When one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted aides picked up the phone last year, he unknowingly led U.S. pursuers to the doorstep of his boss, the world’s most wanted terrorist.
That phone call, recounted Monday by a U.S. official, ended a years-long search for bin Laden’s personal courier, the key break in a worldwide manhunt. The courier, in turn, led U.S. intelligence to a walled compound in northeast Pakistan, where a team of Navy SEALs shot bin Laden to death.
The safe house in which he spent his last days was unusual for not having either a phone line or any type of internet connection. But in the end, the connection came to him. The tagline “reach out and touch someone” was part of a famous AT & T ad campaign to encourage people to call “long distance”.
Long distance — telephonic connections to those outside your local “area code” was not something ordinary people normally did. In Frederick Forsyth’s nove, The Day of the Jackal, police inspector Claude Lebel, intent on hunting down killer engaged to assassinate Charles de Gaulle says that he needs “a telephonist” to find his man. It was a line of writing designed to impress on a reader of the mid-1960s just how important the investigation was going to be. They were going to call “long distance” more than once. Back in the day you didn’t just pick up your Iphone and call London or Washington.
Lebel: I want a camp bed in here with linen and all the usual …including something to wash in and shaving things. Also, get a percolator and lots of coffee.
Aide: Right, sir.
Lebel: Get onto the switchboard. I want a good telephonist.
Wow. But the dangers of the telephone have been known for a long time. Rico, played by Edward G. Robinson, is tricked by the police into making a phone call to complain about taunting newspaper articles. Back in the day telephone calls had a physical path governed by banks of clattering eletromechanical relays. To trace Rico, someone would have had to look at which relays were closed to identify the line he was on. So the policeman stalls Rico until they could figure out the call path.
Yet in the end the result was the same as Bin Laden’s. The cops find the gangster on the road near his flophouse and gun him down. “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” Robinson says at the end. But it’s not the end of Osama. The data that men have live after them. Politico says that a trove of thumb drives, hard disks and other electronic media were taken from the safe house and are now being analyzed at a location in Afghanistan. “Can you imagine what’s on Osama bin Laden’s hard drive?” Here’s a song dedicated to someone.
I hear your name in certain circles, and it always makes me smile
I spend my time thinking about you, and it’s almost driving me wild
And there’s a heart that’s breaking down this long distance line tonight.
There’s a message in the wire, and I’m sending you this signal tonight
You don’t know how desperate I’ve become, and it looks like I’m losing this fight
In your world I have no meaning, though I’m trying hard to understand
And it’s my heart that’s breaking down this long distance line tonight.