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Ex-CIA Analyst Tells How Data Caught Osama bin Laden

At the Public Sector CIO Academy in Sacramento, Calif., Nada Bakos explains how small yet actionable data tactics led to bin Laden's capture.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As a puller and parser of half-truths, odd clues and covert messages, former CIA Analyst Nada Bakos imagined herself comfortable dealing with ambiguity; however, after 9/11, what once was ambiguous for Bakos turned brilliantly opaque.  

“It was complete chaos for a little while, with everyone trying to figure out what we’re supposed to do. I don’t know if any of you were in Washington, D.C., at the time, but it was a very strange experience,” she said.

Most poignant in her mind is what came after the attacks, once she’d undergone an evacuation from CIA headquarters, headed to her car and was rolling eerily home along the state’s deserted roads and freeways.

“I was just thinking the same thing as everybody else: ‘How could we let this happen,’” Bakos said.

A central figure in the manhunt for Osama bin Laden, Bakos spoke Tuesday as the keynote speaker of the Public Sector CIO Academy, a two-day conference held in Sacramento, Calif., for government CIOs and IT officials. Her topic was how data — big and small — led to the capture of bin Laden and his al-Qaeda operatives. She told her story to first provide a counter narrative to what she called “Hollywood’s need to entertain,” through post 9/11 films such as Zero Dark Thirty, and secondly, to supply advice from lessons learned in data analysis.

Bakos personal contribution, detailed in the HBO documentary Manhunt, was leading a team in Iraq to the discovery and eventual capture of a highly funded al-Qaeda emissary, Hassan Ghul. The major breakthrough and interrogation uncovered that bin Laden had a single courier operating under the pseudonym of “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.” The revelation ultimately led U.S. intelligence agencies to track the courier back to Osama’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama was killed by U.S. Navy Seals.

The rare window into the 20-year-long CIA manhunt opened with an obvious but overlooked truth.

“It’s tedious,” Bakos said. “I could stand up here and tell you all about how the CIA is just like the James Bond films, filled with super sexy stories, but in fact, you work for the government and you already know it doesn’t work like that on a daily basis.”

Filling in the puzzle one missing piece at time is how she said the CIA began the epic endeavor. The agency’s teams of analysts bore whole seasons of tedium under clouds of ambiguity and constantly moving parts. As part of the Counter Terrorist Center, which she joined after serving as a financial crime analyst, Bakos said her aim was always to be thorough yet objective.

“You don’t want to lead the information, you want the information to lead you,” she said, and credited the agency’s innovative gathering process that institutionalized various types of intelligence analysis — opposed to solely relying on general guidelines and best practices.

The position Bakos filled as a “targeter,” an analyst used to capture or kill senior members in terrorist organizations, is one example of this. While previously filled in different capacities, Bakos said the position was created by the CIA after 9/11 to funnel data specifically toward marked targets. All information generated by a targeter or taken from other departments was harnessed for this express purpose.

Relatedly, she said the position taught her that big data alone is often not enough to achieve objectives or generate value. Actionable data -- data sought to tell a story and to act as a basis for decision-making -- was an overall takeaway from her experience. It was made abundantly clear when Bakos moved to Iraq and coordinated building raids with Joint Special Operations Command forces. 

“These raids began to take on a life of their own,” Bakos said. “It literally daisy chained its way [through intelligence tips] from one house to the next, to the next, to the next, and it got to the point where we were going to end up hitting every house in Iraq.”

What most of the raids yielded, she joked in hindsight, were a hodgepodge of grocery lists, random notes to spouses and an ad infinitum stockpile of arbitrary data. From an operations standpoint it was useless.  

“I kept thinking what was the utility of this; collecting information just for the sake of collecting information isn’t useful,” Bakos said.

The answer lay in a sifting system the CIA created that was able focus raids based on actionable and relevant intelligence. The system, she said, balanced big data and small data use while pointing efforts to meaningful intel. The result, Bakos said, was the capture of Ghul, discovery of the courier, and in follow through, eliminating Osama bin Laden.

As she closed the keynote, Bakos encouraged the packed audience to infuse data with focus, to put structure behind innovation, to be objective, and to keep connecting dots even when the picture isn’t always so clear.

“I think it’s just the ability of your organization to adapt and remain flexible during crisis. That’s the secret sauce the CIA had at the time” Bakos said. “And I’m hoping they continue in that same tradition.”

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.