period of years to patiently assemble fragmentary information. It was a model operation of the sort modern warfare may require.Skip to next paragraph
In today's world, bytes can be as deadly as bullets, says Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Just look at the bin Laden operation itself. The longest and most difficult part of the attack was finding the Al Qaeda leader in the first place. The assault on his compound was not easy, but it required only a few dozen personnel with relatively light weapons.
"In the cold war, we didn't need a lot of actionable intelligence. We knew where the Soviet Army was – what we needed was firepower," says Mr. Nelson. "In this war against Al Qaeda, we need a lot of intelligence. We don't need a lot of firepower."
That said, the US intelligence community remains far from perfect. There is still a divide between foreign intelligence operations and their domestic counterparts, says Ms. Zegart, whose book "Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11" was published in 2007.
"I would argue we are still spying blind when it comes to the domestic side," she says. "We still have no domestic threat picture ... and we have no clear intelligence requirements for domestic counterterrorism."
Did bin Laden move our moral compass?
Bin Laden's US legacy may involve more than longer lines at airports. Since 9/11 the US has made a series of moves whose side effects include the erosion of civil liberties at home (warrantless wiretapping) and increased the harshness of treatment for terrorist suspects abroad (waterboarding and other tough interrogation techniques; indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba).
These things were at times controversial within the government itself. During the Bush administration, ferocious interagency battles erupted over what some saw as the torture of prisoners to try to get them to talk. They have also been controversial in the broader US context – and remain so, to some extent.
Proponents of harsh interrogation tactics have used the bin Laden operation to argue that they were right all along. There is some indication that a nugget of initial information in the chain that led to the Al Qaeda leader may have come from a detainee subjected to waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, or some other harsh technique, they point out.