People in the Pakistan compound where Osama bin Laden was killed were using cell phones to communicate, creating a gaping security hole in the defenses they created to protect the al-Qaida leader, two senior U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday.
The assault team seized five cell phones from individuals, dead and alive, in the compound, the officials said. None of the cell phones belonged to bin Laden, they said, and he did not use cell phones. The phones were in addition to 10 hard drives, five computers and more than 100 thumb drives.
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The NSA intercepted cell phone calls by the couriers and family members for months, the officials, as part of the 24/7 surveillance of the compound. Along with the overhead imagery, the intelligence derived from the cell phones permitted the US to learn the "patterns of life" at the compound, meaning who came and went and who had responsibility for security.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the courier who used the nom de guerre Abu Ahmad al Kuwaiti, whose real name has not been made public, and others in the compound used cell phones to communicate.
"They didn’t use land lines or the Internet, but they did use something else, cell phones," said the official.
Bin Laden's voice was never heard on cell phone conversations intercepted by the NSA during surveillance prior to Sunday's raid, the official said.
'Thousands of documents' also recovered
On Tuesday, U.S. officials told NBC that "thousands of documents" were recovered that could help the U.S. "destroy al-Qaida."
NBC News reported that the documents — in both paper and electronic form on computers and portable computer drives — were recovered Sunday when a U.S. commando team raided the three-story compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed bin Laden, 54, the founder of the Islamist network that killed more than 3,000 people in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
U.S. officials confirmed Tuesday that 10 hard drives, five computers and more than 100 storage devices were recovered from the compound. The specific numbers were first reported by CNN.
U.S. officials would not discuss details of what might be in the papers and on the computer drives, including whether the material was encrypted. But in an interview with NBC News' Brian Williams, CIA Director Leon Panetta said, "The reality is that we picked up an awful lot of information there at the compound."
A senior U.S. official told NBC News on Wednesday that an initial examination of the computers and other digital devices retrieved from the compound indicate they "contain very valuable information."
Asked if any al-Qaida donor information was stored on the devices, the official said only that it was "entirely possible."
The U.S. has long sought lists of donors to the al-Qaida cause, mainly believed to be private individuals in the Gulf states, who have financed its terror operations.
A senior official gave this account of what was done with the material:
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday that the information was believed to break down into three categories:
- "Evidence of planned attacks."
- "Information that could lead to other high-value targets or networks that we don't know about."
- "The sustaining network for bin Laden himself in Pakistan — what allowed him to live in that compound as long as he did."
John Brennan, President Barack Obama's chief counterterrorism coordinator, said Tuesday that the material could specifically "give us insights into al-Qaida's network — where other senior commanders and officials might be."
"We're moving with great dispatch to make sure that we're able to mine that for whatever insights it gives us so that we can continue to destroy al-Qaida," Brennan said in an interview on msnbc TV's "Morning Joe."
Intelligence could be biggest win from raid
The materials could turn out to be "as important (as), if not more important than, the actual killing of bin Laden," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based policy institute, said in an interview with The Toronto Star.
What is learned from the compound will likely extend beyond the documents to include human intelligence.Video: Engel: al-Qaida 'franchises' will continue
U.S. officials strongly denied reports that U.S. commandos may have taken one of bin Laden's sons with them, but that doesn't mean he or other family members still couldn't provide valuable material.
Among those discovered in the compound was one of bin Laden's wives, who survived a gunshot wound in her leg, Carney said. She has been taken into custody by Pakistani authorities, who have not allowed U.S. officials to question her.
In his interview with NBC News, Panetta confirmed that relatives of bin Laden were in Pakistani custody and said the U.S. had been assured that it would "have access to those individuals."
Panetta said that combined with the computer data, "the ability to continue questioning the family" could yield significant leads "regarding threats, regarding the location of other high-value targets and regarding the kind of operations that we need to conduct against these terrorists."
The U.S. has profited in the past from extensive intelligence harvested from the computers of al-Qaida operatives.
The most notable previous bonanza that has publicly been revealed was uncovered in July 2004, when al-Qaida computer expert Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan was captured in Pakistan. His laptop computer provided a trove of information and more than 1,000 compact disk drives that were found in his apartment.
U.S. officials said the materials included details of al-Qaida surveillance of Heathrow Airport in London and financial institutions in New York, Newark, N.J., and Washington, as well as details of possible planned al-Qaida attacks in New York Harbor.
By Robert Windrem of NBC News and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News contributed to this report.