Shawnee Delaney was a key part of the US team hunting Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11. One of her contacts was a Mullah with close ties to al-Qaeda but how could she win his trust? There was a language barrier and the Mullah refused to accept money for intelligence. This was shaping up to be Shawnee’s most challenging assignment yet.
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True Spies, Episode 82: Me and the Mullah

Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

This is True Spies, Episode 82: Me and the Mullah.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: And that first meeting, I think a lot of it was my lack of self-confidence and hearing the voices in my head over and over again, like: "He's never going to want to work with you. He's never going to give you intelligence. And he's probably sitting there thinking: 'Who is this white chick?'"

NARRATOR: The year is 1983. And somewhere in America, a little girl is glued to a television set. 

SHAWNEE DELANEY: When I was a little girl I remember my dad watched the nightly news with Dan Rather every night. And I had a bit of a crush on Dan Rather. And I remember he usually read the paper at the same time. And when that news article came on the screen. He actually slowly put the paper down and was really attentive. The Marine barracks were bombed in Beirut. And there was just something about that report - at my very, very young age - where just something clicked and I remembered it.

NARRATOR: It’s funny what you remember, isn’t it? Those flashes of early consciousness that stay with you, persisting, crystalline, where their context fades to static. For some of us, it’s the smell of our mother’s perfume or the strains of an old melody. You smile, remember, and forget again until next time, of course. But some memories are stronger still. Strong enough to shape us. 

SHAWNEE DELANEY: And as I got older, I was just always very fascinated with intelligence and terrorism in particular. What would make people get to that level? What would make people want to blow themselves up or harm other people in the name of a cause? 

NARRATOR: Nearly 30 years later, the girl who watched the evening news has moved on from CBS anchorman Dan Rather. Now, the man in her life is of a very different stripe.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So what I can tell you about this Mullah, is that he was very, very close to Mullah Omar and to Osama bin Laden.

NARRATOR: When their respective schedules allow, they meet in an airless box-room in an urban safe house, somewhere in the Middle East. 

SHAWNEE DELANEY: People can probably figure it out, but I probably shouldn't say.

NARRATOR: Their conversations are friendly. They have an easy rapport because for this week’s true spy, making unlikely friends is a superpower.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: My name is Shawnee Delaney and I worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2005 to 2014.

NARRATOR: It’s 2011, and the USA has been at war in the region for almost a decade. DIA officer Shawnee Delaney is tasked with gathering tactical information on America’s enemies from a variety of human sources.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So the DIA is different from the CIA in that it falls under the Department of Defense and our mission was to protect the warfighter.

NARRATOR: Let’s unpack that term.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So what it means to protect the warfighter, if you think about the Department of Defense and all of the military bases and facilities they have all around the world, ensuring that those facilities and the personnel are protected, that there aren't terrorist attacks planned against them or other bad things like that. Also, when you think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we had a very, very heavy mission there, a heavy lift in protecting the warfighters on the ground. So, again, tactical intelligence, trying to find weapons caches and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices - VBIEDs or IEDs - all kinds of things like that. 

NARRATOR: In popular culture, the DIA is more or less neglected. But the Agency demands just as much from its recruits as its more famous cousins in the US intelligence community.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So there is not a difference in how a CIA case officer or a DIA case officer would recruit a source. All DIA case officers are actually CIA trained. I'm sure you've heard of 'the Farm', the notorious spy school if you will. All of them, we're all commingled and we all trained together - same instructors, same program altogether. So the process is the exact same. 

NARRATOR: But what led Shawnee to ‘the Farm’ in the first place? After all, it’s one thing to entertain childhood dreams of hunting down terrorists. It’s quite another to make them a reality.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: When I went to college, I studied international security. I studied as many countries and things as I could. I applied to the CIA actually, when I was in college, made it through the whole process. I was about two weeks out from starting and they told me: “We just got rid of that billet. We decremented the position.” I was crestfallen. I was heartbroken. And then I decided: “Well, I need to be an expert in language or law enforcement or the military. Those are going to be the three avenues that I have.”

NARRATOR: Ironically, Shawnee’s first tangle with the military - the very ‘warfighter’ that the DIA protects - was a non-starter. 

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I thought about the military. I went to sign up to take the ASVAB test and chickened out right before. I was like: “I can't do the military. That's a commitment, and what if I get put somewhere that I don't want to be?” I couldn't do it. So then I thought: “Well, law enforcement, I'll get some law enforcement experience, and then I can get in. I can be a spy.” And so I applied to several law enforcement agencies around Northern California, and that's a whole other story. And that didn't work out. I ended up getting recruited by the man who did my background investigation for all those different agencies. And so he wanted me to be a background investigator for him. So I ended up working for him and I thought: “You know what? Law enforcement is not the right avenue either because that's not true intelligence. Right?” 

NARRATOR: Well, that depends on who you ask. But anyway, moving on to option three - that’s languages.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So I'm going to go learn Arabic. And I had been learning Spanish since seventh grade, so I already spoke Spanish. But Arabic is a language the intelligence community needs.

NARRATOR: For English speakers, Arabic is a difficult language to master. But Shawnee Delaney is nothing if not determined.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: It's hard. It's so hard. I studied it intensively at Monterey Institute of international studies or MIS, as it's called, the acronym. The second year I thought: "You know what? You can't be an expert if you don't go and live there." So I flew myself to Cairo, Egypt. I was there for three months. But I traveled all around Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt because I figured, again, it's that laser focus that I have. I figured once I go through the application process and the clearance process, I'm never going to get to go to Syria or Lebanon again. It's going to be a problem. So I tried to get it all out of my system. 

NARRATOR: Back in the USA, Shawnee finally got her break when a DIA recruiter visited her grad school. That’s right. If you’re looking to get involved with intelligence work, you don’t need to wait around for a tap on the shoulder. These days, most agencies recruit out in the open. Time to start tweaking that resume.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: And I basically walked up to the recruiter and I said: “The DIA needs me.” 

NARRATOR: Another bold move but would it pay off?

SHAWNEE DELANEY: When I make up my mind, it is all systems go. I get what I want. And he looked at me like I was nuts. And he's like: "Let's go get a beer." So we went to a bar, had a beer, and I persuaded him that the DIA did, in fact, need me. And so he and a former alum of the same graduate school helped me put my application in and get in, so they hired me in 2005.

NARRATOR: Like most employers, the intelligence community values a self-starter. Shawnee’s can-do attitude was invaluable when she began training at ‘the Farm’, the US government’s secret training facility.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So a day in the life at ‘the Farm’ is interesting. You're in a place where they're trying to enlighten you and educate you and train you. So you're drinking by firehose. But they're also trying to break you down and build you up the way they want you to be. What's interesting is, they tell you everything's a test - absolutely everything you do, you say, every look on your face. It's just a really interesting, very intense, psychologically intense place to be. 

NARRATOR: And Shawnee, in characteristic style, took her studies more seriously than most.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: On the weekends usually release students and you can go back to D.C. or you can do whatever you want. I think I was the only one that stayed every single weekend and I cased - so I drove around and I got to know the area - and I drew my plans and I did everything.

NARRATOR: Already, she was honing the skills that would prove to be essential during her tours in the Middle East.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: When you're casing, you're trying to learn your area, right? You want to learn all of the streets. You want to learn the landmarks. You want to learn where [are] good pickup locations when you're picking up sources or assets for surveillance. All of those things go together. It's like a bunch of pieces of the puzzle and you're trying to put it together. And then for the training as well, obviously, we had to run a ton of surveillance detection routes and have all of these locations. So we'd have to turn in reports and identify these places so I just put my head down and did it constantly. 

NARRATOR: After an intense six months, Shawnee graduated from ‘the Farm’. By now, she was in her late 20s, still wet behind the ears by the standards of her profession.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I think they look for older people. You have to have life experience. If you're going to develop relationships with terrorists or heads of state, you have to have life experience to be able to get to know them and have something in common to develop that rapport. 

NARRATOR: As it turned out, active duty suited Shawnee. And why wouldn’t it? After all, how many of us can truly say we’ve accomplished a childhood dream? But there’s one mission that sticks out in her memory. 

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So, in a single operation, I had probably a career-high and a career-low all wrapped up into one where I recruited this incredibly difficult target who had nothing in common with me, or so I thought. This was my third tour overseas in 2011, and at this point in time our mission was not purely tactical. It was also strategic and obviously finding Osama bin Laden, number one, was a priority for everybody, for every intelligence officer, no matter if you were in the military or CIA or DIA. Everybody wanted him. 

NARRATOR: The US military’s failure to apprehend al-Qaeda kingpin Osama bin Laden was a source of constant irritation, if not embarrassment. It goes without saying that tracking him down would be a career-making coup. Exactly the kind of opportunity that somebody like Shawnee can’t help but chase down.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So my main focus was absolutely tracking down bin Laden. I mean, who doesn't want that gold star?

NARRATOR: But Shawnee’s not in the habit of rappelling out of stealth helicopters, guns blazing. No, her contribution to the capture of the world’s ‘Most Wanted’ man - and the DIA’s mission as a whole - would have to be more subtle, more intimate.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So a friend of mine had been given a targeting package, I believe, on this individual. 

NARRATOR: A targeting package, by the way, contains all the information one could ever need about a potential recruit. Targeting teams conduct the groundwork that makes Shawnee’s job possible. You can hear more about this essential role in Episode 19 of True Spies: The Targeter.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: And he met with him one time and then my friend was going back to the United States. And so we had what's called a ‘turnover meeting’ where he and I showed up together. He introduces me. I take over the case. He leaves. So I read the targeting package and spoke to him. And I just remember when we were talking about going into the meeting, he's like: “Man, this guy can talk.” He had, like, a four-hour meeting. Usually, meetings are not four hours long. 

NARRATOR: A talkative source is usually a good thing but Shawnee worried that he might not be so chatty when she entered the equation.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I was very concerned because my whole career I had been told, by men, that Muslims - or people in the Middle East or Asia or Southeast Asia - that these men were not going to talk to me, so how could I ever succeed? So I did have that in the back of my mind going into this meeting and with this guy's status. He was a mullah. He was a religious scholar. I was a little terrified. I'm not going to lie. 

NARRATOR: And the Mullah, as we’ll call him, was connected. He was on close terms with bin Laden himself, as well as Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. 

SHAWNEE DELANEY: He had a history with them and knew them and their plans intimately, including the attacks on September 11.

NARRATOR: The Mullah was a committed fundamentalist, however, his conscience wasn’t entirely clear.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So he was aware of the attacks that were being planned. And what was interesting - and it took me several very long meetings with him to find this out - but he was very close with his father. And his father, after the attacks on 9/11, his father called him up, and berated him, and knew that he was involved to some degree, and told him that he needed to get out of al-Qaeda, that this was a bad organization. It was toxic. It was killing innocent people, etc, etc. And that really cut this guy deep. It really hurt him. He took it to heart. He mulled it over for a very long time. 

NARRATOR: We should reiterate that, fundamentally, the Mullah’s politics hadn’t changed.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: He did believe. He wanted that Islamic State. But the way that al-Qaeda was going about it, he just couldn't support that. His father then moved to the United States, so that was an additional pull. Now my father lives there. His father then died and is buried here in the United States, and it just always ate away at him. And so he ended up breaking from the organization and walking away. 

NARRATOR: It was after this ideological break that the DIA had identified the Mullah as a potential source. And now, in that airless box room, Shawnee sat across from him.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So our first meeting was a little awkward in that you're in this plain walled box. There's a really dirty rug on the floor. You've got your mini-fridge that's humming noisily. You've got your very ugly tray of fruits and nuts trying to make it look homey. And that first meeting, I think a lot of it was my lack of self-confidence and hearing the voices in my head over and over again, like: "He's never going to want to work with you. He's never going to give you intelligence. And he's probably sitting there thinking: 'Who is this white chick?’" 

NARRATOR: Shawnee, a woman not usually lacking in self-belief, was doubting her ability to connect with the Mullah. The gulf between their cultural backgrounds was cavernous, yes - but there was also a language barrier. You see, the Mullah didn’t speak Arabic. Not conversationally.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So it was awkward in that I was trying to have a conversation through a third person. I would look at this guy and I would ask him questions directly. I'm not talking to an interpreter. I'm talking to him. But then I'd have to ask him a question, then wait. And then there's silence and then the interpreter translates, and then he thinks, and then he looks at me, and then he answers my question, and it would take 30 minutes. He didn't breathe. He just talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and talked. And then the interpreter would say: “Wait, hold on, hold on. I have to translate.” And then he'd be like: “Oh, okay, okay, okay.” And so then I'd have to hear another 30-minute explanation. 

NARRATOR: Speaking through interpreters can be long and arduous work. Especially when you’ve got a talker on your hands.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: He talked so much, I can't even tell you how much he talked. And so, that part is very awkward and not natural at all. 

NARRATOR: But this is practical, the mechanics of a conversation. A little awkwardness in this regard is easily overcome. The priority is to make sure what you’re hearing is worthwhile. And if you want good intel, you need trust. A connection.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: Usually I can figure out what I would have in common with someone right away. It's pretty simple. And this one, I'm crap. I got nothing. I have nothing that this guy would find interesting about me. 

NARRATOR: Overall, the first meeting went well.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I mean, if it didn't go well, he wouldn't have kept meeting with me. I can tell you that. 

NARRATOR: And despite the stark differences between a case officer and an asset, soon enough, the ice began to melt. 

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I was in full panic mode in the back of my brain. What do I have in common with him? What can we get some commonality with? And he had a bunch of kids. He had a lot of kids. I did not have any kids at the time and I did want them. 

NARRATOR: Sometimes, when all else fails, you need to dig down to the basic commonalities that we all share. The Mullah was a family man. Shawnee could work with that.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: And so I remember another source I was working with took me on an adventure and took me to this ‘world-famous palm reader’ where we were. And so we went to this palm reader and this palm reader looks at my palm and measures it and does all kinds of crazy stuff. And then he says: “You are going to have 12 children.” And like, probably the look of shock and horror on my face... Everybody was laughing and it was a great moment. So I used that story actually to say: “Well, you have all these kids, so and so told me I'm going to have 12.” And then we started laughing and joking. And then that kind of broke the seal. We both relaxed a little bit and he saw that I had a sense of humor.

NARRATOR: Using his family as a starting point, Shawnee was able to extrapolate more of the Mullah’s motivations.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I realized that his kids were his primary motivation and their education was number one. I am super, super pro-education. I have two master's degrees. I love learning. So I used his family, my want for a family, and our joint passion for education as our three big commonalities. So it probably took three meetings - three solid meetings - to really develop a strong rapport with him.

NARRATOR: Now it’s important to note that at this stage, the Mullah hasn’t been formally recruited. Both parties are just talking. No harm in that, surely? Even so, best not to let the word get out.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: Where I was operating, we did have a couple of different locations that we could have meetings. So I would set up a predetermined pick-up location. I taught him how to do a surveillance detection route, made sure he could read maps and things like that. And so he would do an SDR - a surveillance detection - that he would do an SDR to the meeting to make sure he wasn't being followed. And then I would do a limited SDR because it was not a safe place necessarily, to make sure I was not being followed - even though, again, I stuck out like a sore thumb - and then I would pick him up at a predetermined location. Then I would take him to the meeting location where I would debrief him and chat with him for eight or nine hours. 

NARRATOR: To make all this time and effort worthwhile, the Mullah would have to be officially recruited as an asset of the DIA. And to do that, there was one crucial element that needed to slot into place. Let’s talk about money.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: When you're looking at vulnerabilities, you always want someone to take money. You can't recruit somebody if they're not ever going to take money. And every time I tried to offer him money - and I used every positive explanation or excuse or whatever you want to call it - every meeting, I would try to slide him some money. And he would just smile and thank me very politely and say: “I cannot accept money. I am not doing this for money.”

NARRATOR: Despite her best efforts, the Mullah was, quite simply, impervious to the lure of lucre.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: He was pretty poor. So one time I was like: “I would love you to take your wife to dinner.” Or simple things like that. Or: “Here's money for your time. Time is valuable. You've spent nine hours with me today. Please. You could have been doing other things. You could have driven a taxi or whatever. Here's some money.” I tried everything that I could think of. And he would just smile and thank me and say he couldn't accept it. And I would come back from these meetings so frustrated because everything was going perfectly, except I couldn't get him to take money. Nobody would approve if I wrote up a report saying: “Hey, I'm going to recruit this guy. Here are all the details you need to know. But no, he wouldn't accept money.” It would be denied. There's no way.

NARRATOR: Hang on a minute. If there’s already a rapport between Shawnee and the Mullah, why is the money so important?

SHAWNEE DELANEY: There's a lot of different reasons for him to accept money. Basically, it's a psychological motivation. Right? Like you're now indebted a little bit. It's a little bit of control. It's a little bit of just part of the process where you want to see if that person is going to follow your directions or fall under your spell, if you will. 

NARRATOR: You can never be too careful. If nothing else, money is concrete. Receiving it can create a powerful sense of obligation to your benefactor. Ever worked late to meet a deadline? Then you know the score. Money also creates a paper trail. This helps the DIA to keep track of where taxpayers' money is being spent.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: The government wants to make sure that we're not out buying new shoes instead of paying our sources. But when they sign a receipt, they can sign Donald Duck if they want. It doesn't have to be their real name. But again, all of that is psychological. You're signing: “Okay yes, I'm taking money from you and I'm going to sign my name or an alias or an X or whatever.” But you're doing that. And so that is a big psychological thing. 

NARRATOR: Ultimately, money brings the target into the folds of a true clandestine relationship. During the developmental phase - where their suitability, motivations, vulnerabilities, and access are assessed - an asset may be unaware that they are working with US intelligence. An official payment - complete with receipt - helps to formalize that relationship. And once that transaction has taken place, it serves to remind the asset that mentioning the relationship to their associates could jeopardize their security and that of their handler. Shawnee needed to break through this final barrier to the Mullah’s recruitment. But how? Let’s break down what we know about his key vulnerabilities and motivations. One: He’s a family man. His kids are everything to him. Two: He’s a scholar, a man of letters. In fact, he’s a hafiz - someone who knows the Quran off by heart. He values education, deeply. Three: Terrorist affiliations aside, he’s a bit of an old softie. He doesn’t seem to harbor any real animosity toward Americans - not on an individual basis, anyway. And he was deeply hurt by his father’s disapproval after 9/11. Shawnee knew that the solution to her problem must lay somewhere in the synthesis of these three factors.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I met with him for five or six months before I was able to recruit him. It took me about five months to figure out how I could recruit him and how I could get him to take money. 

NARRATOR: Think about it. What’s your angle?

SHAWNEE DELANEY: And when I realized that, I actually remember going back to the office and telling my supervisor... Like I was doing a happy dance. I was so excited. I figured it out. I know what I can do.

NARRATOR: Shawnee was pretty sure she had a foolproof plan. We’ll get there in a moment. In the meantime, keep thinking it over. But before she put her theory in motion, she needed to do as much as she could to increase the probability of success. Time to go shopping.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: Right before the recruitment meeting, the meeting just prior, I went to a bookstore and bought the biggest, fanciest Quran I could find - very, very fancy. And for those who don't know, like people who are not Muslim are not supposed to touch them. And so I brought my interpreter. He was Muslim. So he was able to pick it up and bag it and everything. And then I had it wrapped beautifully. And then I presented it to him as a gift, but I had my interpreter again handle it and hand it to him. And when he unwrapped it and I and I don't remember the speech, but I had, in my mind, prepared a really beautiful, heartfelt speech about our relationship and how much I appreciated getting to know him, because I truly did. And I knew that this would be special to him and he was special to me. And he teared up like it really hit him. So I think that gift was actually a big contributing factor to him accepting as well because I had empathy, and he saw I understood him as a person, and he felt heard, and respected, and valued.

NARRATOR: We’ve been here before on True Spies. More than anything, people want to feel seen and respected. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. And now, suitably honeyed up, the Mullah was primed for Shawnee’s offer. She was about to find out if her plan would sink or swim. Had she gauged the Mullah’s motivations correctly? And what area of vulnerability would she target first?

SHAWNEE DELANEY: And what it was was his motivation for his kids and their education. 

NARRATOR: The Mullah had no need for money. Material things held little to no value for him - ornate Qurans aside. But, as a parent and a scholar, he wanted the best possible education for his children.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I had a fat envelope with a wad of cash and I had it kind of hidden and after I did the pitch. I told him: “Look. This money is not for you.” And he just looked at me with a little smile. And I said: “After this meeting, I want you to go straight to the bank and I want you to open a bank account with your eldest son's name on it. And I want you to take this money and I want you to put it in that bank account. You are not allowed to spend it and you are not allowed to keep it.” And he just got this happy smirk on his face and he kind of leaned back. And I said: “This money is for your kids' college education. I want them all to go to college. And if we continue working together, they sure as heck will.” And he leaned back, he took it, slid it back and put it in his pocket and said: “Thank you. I think that's great.” 

NARRATOR: The deal was all but done. But Shawnee needed to be sure the Mullah was invested, that he’d stay on side. She had one more ace to play. She knew that his beloved father, who had emigrated to the US, had recently passed away. 

SHAWNEE DELANEY: And he had lamented several times in these marathon meetings that he never got to see his father's grave. He knew he was in the U.S. He hoped one day to be able to visit, but he was really sad that he could never see where his father lay to rest. 

NARRATOR: Needless to say the Mullah’s name would have caused quite a stir at US customs.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I told him: “I understand that you have never been able to see where your father was laid to rest. And I know that weighs heavily on you. I would like to be your eyes. And I give you my word that I will go to his grave and I will pay my respects on your behalf.” And he again, he teared up. He was emotional, and he was like: “Thank you so much. That would mean the world to me if you did that.” And that got him. He was hooked. 

NARRATOR: Pretty words, but would you follow through?

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I did. I just gave my word and he believed. I just said: “I'll send my love and blessings and tell your dad what amazing things you're doing.” Because, again, remember, his father was anti-al-Qaeda. And so for him to be working for the Americans to take down al-Qaeda and to try to find Osama bin Laden, that was a big deal. 

NARRATOR: Finally, Shawnee made her official recruitment pitch as a representative of the American government. The Mullah signed on the dotted line.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: I checked all those boxes that I needed to check. I went back and wrote a cable saying - crossing my ‘t's’ and dotting my ‘i’s’: “Here's everything that I've done. Here's how he's responded. Here's the intelligence he can provide. Here are the intelligence reports he's already provided and their grades and how good he is.” And then you send it back to headquarters and a bunch of people must bless it. So I worked with him some more and then my tour was up. I had a handful of meetings with him afterward. And then, [in] the same process as when I was introduced to him, the next case officer came in and I gave him a heads up. You don't ever want to surprise anybody. That's a bad surprise. But I introduced him to that person and said my goodbyes, and then I departed and let that person continue the relationship.

NARRATOR: The relationship between a case officer and their target can be intense. Remember, Shawnee and the Mullah spent hours upon hours in each other’s company, forming what felt like a genuine friendship. 

SHAWNEE DELANEY: One thing I think is interesting is that when you build these relationships and you spend so much time, especially something like this, where you're really challenged in building that rapport. After you've done it and you've grown to really like the person, turning them over to the next case officer is really hard, because you can't ever see them or contact them again. So there is - for me, at least - it was emotional.

NARRATOR: Once that relationship is severed, it can never be resumed.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: For his safety. And I was also an alias. I was not Shawnee Delaney when I met him. So for my safety, for his safety, we can't do that. 

NARRATOR: A bittersweet ending but Shawnee had done her job well. And we could very well leave this story there. Mission accomplished, to coin a phrase. But cast your mind back to the beginning of this episode to something Shawnee said.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: So, in one operation, in a single operation, I had probably a career-high and a career-low.

NARRATOR: You might be thinking: “Where’s the low? Hasn’t this all gone rather well?” Well, yes and no.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: He had great access. He had a great network of sources. And so he got us all kinds of good stuff. But he came in one day and he said: “I know where Osama is.”

NARRATOR: Shawnee reached for her notepad. Could this be the moment that earned her a place in US intelligence history?

SHAWNEE DELANEY: Let me back up and say he was a mumbler. So when he spoke, even though he was very long-winded, he did mumble and I could not understand everything. And my translator, my interpreter, could not understand everything. Sometimes we'd have to clarify a lot. So he goes: “He's in Abbottabad.” And I was like: “He's a what?” And so the interpreter’s like: “Where?” And he goes “About-about”. And he kept saying: “About-about”. And I have in my notes: “Abbottabad??”

NARRATOR: Abbottabad, a city in northeastern Pakistan, and the site of Osama bin Laden’s secretive compound.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: But he was mumbling and so my interpreter is like: “I don't know what he's saying, he keeps saying something like Abbottabad.” And I said: “Okay, well I'll go back and I'll do some research. I'll look it up.” So I did research. I talked to several people with different agencies and I kept saying: “Does anyone know what this is? This is a city, a town?” And I was trying to clarify when I was in the meeting with him and he goes: “No, it's a place.” Okay. But nobody knew what I was talking about. And so I was like: “Maybe we misheard him.” So we had another meeting. And he goes: “No. I actually took a trip there. And he's in Abbottabad.” And we are like: “Okay.” So again, in my notes: ‘Abbottabad?’ And I went back and I wrote up reports and people were like: “We don't know what you're talking about. No, this isn't accurate.” And then they started questioning his placement, and access. “Maybe he's making stuff up for payment.” 

NARRATOR: Oh ye of little faith…

SHAWNEE DELANEY: But he sounded so sure. And then, I woke up one morning two or three weeks later. And when I flipped on the news as I was getting dressed, it said they had found Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. And I almost threw up. Like, what a failure!

NARRATOR: Shawnee didn’t win the grand prize but she doesn’t hold a grudge. The mission, protecting the warfighter, always comes before personal pride.

SHAWNEE DELANEY: Thank goodness someone had a map with it on the map. Yeah, but wow. And I remember meeting with them after and he goes: “I told you Abbottabad. And he goes, so my information helped you. This is me.” And I was like: “Yes! You did a great job. And in my mind, I'm like: “Oh, sh**. Like, why? Argh.” That would have been great on the old resume. 

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

California-born Shawnee Delaney worked as a Defense Intelligence Agency officer protecting US warfighters, which meant gathering tactical intelligence and finding weapons caches to stop terrorist attacks. After leaving the DIA, Shawnee became an expert in insider threats and is now a SPYEX corporate consultant and the CEO of Washington, D.C.’s Vaillance Group.

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