The Best Kind of Military Intelligence

Careful preparation, rather than expensive weapons, took out Osama Bin Laden.

Elsewhere in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of Al-Qaida after Osama bin Laden, John Dickerson discusses the president’s proactive role in the assassination, and William Saletan uncovers some holes in the raid narrative. Also, David Weigel describes the scene outside the White House following Obama’s announcement, Christopher Hitchens questions the United States’ practice of giving financial aid to the Pakistani military, and Brian Palmer examines Bin Laden’s burial at sea. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit the Slatest. Slate’s complete coverage is rounded up here

Watching the news of Bin Laden’s death from Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

The U.S. Air Force, with its extraordinary range and flexibility, is the best in the world. The U.S. Navy, with its vast aircraft carriers and global reach, has no real rivals. In technological sophistication and sheer firepower, the American military doesn’t even have any close competitors, and no wonder: The U.S. government spends more on its military forces than the governments of China, Russia, France, Britain, Japan, and Germany combined.

Yet it was not our sheer military or technological strength that finally finished off Osama Bin Laden on Sunday; it was human intelligence, careful preparation, and patience. We don’t know the whole story yet, and we might not hear it for some time. But according to first reports, an intelligence tip-off led U.S. analysts to Bin Laden’s trusted courier; observation of the courier then led special forces to Bin Laden’s compound, which has now been under surveillance for many months.

In other words, the killing of Osama Bin Laden did not take place in a hail of bombs and bullets, or after a shoot-out involving hundreds of troops. It was the result of careful preparation, followed by the competent execution of a plan. We missed him during the chaotic storming of Tora Bora. We caught him while he was at home in bed. Apparently the whole operation took 40 minutes, and no Americans were killed.

It’s a good lesson to remember. Too often, the American reaction to any challenge is a knockout blow. In our determination to win, we tend to throw men and money at problems first and worry about how we’re going to use our enormous resources—and how to pay for them—later.

In the wake of 9/11, our approach to internal security was in this sense absolutely American: Create new agencies, employ more people, spend more money. In the 2010 budget, we allocated $55 billion to the Department of Homeland Security; the Transportation Security Administration, which didn’t exist in 2001, now employs 58,000 people. Since its creation, millions of people have stood in line, sacrificed their nail scissors, and removed their shoes in the name of security.

Yet the terrorists who have been stopped are almost always caught thanks to intelligence work—or because of somebody’s quick reaction. The “underwear bomber” and the “shoe bomber” were stopped by alert passengers. The Heathrow airport plot of 2006 was foiled by an intelligence tip. So was a recent al-Qaida attack on a cargo plane and an attempt to bomb New York’s Times Square. It’s the quality of our security, not the quantity, that keeps us safe.

The same has been also true in foreign policy since 9/11. Emotionally, the Bush administration—and the country—felt the need for a major military response after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But although Iraq may still come right in the end, was it the best use of our money and resources? Afghanistan may eventually become stable—but haven’t we just learned, if we didn’t know it already, that the real and more complicated threat now comes from Pakistan? In 2008, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul told me, in effect, that Pakistan was none of his business. Perhaps it should have been.

Over the next few days, a lot of people are going to point out that Bin Laden’s influence has been waning for some time. The revolutions in the Arab world and North Africa over the last few months have already made him and his organization in one sense irrelevant: When the infamous Arab “street” finally rose up in anger, it was to oppose their own corrupt dictators, not to join al-Qaida’s fanatical war on the West. Though some branches of the al-Qaida franchise are still in operation, it’s not even clear whether Bin Laden was still running them.

Not least because this operation was so beautifully timed—we are approaching the 10th anniversary of 9/11, after all—it feels like a moment of closure nevertheless. It’s a good moment to re-examine the past decade, to ponder what we’ve done right and what we might have done better. Our outstanding servicemen and -women have performed with skill and bravery in many unexpected places over the last decade. Think what more they could have achieved if they’d been given clearer goals and sharper targets from the very beginning.

Video: President Obama announces the death of Osama Bin Laden