How bin Laden evaded the NSA: Sneakernet

Reports offer details about trove of digital data found in his Pakistan hideout, like that it included a stash of "electronically recorded video" porn.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
2 min read

Far from being a technological recluse, Osama bin Laden was a prolific e-mail writer who reportedly relied on flash drives, couriers, and sneakernet to keep in touch with his correspondents.

Although bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan lacked phone and Internet connectivity, the al Qaeda leader used his computers to prepare messages and save them on flash drives, which would be passed to a courier, according to the Associated Press. The courier would head to a far-flung Internet cafe, send the outgoing messages, retrieve the incoming ones, and then return to Abbottabad with the responses.

Osama bin Laden's home in Pakistan, raided by the U.S. military on Sunday.
Osama bin Laden's home in Pakistan, raided by the U.S. military May 1. CBS News

That physical couriering of data, or sneakernet, helped bin Laden to evade U.S. intelligence agencies, especially the extraordinarily sensitive electronic ears of the National Security Agency, which specializes in intercepting radio and other communications. (See CNET's list of related articles.)

The world's most wanted man, who was killed in a U.S. raid on May 1, also had a fairly extensive stash of "electronically recorded video" pornography, according to a Reuters report that cited a U.S. government official. No other news organization appears to have reported that claim, however, and it's not clear to whom the porn files would have belonged.

The electronic gear hauled away by an assault team of Navy SEALs reportedly included five computers, 10 hard drives, and scores of removable media including USB sticks and DVDs. Some reports say the forensic analysis is taking place at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va., while others have placed it at a "secret location in Afghanistan."

As CNET previously reported, a shadowy U.S. government agency called the National Media Exploitation Center--so secretive it doesn't even have a Web site--is likely deeply involved with the analysis. Its HARMONY database is intended to be the master repository for "documents and media captured or collected to support the global war on terrorism." NMEC is organized under the auspices of the director of national intelligence.

U.S. officials are calling the data a potential treasure trove of information on al-Qaeda's current and planned operations, perhaps the most important security find post-September 11. They're hoping it could yield hints about the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's chief lieutenant.

Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser, has said the electronic haul is "probably going to be impressive," and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan told CBS' "Early Show" that "what we're trying to do now is to understand what he has been involved in over the past several years (and) exploit whatever information we were able to get at the compound." (CBS News is CNET's sister news organization.)

Of course, not all useful information is digital. Last week's warning about train security from Homeland Security was triggered by files captured during the raid--not electronic ones: the source was "a set of handwritten notes," according to The Wall Street Journal.