WASHINGTON — The U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden was guided from space by a fleet of satellites, which aimed dozens of separate receivers over Pakistan to collect a torrent of electronic and signals intelligence as the mission unfolded, according to a top-secret U.S. intelligence document.
The National Security Agency was also able to penetrate guarded communications among al-Qaida operatives by tracking calls from mobile phones identified by specific calling patterns, the document shows. Analysts from the CIA pinpointed the geographic location of one of the phones and tied it to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where an accumulation of other evidence suggested bin Laden was hiding.
The new disclosures about the hunt for bin Laden are contained in classified documents that detail this year's "black budget" for U.S. intelligence agencies, including the NSA and CIA. The documents, provided to the Washington Post by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, make only brief references to the bin Laden operation. But the mission is portrayed as a singular example of counterterrorism cooperation among the U.S. government's numerous intelligence agencies.
Eight hours after the raid, according to the documents, a forensic intelligence laboratory run by the Defense Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan had analyzed DNA from bin Laden's corpse and "provided a conclusive match" confirming his identity. The budget further reveals that satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office performed over 387 "collects" of high-resolution and infrared images of the Abbottabad compound in the month before the raid — intelligence that was "critical to prepare for the mission and contributed to the decision to approve execution."
The new details about the bin Laden raid fill out an already rich public account of how the U.S. government employed virtually every tool in its enormous surveillance apparatus to find the elusive founder of al-Qaida. For more than a decade, bin Laden stymied all efforts to find him by making certain he did not leave a direct electronic trail. He steadfastly avoided phones and email, relying on face-to-face communications with a small number of couriers and middlemen.
In addition to the satellites, the government flew an advanced stealth drone over Pakistan to eavesdrop on electronic transmissions.