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A connect the dots mission for bin Laden intelligence analysts

By Ed Hornick and Jeanne Meserve, CNN
U.S. Navy SEALs stormed this compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was living.
U.S. Navy SEALs stormed this compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was living.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid of a compound in Pakistan
  • Officials say there was a "treasure trove" of intelligence left behind
  • Analysts now sifting through it to look for immediate threats and long-term plots

Washington (CNN) -- The clock is ticking for U.S. security agencies to swiftly dissect and act upon key information gleaned from the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.

Don Borelli, a former counterterrorism special agent with the FBI, characterized the data mining going on now as the "calm before the storm."

"I've spoken to some of my colleagues in the bureau and they're not going crazy jumping through hoops yet," he said. "It's going to happen relatively soon because once they get that data in a format that can be manipulated and exploited (they'll act on it)."

John McLaughlin, a former deputy director at the CIA, said the highest priority is finding any information about active plots.

"The way you approach a treasure trove of information like this is to go at it in priority order. What you want to find first and fastest is any indication of plots actively under way," he said.

Already the U.S. has acted on intelligence gathered from material at bin Laden's compound. On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a notice tied to rail security saying that, in February 2010, al Qaeda members discussed a plan to derail trains in the U.S. by placing obstructions on tracks, according to a law enforcement source who received the notice.

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The plan was to be executed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. But no specific city or rail system was identified in the notice, the source told CNN. A U.S. official cautioned that the information doesn't appear to suggest an imminent plot against U.S. rail systems but that the discovery may be the tip of the iceberg of potential plots.

Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent, said Thursday that some of the material is encrypted and its language is an immediate obstacle, "so it's going to take a little longer than people think. We have to sort through all of those issues and then they'll have a series of things that they want to look at first."

But Rogers, R-Michigan, said the information gathered will be "incredibly valuable" to the war on terror and "I would argue now is the time to step on the gas."

"Think about how we caught bin Laden -- a nickname out of an interrogation five years ago and a constant investigation and widening what we know to finally get Osama bin Laden. We're likely to get more than just a nickname in some of this information that I think is going to be incredibly valuable."

McLaughlin said it's unlikely that investigators will find a "soup-to-nuts" description of an unfolding plot, but the body of information the United States has developed over the last 10 to 15 years about al Qaeda will mean "little clues that would be meaningless to the average person will be very meaningful to an intelligence analyst."

"Remember they are filling in what amounts to a jigsaw puzzle. And let's assume they have 90 of 100 pieces. Those last 10 pieces may not mean anything to you and me, but it might fill that picture to them," he said. "So fragments will be very important in this body of data -- little tiny things where you're going to pull the thread and connect it to information you found elsewhere. That's where the lasting value of this material will be."

The "treasure trove" of information from the compound includes computers and hard drives, cell phones, guns, paper documents, audio and video equipment, according to the official.

Another piece of evidence coming from the raid? First-hand knowledge of what went on inside the compound. Interrogators questioning bin Laden's young Yemeni wife, Amal al-Sadah, have determined her family had been living there for years.

Read more about the interrogation

As for how all the information will be dissected, U.S. officials have said publicly that it is being shared among various agencies including the CIA, FBI, NSA, the Justice Department and Homeland Security, among others.

The most important thing for investigators, McLaughlin said, is to double-check the information and run the intel through a large group of top officials.

"There may also be two or three teams looking at the same body of material, because you always want to have competing sets of eyes on data like this to make sure that you don't miss something," McLaughlin said. "One of the biggest problems in the intelligence business now is human beings dealing with massive volumes of material. This is unlike the Cold War where you never had enough information. The war on terror you're always drowning in it, particularly when you capture electronic media."

What's next?

The next phase in the intelligence gathering will be analyzing secondary information that will provide a larger view of al Qaeda's operation.

"In my experience there's almost always information that comes back to New York -- a bank account, a phone number or a name. Then the local FBI office will be running out those leads," Borelli said.

He added that investigators will then take "every nugget of information, every e-mail address, any bank account, any name, and they'll start running it through the wide variety of databases and start kind of chaining it out. With something like this (the bin Laden investigation) it could be three, four, five times."

McLaughlin said investigators will be looking at patterns and relationships among people as well as "ways of acquiring funding, ways of acquiring material, ways of communicating, possibly even some indication of who was in and out of that compound and therefore some indication of what was the relationship between bin Laden's compound and Pakistan."

U.S. allies also will help comb through the information, Borelli said.

"You can almost guarantee for sure that the Brits, the Aussies, the Canadians and so forth," Borelli said. "In essence they are like members of our own intelligence community. It's very rare that we don't share anything like that."

Rogers said the challenge now for the intelligence security communities will be to keep up with al Qaeda as it adapts now that it knows secrets have been compromised.

"This organization is going to try to change," he said. "We know their pattern. They immediately are trying to change couriers, change the way they operate. They are going to instigate all across their network security protocols that they have developed that keep them from getting caught. So all of that is going on right now.

"And it's going to be an interesting and challenging time for our intelligence services to keep up with those changes."

CNN's Jim Barnett contributed to this report.

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