The on-the-ground surveillance work was part of an intelligence-gathering push mobilized after the discovery of the suspicious complex in August that involved virtually every category of collection in the U.S. arsenal, ranging from satellite imagery to eavesdropping efforts aimed at recording voices inside the compound.
The effort was so extensive and costly that the CIA went to Congress in December to secure authority to reallocate tens of millions of dollars within assorted agency budgets to fund it, U.S. officials said.
Most of that surveillance capability remained in place until the execution of the raid by U.S. Navy SEALs shortly after 1 a.m. in Pakistan. The agency’s safe house did not play a role in the raid and has since been shut down, in part because of concerns about the safety of CIA assets in the aftermath, but also because the agency’s work was considered finished.
“The CIA’s job was to find and fix,” said a U.S. official, using Special Operations forces terminology for the identification and location of a high-value target. “The intelligence work was as complete as it was going to be, and it was the military’s turn to finish the target.”
The official, like others quoted for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the record. The CIA declined to comment.
U.S. officials provided new details on bin Laden’s final moments, saying the al-Qaeda leader was first spotted by U.S. forces in the doorway of his room on the compound’s third floor. Bin Laden then turned and retreated into the room before being shot twice — in the head and in the chest. U.S. commandos later found an AK-47 and a pistol in the room.
“He was retreating,” a move that was regarded as resistance, a U.S. official briefed on the operation said. “You don’t know why he’s retreating, what he’s doing when he goes back in there. Is he getting a weapon? Does he have a [suicide] vest?”
Despite what officials described as an extraordinarily concentrated collection effort leading up to the operation, no U.S. spy agency was ever able to capture a photograph of bin Laden at the compound before the raid or a recording of the voice of the mysterious male figure whose family occupied the structure’s top two floors.
Indeed, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said bin Laden employed remarkable discipline in his efforts to evade detection.