The latest Edward Snowden revelations in the Washington Post show that the US spends a mind-boggling $52.6 billion a year on its massive surveillance programs. And just what have we gotten for the money? Well, the feds would argue, Osama bin Laden. A separate Post story details how the CIA and the NSA used all kinds of high-tech wizardry to guess at his hiding spot in Abbottabad and then carry out the raid. For example, the NSA was "able to penetrate guarded communications among al-Qaeda operatives by tracking calls from mobile phones identified by specific calling patterns," write Craig Whitlock and Barton Gellman. CIA analysts then zeroed in on the location of one of the phones—at the Abbottabad complex.
The story explains how a branch of the NSA called the Tailored Access Operations group, experts in the ways of spyware and tracking devices, managed to collect intelligence from the phones of other al-Qaeda operatives. The agencies also made use of satellites and even a stealth drone to get hundreds of images of the Abbottabad complex before the raid and to intercept still more electronic communications. Even with all that, however, agents were only about 50% sure of bin Laden's whereabouts when the raid went down. And, of course, this kind of spying is different than the type of domestic surveillance that has so rankled critics of the NSA.