LONDON, 3 MAY 2011 - The U.S. raid that killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan Monday also turned up an "intelligence harvest" of computer-based data, according to media reports.
Exactly what was seized by U.S. authorities in the raid has yet to be confirmed -- and may never be confirmed -- but a number of news outlets reported that computer hard drives, CDs, DVDs and USB sticks were taken from the compound where bin Laden had been living. The compound reportedly had no telephone or Internet connection.
Footage aired on NBC on Tuesday showed what looked like damaged computers at the compound, while White House counter-terrorism spokesman John Brennan later said during a CNN interview that the U.S military had removed "whatever material we thought was appropriate and what was needed."
"We are trying to determine exactly the worth of whatever information we might have been able to pick up. This is a very important time to continue to prosecute this effort against al Qaeda," said Brennan.
It also was being reported that the data is being sifted through at a secret site in Afghanistan. "Hundreds of people are going through it now. It's going to be great even if only 10 percent of it is actionable," an unnamed official was quoted by Politico, a Washington, D.C.-based news website. "They cleaned it out. Can you imagine what's on Osama bin Laden's hard drive?"
The site quoted an anonymous government source describing the data as "the motherlode of intelligence."
The "intelligence harvest" could prove "as important if not more important than the actual killing of Bin Laden," Council on Foreign Relations President and former State Department official Richard Haass was quoted telling The Star, a Canadian news site.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., security experts have assumed that al Qaeda operatives would use encryption to scramble data, possibly using specially written programs. This has never been confirmed after subsequent raids by the U.S. on locations of other al Qaeda leaders, but examples of bespoke encryption programs are known to exist. Such encryption would at the very least slow down access to the unscrambled data by U.S. intelligence in the event that secure keys had been used to guard it.
Bin Laden had been hunted since the attacks, which he directed, and was killed at the compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan, during a raid by a team of Navy SEALS, which are a highly trained, special operations team.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.