CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen delivered Stanford’s sixth annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture on Wednesday night. Bergen, who became the first journalist to interview bin Laden on television in 1997, provided a detailed look into the hunt for Osama bin Laden, describing the intricate web of evidence that led to bin Laden’s compound and discussing the promises and pitfalls of the eventual decision to send SEAL Team Six to assassinate the al-Qaida leader.
The Daniel Pearl lectures, presented by Hillel at Stanford and the Daniel Pearl Foundation, are held in tribute to the life and death of Daniel Pearl ’85, a Wall Street Journal bureau chief who was abducted and killed while working in Pakistan in 2002.
Pearl’s father, Judea Pearl, commenced the presentation with a moving speech and a recitation of a poem he had composed for his son.
“The lecture tonight will take place under the shadows of two icons, Daniel Pearl and Osama bin Laden,” he said. “They stand light-years apart. They contrast everything we uphold and everything we reject.”
Bergen began his talk with an overview of bin Laden’s life in the compound, saying that, for a fugitive, he lived in surprising comfort.
“It wasn’t a bad life, for the world’s most wanted man,” he said. “By Pakistani standards, it was a fairly nice place to live.”
However, he tempered his statements by describing the severe lack of amenities and facilities at the compound. As the only journalist allowed to tour the compound before it was destroyed, he saw bin Laden’s dwellings firsthand.
“The scenes that I saw reinforced my understanding of what life was like. It was a fairly squalid existence,” he said.
Capturing the moving parts
Bin Laden’s declining influence was undeniable, Bergen argued, but the fact that he had not been caught or killed weighed heavily on the last two presidential administrations.
“Even though he had become less relevant as a historical matter, I think it was very important to track him down,” he said.
Interrogation of al-Qaida operatives failed to lead to bin Laden’s capture, leading Bergen to conclude the search underwent a fundamental shift.
“Over time, there became an understanding that we would have to go back to some very basic first principles…to find bin Laden,” he said.
Bergen went on to describe the intricate and complex “moving parts” that dominated the subsequent search for bin Laden. The so-called “20th hijacker” provided instrumental evidence under extreme duress after his capture in 2002, but it was only after many dead ends and wasted leads that useful intelligence emerged.
The breakthrough emerged six years later, Bergen said, when American security agencies established the identity of a courier who served the bin Laden house, and a National Security Agency recording firmly established a link to bin Laden’s Abottabad hideaway.
“Sometime in 2010, the National Security Agency is listening to a guy they think is the courier,” Bergen said. “The conversation indicated that the courier was working for al-Qaida.”
The call was eventually traced to an individual in Peshawar.
“Eventually, they put spies on the ground in Peshawar, and they tracked and followed the guy to Abottabad,” Bergen said.
The courier’s arrival at “a large compound that had no Internet or phone lines, and in which the inhabitants had been burning their own trash,” sparked suspicion among the authorities.
A weighty decision
Intense debates began within the Obama administration about how to move forward with the operations, and even when President Obama gave the final order authorizing the raid, there was disagreement within his team of national security advisors.
“There were no high-fives in the Oval Office,” Bergen said.
The ultimate decision was the president’s and, according to Bergen, “it was not an easy decision.”
“People who had lived through the WMD fiasco in Iraq were understandably concerned,” Bergen said.
The President was forced to wrestle with large questions about the scope and force of American military power, and ultimately sided on the side of the military raid because of his background, Bergen argued.
“I think he’s the first major American political figure for whom what he did or did not do in Vietnam is not a part of his story,” he said. “So this is a president who’s very comfortable with the use of American hard power.”
Bergen closed by describing the actual raid quite briefly, detailing the actions of members of SEAL Team 6 and the errors and successes of the operation. Upon concluding his narrative of the event, Bergen answered questions from the audience that ranged from drone strikes to Pakistani authorities’ potential awareness and withholding of bin Laden’s whereabouts.
“This was not a heroic ending”
Bergen closed with remarks on Al Qaeda’s downfall and impending irrelevance.
“Bin Laden failed, and he failed on many levels…9/11 was a strategic failure for al-Qaida,” he said. “They lost the best base they ever had, which was pre-9/11 Afghanistan. They lost the war of ideas.”
“This is a group that is largely out of business,” he closed. “As a journalist who covers this sort of thing, I feel like a Sovietologist in 1989.”