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05.09.11

The CIA's Last-Minute Osama bin Laden Drama

The arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis came close to derailing the mission to get Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Tara McKelvey on the man known as "American Rambo."

They are known as “dirty assets,” guys who take care of things and then, as Special Forces soldiers say, “exfiltrate,” or Get the Hell Out. Raymond Allen Davis seemed perfect for this line of work. As a high-school student in Big Stone Gap, Virginia (pop. 5,614), he was a wrestler whom his friends described as “solid muscle”; he later traveled to South Asia on secret missions and lived in the shadows for years. Then, one day in late January in Lahore, Pakistan, something went terribly wrong, and Davis almost single-handedly derailed the president’s mission to get Osama bin Laden.

On Jan. 27, Davis shot two men at an intersection in Lahore and was charged with double murder. Pakistanis protested in front of the jail where he was held, and many of them saw Davis, a former Special Forces soldier who had also worked for Blackwater, as the epitome of American arrogance. As demonstrators marched on the streets of Lahore, U.S. intelligence officials were homing in on bin Laden and studying “how life at the compound was carried out,” as a senior intelligence official said, describing the house where bin Laden lived in Abbottabad. Unfortunately, the Davis case made it harder to carry out the attack; as The New York Times reported. Obama’s top aides were worried that the assault would infuriate Pakistani authorities and that they might take out their anger on Davis. “You don’t want an American intelligence operator sitting in prison in the country when a raid’s taking place,” says Bruce Hoffman, author of Inside Terrorism. So American officials fought hard to resolve the case, claiming that Davis had diplomatic immunity and should be released, and worried that the delay would cause them to lose their shot at bin Laden. Indeed, Davis almost became a one-man Tora Bora, an incident named after the mountainous area in Afghanistan where Special Forces had tracked down bin Laden in late 2001, only to have him slip out of sight.

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Ray Davis, Powell Valley High School Yearbook, 1993.

On March 16, Pakistani authorities let Davis go after $2.3 million in blood money was promised to the victims’ families, using a traditional method to settle the legal dispute over the two men’s deaths. “Our prayers have come true,” says Kristy Miller Mullins, a Big Stone Gap insurance agent. People in Washington were happy, too. “We averted what was building up to be a major irritant,” says Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel. Finally, the raid on bin Laden could proceed without risking Davis’ life.

The story of how “a good old country boy,” as his friend Chris Bartee, a nurse practitioner in a maximum-security federal prison, describes Davis, ended up in Kot Lakhpat jail and nearly destroyed America’s chance at getting bin Laden is complex and murky. It is part of a larger narrative about a nation that has outsourced its intelligence work in an ever-expanding war against terrorists around the globe. And while Americans killed bin Laden on their own, they still need help tracking down terrorists in Waziristan and in other regions, and the Davis case has made that harder. That he was working secretly within Pakistan, and that other CIA contractors are still there, infuriates many Pakistanis.

“It’s not like he’s someone from the underworld who’s been contracted to perform an assassination,” Aftergood says. “He wasn’t freelancing. He was implementing government policy, for better or worse.”

On Friday, a Pakistani television station revealed the name of the CIA station chief. While the name turned out to be incorrect, the media coverage is a sign of the resentment that many Pakistanis, including those in the government, feel toward the U.S. In the past, say U.S. intelligence experts, Pakistani intelligence agents would have tried to stop these stories from appearing; now the agents are allowing the stories to appear and may even be leaking the information to the media.

Meanwhile, the CIA’s success in Abbottabad means that the agency will likely undertake a growing portion of the war against terrorists, adding to the pressure on an under-resourced institution. Before he was arrested, Davis was part of a private army that made up roughly 30 percent of the work force for intelligence agencies, as The Washington Post has reported. Contractors are now so entrenched at the CIA, as one former officer told me, that some have begun to form makeshift unions, and yet despite the extraordinary reliance on the private sector, CIA officers parcel the assignments out in secrecy. “Even the number of contractors is not public information,” says security expert Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

After the shootings in Lahore, Davis, 36, contacted his colleagues for help; they raced to the intersection and accidentally killed someone else, then sped away, as a black mask, bullets, and a piece of cloth with an American flag fell out of their Land Cruiser, according to a police report. For all the sketchy details, and the deaths of three men, Davis was on official business in Lahore, apparently helping to collect intelligence on terrorism suspects. “It’s not like he’s someone from the underworld who’s been contracted to perform an assassination,” Aftergood says. “He wasn’t freelancing. He was implementing government policy, for better or worse. The problem may be with the policy.” The secret policy fosters a situation in which criminal behavior can flourish, say Obama administration critics, and contractors end up in jail.

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Raymond Davis grew up on Strawberry Patch Road five miles outside Big Stone Gap. His father, Charlie Edward Davis Sr., died when he was young, say his high-school friends; his mother, Virginia, was “a lady that had some hardship,” recalls Rev. Roy Smith of Appalachian Pentecostal Church. She had a ninth-grade education when she got married as a teenager in a Baptist ceremony, according to a marriage register, and later worked as a cook to support her children. She died last year at age 59, after a long illness.

When Raymond was growing up, Strawberry Patch Road was a place of lonely roads and double-wide trailers. People here work in mines, and their lives are defined by coal: Pieces are scattered alongside railroad tracks and in other places, glittering when the sun hits them. Several years ago, residents still had to fetch water from a spring when the pipes froze, and today the neighborhood is quiet, smelling of damp earth, with toads trilling in a creek and a rusted truck on the side of the road. The Faith Hope United Church is on a hill, with a crown of thorns hanging on a wall inside the building and a stone angel standing in front.

At 14, Davis was enrolled in a vocational-technical program; he was a “good-hearted kid,” says Chris Bartee, who was on the wrestling squad with him and trained at Powell Valley High School. Davis was disciplined, keeping his weight down and living “on lettuce and Jell-O,” as his friend Spencer Bowman recalls, and rarely losing his temper. “Once, he absolutely destroyed a running back,” says Bowman. “He killed him in the back field—um, I don’t want to say ‘killed.’ He tackled him, then helped him up. Reached out his hand.”

“They call him an American Rambo,” adds Bowman. One person, posting on a blog hosted by the community-news site Topix, said Davis and his brother were so strong “they could climb trees using only their hands, no feet.”

“They could probably tear a tree down with their hands,” says Bartee, recalling how Davis used to bench-press 400 pounds. “He’s folklore.”

After high school, Davis joined the Army: “He was trying to do something good, you know,” says his cousin Carolyn Kelly. Davis was accepted into Third Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but “wasn’t somebody who made a huge mark,” says Master Sgt. Eric Hendrix, who works at Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg. “Nobody here remembers the guy.” Davis eventually started his own company, Hyperion Protective Consultants, and became part of the CIA’s Global Response Service. “The pattern is not that unusual,” says Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief. “A former Special Forces soldier who’s gone out and found work as a security contractor.” Yet in one way he stood out. “Shooting two people,” says Grenier, “that is pretty uncommon.”

The Justice Department has announced a criminal investigation into Davis’ case; the contractors who have gotten in trouble overseas over the past 10 years and were investigated have not been prosecuted, though, with few exceptions. One of them, ex-CIA contractor David Passaro, worked at a military base in Afghanistan in 2003 and was sentenced to eight years for beating a prisoner who later died. Passaro, however, did not have the public support of the president; while Davis was in jail, Obama called him “our diplomat.”

Some people, even in Big Stone Gap, have a more critical view. “He shot them in the back,” says a Huddle House restaurant customer in a Korea Veteran baseball cap and sweat pants, describing what happened in Lahore. “That looks bad.” Others say Davis was no superhero. Phil Robbins, 67, a retired Powell Valley football coach, sat hunched over at a table at a Chinese restaurant. “He was 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds when we first saw him,” says Robbins. “And he left here as a 5-foot-10 190-pounder. He shouldn’t be blown up as an outstanding athlete or outstanding this-or-that. You could put him in a crowd of 50 people and he wouldn’t stand out.” For such an unremarkable guy, Davis created immense problems. Bin Laden is dead, but Americans are still facing an unresolved war. Davis left Lahore in a rush in March, and his future, and that of U.S-Pakistani relations, remains uncertain.

Tara McKelvey, a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, is the author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War (Basic Books).