During a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center on April 30, 2012, John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, discussed “The Ethics and Efficacy of the U.S. President’s Counterterrorism Strategy.” Brennan explained that President Obama has “pledged to share as much information with the American people ‘so that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable.’ ” Obama, he continued, “has consistently encouraged those of us on his national security team to be as open and candid as possible.” After all, “our democracy depends” upon “transparency.”
But nearly two years after the May 1, 2011, assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound, the Obama administration has made public just 17 documents out of the huge cache of information captured during that raid. U.S. intelligence officials tell The Weekly Standard that the vast collection includes “hundreds of thousands of documents and files.” Obama administration officials themselves have referred to the documents as a “treasure trove” the size of a “small college library.” Why hasn’t the public seen them?
One of the main reasons: John Brennan.
The Obama administration, with Brennan as its top counterterrorism adviser, has worked hard to convince the American people that al Qaeda “is a shadow of its former self,” in the words of the president. Its affiliates are atomized cells that operate without serious coordination, they’ve suggested, and with the assassination of several top leaders, the defeat of al Qaeda is, according to Obama, “within reach.” The war on terror, or whatever it is, is nearing an end.
These claims are important to the administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the key to its broader counterterrorism posture.
Immediately after bin Laden’s demise, there was a natural inclination to trumpet the al Qaeda CEO’s importance in the overall war. This was an honest assessment. But over the year that followed something interesting happened. Key administration figures decided to downplay bin Laden’s role in managing the groups that fight in al Qaeda’s name, even as many facts cut against their revised narrative. Why? It is easier to declare the 9/11 wars near their end if al Qaeda is all but dead, leaving little for bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, to oversee.
Al Qaeda cannot be “on the path to defeat,” as President Obama repeatedly claimed during the 2012 presidential campaign, if bin Laden’s vision of terror lives on. That vision is outlined in bin Laden’s documents.
Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security adviser, was among the first administration officials to discuss bin Laden’s files. One week after the Abbottabad raid, during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press on May 8, 2011, Donilon described the recovered files as “the largest cache of intelligence derived from the scene of any single terrorist.” Citing the CIA, it was Donilon who said the files would fill a “small college library.”
Donilon also weighed in on what the documents showed about bin Laden’s role within the al Qaeda network. The documents indicate “to us that in addition to being the symbolic leader of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was involved operationally in strategic direction, in the direction of operations, including their propaganda efforts,” Donilon said.
Meet the Press host David Gregory repeatedly pressed Donilon on this point, noting that Donilon’s characterization of bin Laden’s active role was “something different than what intelligence officials have believed.”
Donilon conceded that the intelligence community was “just starting to go through this treasure . . . this large cache of information.” But he didn’t back down. Donilon insisted that bin Laden “had an operational and strategic direction role, which makes the raid last Sunday night . . . all the more important in terms of our ultimate strategic goal, which is the strategic defeat of this organization.”
A few days after Donilon’s interview with Gregory, Sebastian Rotella of ProPublica published a fascinating look at bin Laden’s world. Citing U.S. intelligence officials who had reviewed the al Qaeda CEO’s files, Rotella described bin Laden as a “fugitive micro-manager” who “clearly played a role in al Qaeda’s operational, tactical, and strategic planning.”
Although communications were hampered by security protocols, Rotella continued, bin Laden “managed to retain authority over al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, North Africa, and Iraq.” He sent messages to them, and they sent responses. In one instance, some in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) suggested that Anwar al Awlaki take over leadership of the group. Bin Laden nixed that idea, preferring to keep his longtime aide-de-camp, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, in charge. Wuhayshi remains in that position today.
There are additional examples in this early reporting that support the same view: Osama bin Laden managed a cohesive, international terrorist network.
Nearly one year later, however, the fix was in. Some in the Obama administration had decided to spin bin Laden’s documents to portray the slain al Qaeda chieftain as a recluse with little sway over the terror network he had helped build.
This new narrative was first pushed by administration-friendly journalists such as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who characterized bin Laden as “a lion in winter” in a March 18, 2012, article. A month and a half later, in a May 3 opinion piece riddled with logical contradictions, CNN’s Peter Bergen described bin Laden as “isolated” and yet a “micromanager.” Bergen has repeatedly argued that the threat from al Qaeda is insignificant, and his reporting on the documents more often than not is intended to buttress his view.
A pathetically small sample of documents, the 17 mentioned above, was given to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), which analyzed them and concluded that bin Laden “enjoyed little control over either groups affiliated with al Qaeda in name,” such as AQAP or Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), “or so-called fellow travelers,” such as the Pakistani Taliban.
The CTC’s analysis, also published on May 3, 2012, clearly contradicted the initial assessments made in the wake of the Abbottabad raid. We cannot say that the CTC report’s authors had better access to the documents in the year that followed, though, as the documents they looked at were not even a significant percentage of the vast cache recovered. Moreover, even the documents analyzed in the CTC report do not support its conclusions.
What has been reported about the documents excluded from the administration-approved subset does not support the CTC’s conclusions either. Consider what the Guardian’s Jason Burke reported on April 29, 2012—just days before the CTC report was published. Burke reported that the documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound “show a close working relationship between top al Qaeda leaders and Mullah Omar, the overall commander of the Taliban, including frequent discussions of joint operations against NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan government, and targets in Pakistan.” Both Osama bin Laden and his replacement, Ayman al Zawahiri, were involved in coordinating attacks with the Taliban.
Mysteriously, the documents Burke reported on were not among those the administration allowed the CTC to publish just four days later. Why? As Burke noted beforehand, the documents “undermine hopes of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, where the key debate among analysts and policymakers is whether the Taliban—seen by many as following an Afghan nationalist agenda—might once again offer a safe haven to al Qaeda or like-minded militants, or whether they can be persuaded to renounce terrorism.”
Indeed, the Obama administration has repeatedly pushed for fantasyland peace talks with the Taliban. At one point, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that the Taliban must renounce al Qaeda, which it has repeatedly refused to do. Simultaneously, administration officials, including the president, have sought to downplay al Qaeda’s presence inside Afghanistan. If the Taliban and al Qaeda are closely cooperating on attacks, and they are, then the entire rationale for drawing down forces in Afghanistan comes into question.
Another, more startling example of what the administration excluded from the documents released to the public was offered by Bruce Riedel, a former adviser to President Obama. Riedel said the files show a close relationship between bin Laden and the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Saeed. The LeT is a Pakistan-based terrorist group with known ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. It was responsible for the November 2008 siege in Mumbai, India, in which 166 people were killed and hundreds more wounded.
“The documents and files found in Abbottabad showed a close connection between bin Laden and Saeed, right up to May 2011,” Riedel told the Hindustan Times. And that’s not all. Riedel said that the recovered intelligence “suggested a much larger direct al Qaeda role in the planning of the Mumbai attacks than many assumed.”
This is a bombshell. It changes the public understanding of how al Qaeda operates both inside and out of Pakistan. The Hindustan Times reported Riedel’s comments on April 4, 2012. Yet less than one month later, there was no sign of the Mumbai connection in what the administration released to the public.
The story of bin Laden’s documents is not merely a historical curiosity. The files have a direct bearing on the future of America’s counterterrorism strategy.
This brings us back to John Brennan, the man President Obama would have lead the CIA. It was Brennan who announced, during his Wilson Center speech last April, the pending release of the 17 bin Laden documents. It was in that same speech that he reiterated President Obama’s promise of more transparency.
The linchpin of Brennan’s approach to fighting al Qaeda is the use of pinprick drone strikes and special operations raids to take out select al Qaeda members who are thought to threaten the American homeland. Brennan and his fellow administration officials certainly know that al Qaeda’s affiliates are growing in places like Syria, where upwards of 10,000 al Qaeda fighters are on the ground today. But they want to define the threat in such a way that a more robust American military response is not necessary.
Brennan portrays al Qaeda’s South Asian “core”—itself imprecisely defined—as a threat distinct from al Qaeda’s affiliates. Coincidentally, this is what the administration-approved assessment of the 17 documents suggested. Others should carry out most of the fighting against the affiliates, the administration believes. Only certain al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists should feel the wrath of American drones.
But if al Qaeda lives on as an extended network, with Ayman al Zawahiri at its helm, then the picture becomes far more complex. Drones cannot contain the growing threat from al Qaeda in places like Syria. Similarly, it took French military forces to stem al Qaeda’s advances in Mali. The administration and its surrogates would have us believe that these are all discrete problems, and America can mainly “lead from behind.”
It is for that reason, among others, that the American public deserves to see bin Laden’s files. To use Brennan’s own words, let the American people “make informed judgments” about the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. Let them see bin Laden’s files.