WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials still don't know if they killed Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, but new information indicates they unleashed an awful lot of firepower in their attempt to try and get him.
U.S. counterterrorism officials tell NBC News that last week's airstrikes on the Pakistani village were launched not by one Predator drone, but three, which simultaneously fired hellfire missiles at three separate targets.
American military officials say CIA drones monitored the movements of al-Qaida suspects at the village for two weeks before the attack. It's not clear, however, if there was also human intelligence. U.S. counterterrorism officials claim that shortly after the attack, the bodies of five dead were quickly removed. Villagers claim that 18 people were killed, but reporters at the scene saw only 13 graves.
But even if Ayman al-Zawahiri was there, where does the U.S. get the authority to use lethal force inside Pakistan? Senior U.S. officials say that shortly after 9/11, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf agreed the U.S. could launch airstrikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan and only needed to inform the Pakistani government, not seek its permission.
"We need to kill bin Laden," says NBC terrorism analyst and former National Security Council official Roger Cressey. "We need to kill al-Zawahiri. And we need Pakistan's cooperation to do so."
And exactly who gives the order to pull the trigger?
Live Predator video is fed real-time from Pakistan to the Global Response Center on the sixth floor of the CIA outside Washington. From there, CIA Director Porter Goss himself would give the order. But if he's not available, the deputy or assistant CIA directors five levels down can also order the strike.
Former CIA Director James Woolsey says that kind of rapid response time is critical in today's war against terrorists.
"In war time, you can't have all the decisions made by the Commander in Chief or you're going to lose," he says.
But it also raises the risk that things could go terribly wrong, and innocent civilians are killed.
The FBI is trying to match Zawahiri's DNA to sets of remains recovered from that missile strike. Results could come as early as tomorrow.
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