A mundane email from the wife of an associate of Osama Bin Laden led to a drone strike that killed him, according to the latest story based on the NSA leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden. Hassan Ghul, whom the U.S. has never officially acknowledged killing, died in Pakistan in 2012. The story, from the Washington Post, is notable for two reasons: it gives more details on what happened to Ghul. And, it connects the NSA into the CIA's drone program, detailing how the agency relies on the NSA's intelligence collection programs, such as SIGNIT, to target its attacks.
Here's how Ghul was found, as told by the Post:
In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might “bed down.”
The e-mail from Ghul’s wife “about her current living conditions” contained enough detail to confirm the coordinates of that household, according to a document summarizing the mission. “This information enabled a capture/kill operation against an individual believed to be Hassan Ghul on October 1,” it said.
Ghul has been known by U.S. intelligence since at least 2003. In 2011, he provided a bit of intelligence that helped to disclose Osama Bin Laden's safe house. Ghul was captured, and told interrogators of the leader's trusted courier, who was later identified and followed to the compound. Because of this, Ghul is a much-discussed figure in the ongoing debate on counterterrorist interrogation programs. the documents also show that the NSA was responsible for confirming that Ghul was killed:
Although the attack was aimed at “an individual believed to be” the correct target, the outcome wasn’t certain until later when, “through SIGINT, it was confirmed that Hassan Ghul was in fact killed.”
The Post notes that the documents don't outline how specifically the emails were collected, but notes that the agency has a "silent raid" program of sorts to divert files from al Qaeda officials for further analysis. Those missions are extremely efficient. The Post writes, "A single penetration yielded 90 encrypted al-Qaeda documents, 16 encryption keys, 30 unencrypted messages as well as “thousands” of chat logs"