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Claim was controversial at the time

In July 2011, I wrote "Exclusive: U.S. Air Force Could Have Used Spy Shuttles to Monitor Bin Laden" in which I discuss how both spy satellites and the X-37B autonomous space plane, a top secret U.S. Air Force design, could have been used to spy on the world's most infamous terrorist Osama Bin Laden.  The Boeing Comp. (BA) launched in April 2010 and flew in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), before successfully reentering the atmosphere and landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in November 2010.

I first became aware that the U.S. might have used the X-37B -- which was equipped with powerful imaging hardware -- to spy on Bin Laden from space via amateur astronomer tracking data from Heavens Above.  At the time I revealed:

Amateur astronomers observed the orbiter following variable paths that took it between 40 north and 40 south degrees of latitude, a swath that includes Pakistan.  Specifically, between September and October, observations logged on the site Heavens Above ... [show that the craft's] orbit crossed over Pakistan, though there was a gap in observations, making it hard to definitively say.

X-37B
X-37b Space Spy Plane [Image Source: EPA/Reuters]
 
In March 2011, a second X-37B space plane unit was delivered and launched in a trajectory that covered the Middle East.  Months later, on May 1, 2011, U.S. Navy Seals stormed the compound where Osama bin Laden was holed up, killing him.  The U.S. was rumored to have used special radar-evading Black Hawk helicopters in the raid.

While it still cannot be determined whether the camera equipped X-37B or one of the camera-equipped spy satellites -- such as "USA-186 Keyhole" or "Lacrosse-3/5" -- one key pillar of my story has been definitively confirmed via this week's release of the Edward Snowden-leaked "Black Budget" memos, which detail intelligence spending and operations.

Lacross 3 Lacross 5
Lacross-3 and 5 (left to right) [Image Source: Global Security]

The memos show that without a doubt U.S. orbiters intercepted communications from and snapped pictures of the Bin Laden compound from the safety of space.  THe Washington Post describes:

The U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden was guided from space by a fleet of satellites, which aimed dozens of receivers over Pakistan to collect a torrent of electronic and signals intelligence as the mission unfolded, according to a top-secret U.S. intelligence document.

The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used their ubiquitous phone tracking to hunt down connections made by al Qaeda operatives, eventually tracing calls to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where bin Laden was hiding.  Once they got that info, the space surveillance teams took over snapping over 387 "collects" infrared and high-resolution images of the Bin Laden compound.  The CIA in documents writes that these images were "critical to prepare for the mission and contributed to the decision to approve execution."

Bin Laden Compound
One of the satellite images of the bin Laden compound [Image Source: Getty Images]

In addition to space spying, the team used "implants" -- possibly malware implanted into terrorists' phones at a hardware, software, or firmware level -- to tap into al Qaeda operatives conversations in the region, leading to the capture of 30+ low-to-mid level officers.

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011. [Image Source: The Long War Journal]

Intelligence also played a key role in the aftermath of bin Laden's death.  The documents reveal over $2.5M USD was spent to analyze the computer files and other electronics seized from the bin Laden compound -- files which were ultimately found to include a hoard of porn, according to leaks.

Sources: The Washington Post, DailyTech [2011]



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