Gen. Hayden discusses Bin Laden hunt at spy conference

RALEIGH — The organizers of Raleigh's annual spy conference have scored an espionage coup: The keynote speaker will be Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the only person who has headed both the National Security Agency (1999 to 2005) and the Central Intelligence Agency (2006 to 2009).

And his topic will be one of the hottest and most current in the world of spying: the operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.

The three-day conference begins Wednesday night with a reception. Hayden will deliver his talk, "Killing Usama Bin Laden: Building a Bridge Pebble by Pebble," at 11 a.m. Friday, then take questions from the audience.

In a telephone interview, Hayden outlined the speech he'll give, revealing what the United States knew about bin Laden's whereabouts over the years following the terrorist leader's escape from U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan's Tora Bora (not much), and discussing the challenges of spying in the era of terrorists with websites and satellite phones.

Q: The very nature of the work that will be the topic of your speech depends greatly on details that can't be disclosed. How far can you go, and what should the audience expect?

I'll begin with a fairly deep backdrop of what the agency looked like before9/11, what changes were made after 9/11, the kinds of broad things we did to establish knowledge of al-Qaida. I won't dwell on it, but part of that is the programs that President Bush authorized - rendition, detentions and so on. I'll talk a bit about covert action, and how that's authorized, what are the rules, how it's governed. It's not lawless, but it's different from other things and frankly is one of the things that make the agency very unique.

Then I'll begin to get a bit specific about the hunt for bin Laden, what I know about it, ... and the dynamic of how you give the president enough confidence to take an operationally, physically and politically risky step like that without flooding the zone so much that you tip off your prey and lose maybe the one opportunity to get him.

Then I'll probably give an assessment of where al-Qaida is now globally, the impact of bin Laden's death, and maybe what's on the next stage or in the next chapter.

Q: What do the details of the bin Laden raid tell us about what spying has become, about what's new and also what hasn't changed?

I can't go into detail - one, because I can't, and in part because there is only one layer I know - but all the forms of intelligence contributed to this. It had human (gathered by agents in the field) intelligence, signals intelligence, imagery intelligence. And an analytic shop that was obsessed with doing this.

Here is a case that was tremendously successful because there were no seams between the collection and the analytic task, and that is something that in terms of how we do our work, that's gotten significantly better in the last 10 years.

Q: For most of the past decade you were in lead roles for the top U.S. intelligence agencies - a decade in which they were keenly focused on bin Laden and al-Qaida. What did you feel when you heard that he had finally been killed?

Overwhelming satisfaction. Probably not quite the celebratory mood you saw outside the White House that night. Probably because those who have been doing this knew that this was important, but not a climactic moment, that they would have to go to work tomorrow and pretty much be doing the same thing they were the day before. But there was great, great satisfaction.

Q: What's the likelihood that members of the Pakistan government knew where bin Laden was?

I can give you something reasonably definitive, with the words chosen carefully. If someone wants to convince me that the senior levels of the Pakistani government knew where he was, the absolute burden of proof is on them. Because I can't think of a logical reason for senior levels of the Pakistani government to know this and not share it with us. ... Now, you've heard me say "senior levels," ... so I'm making a distinction here.

Q: Between bin Laden's escape from Tora Bora in December 2001 and the discovery of this compound, did the United States have any solid information about his location?

No. I can only speak with authority through 15 February 2009, but the trail was cold. When people would ask, "How are you doing on bin Laden?" "Well, that's a tough problem." "OK, when's the last time you really knew where he was?" My answer was Tora Bora.

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