In a speech at the National Defense University on May 23, Barack Obama declared an end to the global war on terror. The threat posed by al Qaeda, its affiliates, and those it inspires can be managed, he said. “As we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. . . . [I]f dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.”
The president described an al Qaeda so thoroughly enervated that the threat it poses no longer requires a sustained, global campaign dedicated to its elimination. “Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat,” he said. “Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.”
The shift in policy the president announced is risky even if he’s right about the diminished threat posed by al Qaeda. And it’s dangerous if he’s incorrect.
There are many reasons to think he’s wrong, and some of the most compelling are being kept from the American public. They come from al Qaeda itself, in the documents captured during “Neptune Spear,” the operation on May 2, 2011, that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. In addition to loading bin Laden’s bullet-ridden body into the waiting helicopter, the Navy SEALs who participated in the raid brought out with them numerous bags full of valuable intelligence from the compound in Abbottabad. The captured data included computer hard drives, thumb drives, data cards, audio and videotapes, and paper files. In a television interview six days after the raid, the White House’s top national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said the collection could fill a “small college library.”
It’s been two years since that material was captured. To date, the Obama administration has made public just 17 documents. Those documents were released in May 2012, on the first anniversary of the Abbottabad raid—and six months before the presidential election. There has been nothing since, raising concerns among Obama administration critics and defenders alike.
“After two years the public has seen a tiny and insignificant taste of what was in OBL’s hideout,” says Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA and former top Obama adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The U.S. government could safely release far more to help the public and experts better judge the threat al Qaeda and its allies still pose. What we have seen is far too little, far too late.”
A top former U.S. counter-terrorism official agrees. “This is ridiculous,” he says.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the handful of documents released last year painted a picture of al Qaeda consistent with the president’s election-year narrative: The top echelon of al Qaeda central was being decimated, and the survivors were demoralized. The group’s affiliates were disorganized and consumed by internecine power struggles. Bin Laden himself was near-delusional, a sad old man almost entirely detached from the operations of the group he founded, left to write manifesto-length missives to leaders who may or may not have paid him much attention.
The headline of a Washington Post column by David Ignatius, who previewed last year’s release, described bin Laden as a “lion in winter.” The title of the report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center that accompanied the documents was “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?” The authors of the West Point study repeatedly made clear that they were offering only a glimpse of al Qaeda and bin Laden based on a small sample of documents selected by the government.
“Such a study is fraught with risks,” the report noted,
not least because the academic community is not involved in the process of declassification and is therefore unaware of the larger classified corpus of documents. . . . [W]hen an academic center, such as the CTC, is provided declassified documents to study and analyze before releasing them to the public, its researchers have no part in the selection of documents to be declassified and are privy only to declassified documents. . . . Analyzing the state of al Qaeda on the basis of the [17 declassified] documents is like commenting on the tailoring of a jacket when only a sleeve is available. Although a sleeve cannot substitute for the remaining parts of the jacket, it can still offer important features about the overall jacket: it can indicate itscolor, its textile design, and most likely the quality of its stitches and lining.
Some of the claims made about last year’s release were no doubt true. It’s clear that al Qaeda central was being chased out of Waziristan by U.S. drones, and there were difficulties among al Qaeda affiliates and would-be allies. But upon further examination, the answer to the question “Was bin Laden sidelined?” appears to be “no.”
Current and former U.S. officials briefed on the full cache of documents say that bin Laden played an active role in coordinating attacks and running al Qaeda central, even from the isolation of his compound. They say the documents show the al Qaeda leader as someone who wanted the organization he built to continue to reflect his priorities and objectives and who sought to make clear to those beneath him what those priorities and objectives were. More than 400 “immediate-threat reports” were generated during the initial stage-one exploitation of the Abbottabad documents, according to congressional testimony from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Bin Laden also played a key role in maintaining strong relations between al Qaeda central and the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Omar. Obama administration officials had hoped to drive a wedge between al Qaeda and the Taliban so as to include the Taliban in a negotiated peace in Afghanistan. Despite claims that the two organizations had grown apart, the Abbottabad documents suggest a much stronger relationship than that hypothesized by U.S. policymakers.
Another window into bin Laden’s role comes from Bruce Riedel, the former Obama adviser. Riedel told the Hindustan Times that the documents demonstrate that al Qaeda leaders played a significant role in planning the attacks in Mumbai in 2008 with Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba. That attack killed more than 150 people and injured more than 600. “The documents and files found in Abbottabad showed a close connection between bin Laden and Saeed, right up to May 2011.” The documents, Riedel continued, “suggested a much larger direct al Qaeda role in the planning of the Mumbai attacks than many assumed.” Riedel told the paper that bin Laden might have seen surveillance reports on the site of the attack made by the Pakistani-American conspirator David Headley.
The bin Laden documents also illuminate the on-again, off-again relationship between al Qaeda and the Iranian regime. The early document release describes a relationship that is “fraught” with tension. Other documents, however, show a somewhat friendlier relationship based on mutual interests and, at times, mutual exploitation. Some show a pragmatic bin Laden laying out the benefits of a partnership of convenience with the mullahs. The documents make clear that senior Iranian officials, including some in high office today, cultivated the relationship with al Qaeda and, despite some difficulties, provided significant help on logistics, training, and transit through Iran.
Sources tell The Weekly Standard that the documents also provide additional information about the very close relationship between al Qaeda and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. “It’s sometimes hard to tell them apart,” says one U.S. official briefed on the documents. The overlap between al Qaeda and the ISI has been known for years, but officials who have been briefed on the documents say that the real story is in these details and makes clear the wisdom of the Obama administration’s decision not to give the Pakistani government any advance notice of the bin Laden raid.
Why hasn’t the American public seen more of these documents? The answer appears to be a mix of bureaucratic infighting and politics.
When the documents were first brought to the United States, an interagency team led by the CIA began their “stage one” exploitation. In this first examination, analysts place a high priority on extracting intelligence relevant to immediate operations. By all accounts the CIA-led team performed exceptionally well in this initial phase, turning data points into targets and incidental information into kinetic action.
But after the initial push, the exploitation process hit a snag. The CIA team believed its work was largely done, but when other intelligence agencies sought access to the documents in order to complete the stage-two exploitation, the CIA became territorial, reluctant to share what it controlled. After several months of squabbling between the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency and CENTCOM, a team of more than two-dozen analysts from the military side finally gained access.
White House officials, working on behalf of a president who has made clear that he wants to pull back from the broad war launched by his predecessor, felt little urgency to expedite the process. The 17 documents released last year, which sources say White House officials had a hand in selecting, helped shape the public narrative about bin Laden and al Qaeda that the administration wanted. John Brennan, former White House counterterrorism director and now head of the CIA, gave a speech at the Wilson Center on April 30, 2012, in which he previewed the initial document release, claiming that al Qaeda was “losing badly” and a “shadow of its former self.”
For a collection of such significance—the inside story of the enemy America has fought for more than a decade—there has been very little public talk about the Abbottabad documents. In April, Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican from California who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, asked about the documents at a hearing with the leaders of the intelligence community. Director of National Intelligence Clapper spoke about the progress in analyzing the documents and may have hinted at the bureaucratic tug-of-war when he noted that, while the CIA has “executive authority” over the exploitation, the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at CENTCOM had been working through the files in recent months. That team, he said, is proceeding “on a very, very detailed basis . . . almost in an academic research context to read out the findings . . . that might bear on a threat.”
But members of Congress have had little access to the documents themselves, and most of the briefings about their contents have taken place at the staff level. Sources from both parties on the intelligence oversight committees say that new briefings are being scheduled for the coming weeks and that interested members will have access to many of the documents.
But is that enough? And who will decide what the members see? John Brennan at the CIA? Others eager to pronounce al Qaeda dead?
Analysts and officials on the left and the right who spoke with The Weekly Standard believe the vast majority of the documents should be released to the public—and soon. Many are actually unclassified, and most of those that are classified could be quickly declassified and released. Some of the documents include sensitive information and would have to be redacted before public release, but Americans’ interest in understanding the continuing threat from al Qaeda, particularly in light of the administration’s announced policy shift, is compelling.
“At a minimum,” says Rep. Nunes, “members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees should have access to the full documents in their entirety as soon as possible. And every document that can be declassified should be made available to the public immediately. Researchers and historians should have an opportunity to study these documents so that we can continue to learn about al Qaeda.”
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.