Revealed: The CIA mastermind who cornered Bin Laden

He has never been photographed, and his surname is unknown. But 'John' led an extraordinary 10-year mission

There are enough people in Washington who know who "John" is, including President Barack Obama and all of his top security team. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee won't forget him any time soon because of the way he almost choked up when he testified before them recently. And people of his sort don't usually do that.

As for the rest of us, we must satisfy ourselves for now with a deliberately obscured portrait of this man. We can be fairly certain that some version of him will come to a cinema near where we live soon, played by Harrison Ford, if he isn't too old, or maybe Matt Damon. His story is that gripping and made all the more so because all of it actually happened. And it culminates in decisions that could have sunk a presidency; instead they may have rescued one.

He may be murky – even his age has not been revealed and John is actually his middle name – but we do now know of his existence. This, according to a report from the Associated Press, is the man who for almost a decade doggedly pursued every conceivable lead in the hunt for Osama bin Laden at the CIA and who finally persuaded his then boss, Leon Panetta, and President Obama that he had found him.

More accurately, he told them Bin Laden probably was among the residents of the fortified home in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which – on the President's orders – was raided by an airborne posse of Navy Seals on 2 May. That John went ahead and recommended the assault on the compound while putting the chances of Bin Laden being there at only 80 per cent says something about his cool – and that of Mr Obama.

Not knowing more about him is frustrating but understandable. If he is the man who did more than anyone finally to track down and snuff out the life of Bin Laden, advertising his identity would do little for his safety. The al-Qa'ida leadership may be in disarray but the forces it helped unleash are still very much a threat. AP's reporters were forced to rely on information from other CIA insiders, all, with one exception, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It actually wasn't until 2003 that John joined the counterterrorism unit at the CIA that was tasked directly with finding America's Enemy No 1. Before that he had been working in the Balkan and Russian departments and had made his mark authoring what was seen at the time as the agency's definitive profile of Vladimir Putin. He found a team lost in a warren of dead-ends and disappointments. Everyone knew that Bin Laden had slipped the noose when US forces closed in on him in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains in late 2001, weeks after the 9/11 attacks. It was assumed he had escaped into the wild tribal regions of western Pakistan across the border. As for solid leads, they had none.

Over the years, CIA directors came and went and so did members of the Bin Laden search unit. Convention in the agency dictated regularly revolving people and ensuring that important problems were periodically given fresh sets of eyes. John was offered transfers and he was offered promotions, but he declined repeatedly. He wouldn't let Bin Laden go. Doggedly, he logged every tiny piece of information that seemed credible, waiting.

"Just keep working that list bit by bit," one senior intelligence official who spoke to the AP recalled John telling his team. "He's there somewhere. We'll get there." His skill in analysing every clue also hasn't been forgotten by John McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director who agreed to speak on the record. "He could always give you the broader implications of all these details we were amassing," he said. After the 9/11 attacks, John was among those who regularly gave Mr McLaughlin his morning briefings.

Even some top CIA insiders were sometimes unsure who John was exactly, even if he was engaged in the same work as them and seemed uncommonly plugged in. "I knew he was the guy in the room I always listened to," one former senior official admitted.

It was a woman member of the team – a former journalism student at a big US university; we are told no more – who in 2007 decided to focus on an operative known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who had been identified as a possible al-Qa'ida courier. She surmised – and John agreed – that he might lead them to Bin Laden. "They had their teeth clenched on this and they weren't going to let go," Mr McLaughlin said. "This was an obsession."

The big break on al-Kuwaiti came in 2010 when he showed up on a National Security Agency wire-tap. John's woman colleague sent out an email to a select few with the headline, "Closing in on Bin Laden Courier". In it she said for the first time that Bin Laden may not be in the mountains but close to Islamabad. After the al-Kuwaiti link was developed further, John sent out his own memo, with restricted circulation. Its subject line: "Anatomy of a Lead". Mr Panetta had become sufficiently persuaded to bring the information directly to the President.

John's team kept squirrelling, identifying six other people who might be in the compound in Abbottabad. Yet, whichever way they shuffled the cards, the same conclusion was always reached – it was more likely to be him than anyone else. But, according to one senior official, he never told his team members to stop searching for reasons to believe otherwise. "Right up to the last hour," he told them, "if we get any piece of information that suggests it's not him, somebody has to raise their hand before we risk American lives."

That did not happen and John could only tell Mr Panetta and Mr Obama the plain truth: this was the best chance that America had had since 9/11 to get the man responsible for it. That window of opportunity would not stay open for ever. And, yes, there was a chance they were wrong and it would not be Bin Laden. The risk that that presented hardly needed to be spelt out and was pounding on the minds of Mr Obama and all his security officials as they watched the Navy Seals go in from the Situation Room on that second day of May.

That picture, by the way, if the angle had been a little wider, would have revealed the furrowed face of the man from the CIA whom we will only know as John. He was there too, sharing in the agony and, finally, the ecstasy of all that unfolded that day.

And when, days later, Mr Panetta went before the Intelligence Committee to brief members on the triumph in Abbottabad, there he was again. And Mr Panetta chose that moment to give John his due, asking him to give the senators the fullest version of the tracking down of Bin Laden.

It was just as he was finishing, when he reached the part when he knew he had been right all along, that he began to choke up.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
i100
Sport
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
boxing
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments