CIA Used Satellites To Prep For Bin Laden Raid

It was last August when the CIA first homed in on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was ultimately found and killed. In the months leading up to that raid, the CIA and Pentagon used an array of satellite technology and imagery to learn more about that compound and who might be inside. Melissa Block speaks with John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, about satellites and imagery used before and during the Osama bin Laden campaign.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It was last August when the CIA first homed in on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was ultimately found and killed. In the months leading up to that raid, the CIA and Pentagon used an array of surveillance technology and imagery to learn more about that compound and who might be inside.

John Pike joins us to talk through that technology. He's director of the private national security group GlobalSecurity.org.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director, GlobalSecurity.org): Glad to be here.

BLOCK: Let's talk about where these images would be coming from: satellites, drones, both?

Mr. PIKE: Well, you would start out with satellite imagery because that's going to give you coverage that would go back a number of years, and you'd be able to look at the construction chronology of this compound. But eventually you're going to want to have a drone specially dedicated to continuously monitoring this compound.

The fundamental difference between drones and satellites is that each satellite is going to be overhead for about five or 10 minutes twice a day. That's going to give you a very brief snapshot.

A drone, on the other hand, can continuously orbit over the compound, high enough so that it's not seen, and that's going to give you 24/7 stakeout-quality coverage. The drone would enable you to figure out how many people are in the compound, what their daily routine is, whether that routine varies by day of the week - presumably it does - and basically enable you to plan the raid.

BLOCK: And how granular would the images be? How fine would the detail be coming in?

Mr. PIKE: Well, the detail of the imagery really isn't the issue, hasn't been the issue in imagery intelligence for many decades. It's certainly going to be good enough to see people, probably not good enough to do facial recognition, although that's certainly a possibility.

The real issue on imagery intelligence has to do with persistence: Can I maintain continuous surveillance of the compound over a period of days? And that's the remarkable contribution that we've seen coming off of drones over the last several years.

BLOCK: I'm really curious about this: Administration officials have said they knew 22 people were inside that compound, including someone they describe as an adult male who they say never stepped into view. How would they know he - presumably Osama bin Laden - was there if they couldn't see him?

Mr. PIKE: Well, this is another trick of the trade. A conversation in a room is going to cause windows to vibrate. If you shine a laser beam on those windows, you can detect those vibrations, and using voice identification, you can figure out how many different voices are speaking in each of the rooms of the compound.

BLOCK: So they would figure out then that there was somebody who was unaccounted for?

Mr. PIKE: That's right. They would be able to figure that they've got more voices on the inside than they have people on the outside.

BLOCK: The laser beam that you're mentioning, what would the source of that laser beam be? Where would it be coming from?

Mr. PIKE: Well, the surveillance team is going to have to get an apartment in a building nearby, preferably in a high building, so that they can put that laser beam spot on as many windows as possible.

BLOCK: And would there be the risk that the folks inside the compound would become aware of that laser beam then?

Mr. PIKE: You'd be - the laser beam is not visible to the human eye. So I think it's unlikely that they would detect it.

BLOCK: And John Pike, what about surveillance or communication during the raid itself? What assets would folks here in Washington have had to monitor what was going on on the ground in Abbottabad?

Mr. PIKE: Well, they're certainly going to have the same asset they had prior to the raid, namely the drone flying over the compound. Additionally, there may have been handheld or helmet-mounted cameras on some of the SEALs that went into the compound.

So I think that they really had about as good a view of this raid in Washington as you could expect to have.

One of the fundamental things that has changed in imagery intelligence is that with the introduction of these drones, you finally have imagery intelligence in the real world that does all of the things that spy satellites used to only do in the movies, providing full-motion video from anywhere on the planet.

BLOCK: John Pike, thanks very much.

Mr. PIKE: Thank you.

BLOCK: John Pike is director of the private national security group GlobalSecurity.org.

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