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.

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