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The man behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks was killed this week. But the CIA has had a unit, in some form or another, dedicated to tracking down Osama bin Laden since well before September 2001.
NPR's Rachel Martin looks back at the mission, the mistakes, and the milestones that occupied the CIA for more than a decade.
RACHEL MARTIN: Where is Osama bin Laden? It was a question the U.S. intelligence community couldn't answer for years.
MIKE HAYDEN (Former CIA director): It goes back over three administrations.
PORTER GOSS (Former CIA director) The question wasn't, you know, anything other than: Have we got him yet; are we going to get him?
Representative PETE HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): But you know, quite often, we faced the frustrating answer of: We really don't know, but our best guess is that this is where he's at.
MARTIN: That was congressman Pete Hoekstra who used to sit on the House Intelligence Committee. Before him, two CIA directors, Porter Goss and General Mike Hayden.
The CIA set up a dedicated group in the late 1990s to track al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden. It was called Alec Station, named after the son of one the original members. Mike Hayden says in those early years, they built a biography of bin Laden, asking very basic questions.
Gen. HAYDEN (Former CIA Director): What kind of car does he drive? Is he left-handed or right-handed? What's his mother's name? What's his home village?
MARTIN: After September 11, 2001, the drive to find bin Laden took on new urgency. George Tenet was the director of the CIA at the time. Mike Hayden was the head of the National Security Agency, responsible for eavesdropping.
Gen. HAYDEN: George called me; it was probably 11, 11:30 on September 11th. And he said Mike, what do you got? And I said, I got chatter that they're celebrating, George. We all know who this is. And he said, yeah, yeah. I got it, Mike.
MARTIN: It was bin Laden. At the time, the CIA had around 150 people working on counterterrorism. A few months later, that number increased 10 times.
Meanwhile, the U.S. had launched an attack in Afghanistan. The U.S. tracked bin Laden to the mountains of Tora Bora. Peter Bergen has written a lot about that battle.
Mr. PETER BERGEN (Author): We can say definitively that bin Laden was there, and we can actually date if from about November 25th to December 14th, when he left.
MARTIN: He escaped, and the trail went cold. Years passed. John McLaughlin used to be the deputy director of the CIA. Now, he's at Johns Hopkins University.
Mr. JOHN McLAUGHLIN (Former Deputy Director CIA): The focus on bin Laden was intense throughout this period. But it's about 2005 that we start to see al-Qaida morphing into something else. Many of the affiliates that we now talk about routinely - in the Mugrab and in Yemen, East Africa - we start to see them come into view.
MARTIN: That meant focusing less on bin Laden, and more on al-Qaida as a network. So in 2005, the CIA reorganized. Alec Station disbanded. Those analysts were folded into the larger counterterrorism unit. The search went on.
A new generation joined the CIA effort - people who grew up in a post-9/11 world. Again, Mike Hayden.
Gen. HAYDEN: And those young men and women, they did nothing but try to pick up loose threads, pieces of information, develop and test hypotheses as to where is bin Laden, and how can we get our hands on him?
MARTIN: And again, more questions.
Gen. HAYDEN: What do we know about his health? If we assume this about his health, what kind of treatment does he need? What kind of prescription drugs would that require?
MARTIN: All questions that could indicate whether bin Laden was living in some remote cave or a city, where he'd have access to medical care. Then in December 2009, a setback.
Gen. HAYDEN: I mean, it was a stunning event for the entire agency.
MARTIN: The CIA had a source they thought could lead them to al-Qaida's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Instead, when the man came to the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, for his first face-to-face meeting with U.S. officials, he detonated a suicide bomb. Seven CIA employees were killed. Again, Mike Hayden.
Gen. HAYDEN: This is a dangerous business, and even in the face of ambiguity, that target was important enough that we took some risks. And unfortunately, it ended up the way it did. But, you know, what happened on Sunday, and what happened in Khost, are part of the same ethic.
MARTIN: The final chapter of that epic has now been written. The agency that took a risk at Khost - that cost seven lives - took another chance this week. Only this time, it paid off.
Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.
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