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Evading ECHELON, Osama E-Mailed Extensively in Exile

Among the details emerging from storage devices recovered during the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden is the revelation that he used e-mail frequently to communicate with other al-Qaida members during his decade in hiding.

This communication occurred despite extensive, and expanded, electronic surveillance efforts to find him by the U.S. government and its allies. (The term ECHELON in the headline refers to the code name popularly used in media accounts for the secret surveillance system for interception of e-mail, phone calls and other electronic communications.*)

Bin Laden's methods will be familiar to any fans of the HBO series "The Wire," in which Baltimore drug gangs followed careful procedures to buy disposable phones from far-flung convenience stores in order to keep their conversations hidden from police wiretapping efforts.

In a report published yesterday based on interviews with a counterterrorism official and a second person briefed on the matter, The Associated Press described bin Laden's process:

"Holed up in his walled compound in northeast Pakistan with no phone or Internet capabilities, bin Laden would type a message on his computer without an Internet connection, then save it using a thumb-sized flash drive. He then passed the flash drive to a trusted courier, who would head for a distant Internet cafe.

"At that location, the courier would plug the memory drive into a computer, copy bin Laden's message into an email and send it. Reversing the process, the courier would copy any incoming email to the flash drive and return to the compound, where bin Laden would read his messages offline.

"It was a slow, toilsome process. And it was so meticulous that even veteran intelligence officials have marveled at bin Laden's ability to maintain it for so long."

This is one of the first of many IT-related revelations likely to come from the trove of storage devices in bin Laden's Pakistan compound. The AP account predicts that electronic addresses and phone numbers in the e-mails will trigger many subpoenas to ISPs.

*Yes, ECHELON is dated and probably narrower than the surveillance efforts in use over the last decade, but I liked the alliteration.

Posted by Scott Bekker on May 13, 2011 at 11:58 AM