CIA victory lap after successful raid

A man holds a photograph of Osama bin Laden, during a protest outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt. (AP)

The CIA, battered by years of setbacks and criticism, is relishing a rare public triumph after tracking down Osama bin Laden in his hideout deep inside Pakistan.

Accused of failing to "connect the dots" before the attacks of September 11, torturing terror suspects and botching intelligence that led to the Iraq war, the CIA has endured a difficult decade.

But the daring nighttime raid that killed Bin Laden on Monday - and the agile spy work that made it possible - conveyed a different picture of an intelligence agency on top of its game, analysts and former officials said.

"It's a big win," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The CIA did all you could have asked of them in this case."

The failure to find Bin Laden had long been a source of frustration for the CIA, which had come under renewed criticism recently for its reporting on unrest in Arab countries. CIA Director Leon Panetta also admitted to a litany of mistakes that allowed an Al-Qaeda militant to kill seven agency operatives in a 2010 suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

But this week Panetta had good news to deliver, recounting the dramatic tale of the raid in interviews, with details that seemed drawn from a Hollywood spy thriller.

"This I think, at least in the public mind, erases whatever doubts may have existed about the CIA," said Bruce Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University and a former counter-terrorism adviser to US forces in Iraq.

After 9/11, the country's spy services were castigated for maintaining "stovepipes" and failing to share information, leading to a sweeping reform that stripped the CIA of some of its authority and created a new intelligence czar.

By drawing on all facets of the US intelligence machine, including electronic eavesdropping, interrogations, satellite photos and old fashioned spycraft, the Bin Laden manhunt displayed a level of collaboration among agencies that had been lacking ten years ago, experts said.

"What we've seen is the kind of integration of intelligence that people thought was absent in the lead-up to 9/11 and in the immediate aftermath. If there was a problem, it's certainly been corrected," Hoffman told AFP.

The effort to trace bin Laden to a residence in Abbottabad involved a sensitive operation with the CIA employing a small team of spies in the Pakistani city, the Washington Post reported Friday.

From a safe house in the military garrison town, the CIA used spies and informants to monitor all movement in and out of the compound, the Post wrote, quoting unnamed US officials.

The key to finding bin Laden came by tracking a trusted courier, and that has prompted speculation about whether harsh interrogations of detainees and possibly torture may have extracted the crucial information on the messenger's identity and whereabouts.

The question threatens to thrust the CIA back in the middle of a US debate about how to treat terror suspects, and whether tough tactics including water boarding - or simulated drowning - are justified.

For the moment, however, the CIA is basking in the success of taking out the world's most wanted man, and retrieving a motherlode of material that it believes will provide crucial insights into bin Laden's terror network.

The operation, overseen by the CIA but involving an elite team of US Navy SEALs that swooped on the compound in helicopters, also reflected increasingly close ties between the intelligence community and the military that have built up since the 9/11 attacks.

"This raid I think really enters the annals of only a handful of the most iconic types of special forces operations, that are flawlessly executed," Hoffman said.

The boundaries between the military and the intelligence agencies have become less rigid and the collaboration more routine, producing "a sophisticated working relationship as a result of the war on terrorism," he added.

The trend of the military and intelligence services working hand-in-glove is expected to continue with Panetta due to take over the Pentagon in July and the US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, nominated as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

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