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ink-stained wretches

The Observer Knows the Name of the CIA Analyst Who Brought Down Bin Laden

Observer editor Elizabeth Spiers.

But it's not telling.

The backstory: On July 5, the Associated Press published a detailed story about a single CIA analyst who was crucial in bringing down bin Laden. Because of "fear of retribution," the writer called the analyst only by his middle name, John, and omitted other identifying details. John Young, who writes the intelligence blog Cryptome, figured out what he looked like by comparing photos of the unnamed analyst's yellow tie visible in the famous Situation Room photo from the day of Osama's capture. Young had an image — which the Observer posted — but was unable to figure out the name of the guy. And then, oh so casually, the Observer reporter just happened "to mention the Cryptome story while out with some friends. An acquaintance volunteered that he recognized the man in the photo and proceeded to put a name to the face." (We do not believe that was a coincidental conversation, but moving on.)

A bit of Googling later, and the reporter, Aaron Gell, had a web story naming the analyst that he was ready to run, which included the existential justification "the benefit of telling the story far outweighed the risks. The ease with which we turned up information the agency was supposedly determined to keep classified was in itself an important story." The AP story sketched out the analyst's professional career path; the Observer confirms his existence and fills in the personal details:

In college, he’d played basketball. No superstar by any means—he was mostly a practice player—he’d been aggressive enough to catch the eye of the team’s coach, who later wrote a book in which he noted John’s unusual shooting style and his ability to draw fouls.

The Observer also stumbled across the man’s college G.P.A. (a respectable 3.5). We grabbed his address on Lexis/Nexis and gazed down on his home via Google Maps. We checked out his children’s parochial school and noted that his wife recently helped coordinate the science fair. We read about his son’s lacrosse exploits, and observed with a touch of conspiratorial frisson that his father—a college professor—is an expert in the work of Leo Strauss, one of the patron saints of Bush-era neoconservatism.

But before going ahead with his story, Gell called the CIA, as well as a bunch of other people in the intelligence community. They confirmed his scoop, but everyone implored upon him not to name the guy. He walks us through all of those conversations, still referring to the analyst only as "John." There is much moral questioning, both of himself and others:

Still, The Observer couldn’t help wondering: if the C.I.A. didn’t want the AP story (which, to be frank, is a bit of a puff piece) to run in the first place—if, indeed, the whole idea violated the culture of the organization and put a senior analyst at risk—why had so many intelligence officials been so eager to chat up the reporters?

In the end, the big reveal never comes. Gell decides not to put the analyst — who is not an undercover employee — at risk. Or not to have it on his head, anyway, though he provides a handy blueprint for someone else to fill in the very last blank.

Exclusive: Bin Laden Hunter ‘CIA John’ Identified [NYO]
AP Enterprise: The man who hunted Osama bin Laden [AP]

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Photo: Patrick McMullan