"Ring, Ring." You're Dead!

An intercepted call helped American intelligence officials track the courier all the way to the walled compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was hiding.

By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

One day last year, a trusted courier for Osama bin Laden answered a phone call that might have been wholly unremarkable except for one thing — the National Security Agency was apparently listening in.

That intercepted call helped American intelligence officials track the courier all the way to the walled compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was hiding. The discovery eventually led to last week’s midnight assault by Navy SEALs who killed the al-Qaida leader, ending a pursuit that began in the mid-1990s.

A spokeswoman for the NSA said the agency would not offer more detail, and intelligence officials won’t even confirm the account, which was reported by several news outlets quoting anonymous sources. And yet for the super-secret NSA, one of Maryland’s largest employers with a work force of some 30,000 and a budget in the billions, this singular act of eavesdropping now stands as one of its most notable and conspicuous achievements.

While news coverage has largely focused on the raid itself and the Central Intelligence Agency interrogations that yielded the courier’s identity, observers of the U.S. intelligence community say credit also belongs to two Maryland-based intelligence agencies: the NSA in Fort Meade, which scours global communications for clues, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Bethesda, which provides mapping and other information.

“That is the important part of the story that has not been fully told yet,” said John V. Parachini, director of the Intelligence Policy Center at the RAND Corp. The two agencies increasingly do much more than gather vast quantities of information, he said: “It’s not just collecting bits and bytes and squeaks and peeps, but putting those into context.”

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County said bin Laden’s killing has vindicated an intelligence community that endured criticism for years as the terrorist leader eluded the grasp of his American pursuers. The ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Ruppersberger said the bin Laden raid would not have been possible without an array of contributions from various agencies, including the two in Maryland along with the CIA and the military.

“We have now sent a message to the world,” he said. “If you’re going to attack the United States of America, kill Americans, we’re going to find you and bring you to justice.”

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