“The whole thing just feels surreal,” says Hurley, a former CIA officer who now does consulting on counterterrorism. “It’s like watching a video of this big part of my life.”
For Hurley and so many others in the Washington area, last week’s killing of bin Laden counted less as a historic milestone than as a personal one. Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of government employees like Hurley have reshaped their careers and restructured their lives around the search for one man — a quest they sometimes referred to simply as “the hunt.” It was by turns maddening, exhausting, expensive, exhilarating and all-consuming. Now, finally, it is over — and so is a definitive phase for the U.S. government and many of its employees.
“Our whole world inside the government fundamentally changed because of him,” Hurley said. “There was the before. And then there was the after.”
For Hurley, 56, the after looks like this: a spotless, two-story bachelor pad in Falls Church, a few blocks from the highway at the midpoint between Washington’s two major airports, so he can “jet off to anywhere I need to go at less than a minute’s notice.” The fridge contains only nonperishables. The dishwasher is practically unused. Two crystal glasses and an unopened bottle of Hennessy cognac are displayed on a coffee table in the living room, even though he doesn’t drink.
For the past decade, Hurley’s place has been mostly a way station between layovers and 18-hour days — between three deployments to search for bin Laden with the CIA in Afghanistan followed by stints in counterterrorism for the 9/11 Commission, the State Department and now his own consulting company. The walls of his condo are decorated with personal relics from the war on terrorism: a promotional brochure for the al-Qaeda support group he helped take down in 2001; a photo of his team burying a small piece of twisted metal from Ground Zero in the hard Afghan desert; an American flag that flew over the U.S. Embassy in Kabul; a picture of the World Trade Center towers taken on a clear day in New York, given to Hurley by a victim’s family to serve as a constant source of inspiration.
Eight days ago, after Hurley learned about bin Laden’s death from an old CIA friend just before the news went public, his brain kept turning until almost 4 a.m. He thought about his connection to the CIA operatives and Navy SEALs who helped execute the mission, believing that some tiny piece of their success had been built on a decade of groundwork done by people like him. He thought about the victims of the terrorist attacks. He thought about how his own life had been affected by bin Laden in so many ways, with a career that earns him awards and time on TV, and a schedule that keeps him single and away from his extended family in Minnesota.