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Al Qaeda Wasn’t ‘on the Run’

Why haven’t we seen the documents retrieved in the bin Laden raid?

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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In the early morning hours of May 2, 2011, an elite team of 25 American military and intelligence professionals landed inside the walls of a compound just outside the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. CIA analysts had painstakingly tracked a courier to the compound and spent months monitoring the activity inside the walls. They’d concluded, with varying levels of confidence, that the expansive white building at the center of the lot was the hideout of Osama bin Laden.

Situation Room

They were correct. And minutes after the team landed, the search for bin Laden ended with a shot to his head.

The primary objective of Operation Neptune Spear was to capture or kill the leader of al Qaeda. But a handful of those on the ground that night were part of a “Sensitive Site Exploitation” team that had a secondary mission: to gather as much intelligence from the compound as they could. 

With bin Laden dead and the building secure, they got to work. Moving quickly—as locals began to gather outside the compound and before the Pakistani military, which had not been notified of the raid in advance, could scramble its response—they shoved armload after armload of bin Laden’s belongings into large canvas bags. The entire operation took less than 40 minutes. 

The intelligence trove was immense. At a Pentagon briefing one day after the raid, a senior official described the haul as a “robust collection of materials.” It included 10 hard drives, nearly 100 thumb drives, and a dozen cell phones—along with data cards, DVDs, audiotapes, magazines, newspapers, paper files. In an interview on Meet the Press just days after the raid, Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, told David Gregory that the material could fill “a small college library.” A senior military intelligence official who briefed reporters at the Pentagon on May 7 said: “As a result of the raid, we’ve acquired the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.” 

In all, the U.S. government would have access to more than a million documents detailing al Qaeda’s funding, training, personnel, and future plans. The raid promised to be a turning point in America’s war on terror, not only because it eliminated al Qaeda’s leader, but also because the materials taken from his compound had great intelligence value. Analysts and policymakers would no longer need to depend on the inherently incomplete picture that had emerged from the piecing together of disparate threads of intelligence—collected via methods with varying records of success and from sources of uneven reliability. The bin Laden documents were primary source material, providing unmediated access to the thinking of al Qaeda leaders expressed in their own words. 

A comprehensive and systematic examination of those documents could give U.S. intelligence officials—and eventually the American public—a better understanding of al Qaeda’s leadership, its affiliates, its recruitment efforts, its methods of communication; a better understanding, that is, of the enemy America has fought for over a decade now, at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives. 

Incredibly, such a comprehensive study—a thorough “document exploitation,” in the parlance of the intelligence community—never took place. The Weekly Standard has spoken to more than two dozen individuals with knowledge of the U.S. government’s handling of the bin Laden documents. And on that, there is widespread agreement.

“They haven’t done anything close to a full exploitation,” says Derek Harvey, a former senior intelligence analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and ex-director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). 

“A full exploitation? No,” he says. “Not even close. Maybe 10 percent.”

More disturbing, many of the analysts and military experts with access to the documents were struck by a glaring contradiction: As President Obama and his team campaigned on the coming demise of al Qaeda in the runup to the 2012 election, the documents told a very different story. 

In the days immediately following the bin Laden raid, the document haul was taken to a triage center where a CIA-led interagency team of analysts and subject-matter experts began to comb through it for perishable intelligence. It was, by all accounts, a fruitful effort. 

The initial scrub took several weeks. It was never meant to be comprehensive. “It was more data-mining than analysis,” says one intelligence official with knowledge of the project. Researchers and analysts searched the documents for key names, phone numbers, and addresses that could be used by U.S. troops to target senior al Qaeda leaders. In subsequent congressional testimony, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, reported that there were “over 400 intelligence reports that were issued in the initial aftermath immediately after the raid.”

Then the document exploitation stopped. According to sources with detailed knowledge of the handling of the documents, the CIA did little to build on the project after the initial burst of intelligence reports. 

Officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency and CENTCOM responsible for providing analysis to U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan wanted to study the documents. But the CIA had “executive authority” over the collection and blocked any outside access to them. 

The ensuing bureaucratic fight, reminiscent of the intragovernment battles that led to the reorganization of the intelligence community after 9/11, unfolded over the spring and fall of 2011. It was resolved, at least temporarily, when then-CIA director David Petraeus weighed in on behalf of the team from CENTCOM and the DIA, a move that did little to improve his standing with the CIA bureaucracy. Petraeus was angry when he learned that the CIA hadn’t been actively exploiting the documents, and as the former head of CENTCOM, he was sympathetic to the pleas from military intelligence. The dispute made its way to Clapper, who met with representatives of the warring agencies and agreed that DIA and CENTCOM should be allowed to study the documents. 

The CIA provided access on a read-only basis, but even that limited look into bin Laden’s world made clear to the military analysts that the Obama administration’s public story on al Qaeda reflected the president’s aspirations more than reality.

The narrative heading into the 2012 presidential election was simple. “Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat,” Obama said repeatedly. And “Al Qaeda has been decimated.” And “Al Qaeda is on the run.” And “We have gone after the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11 and decimated al Qaeda.” And “Al Qaeda is on its heels.”  

There was some truth to the claims. Drone strikes on al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan had eliminated several of the group’s top leaders, and the resulting turnover created uncertainty in its senior ranks. And Obama was well within his rights to boast about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But the administration chose to portray these short-term tactical successes as long-term strategic victories. The official spin required a static analysis of al Qaeda and its leadership, an assumption that al Qaeda wouldn’t adequately replace fallen leaders or adjust its strategy to counter U.S. moves. 

The weeks before the administration marked the one-year anniversary of the bin Laden raid featured several leaks about al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the documents captured in Abbottabad, all designed to show that the group was reeling in the face of the tough counterterrorism measures of the Obama administration.

On March 18, 2012, Washington Post writer David Ignatius’s column appeared under the headline: “Osama bin Laden, a lion in winter.” Ignatius, a conscientious writer, conceded the limits of his knowledge. “I’ve only seen a small sample of the thousands of items that were carried away the night of May 2, 2011,” he wrote. “But even those few documents shown to me by a senior Obama administration official give a sense of how bin Laden looked at the world in the years before his death.” Bin Laden, wrote Ignatius, “sensed that the movement itself had lost its momentum.” He and his associates “were hunted so relentlessly by U.S. forces that they had trouble sending the simplest communications.” Ignatius cited a 48-page memo from bin Laden to a top deputy that communicated the leader’s concerns.

The next day, Peter Bergen, a CNN national security analyst, reported on the documents. “Bin Laden wrote a 48-page memo to a deputy in October 2010 that surveyed the state of his organization,” wrote Bergen. The U.S. efforts to root out al Qaeda had been too successful and bin Laden had grown despondent. (Three months later, Bergen would write something of a follow-up: “Time to Declare Victory: al Qaeda Is Defeated.”) 

Not surprisingly, that memo was one of a small batch of documents the Obama administration had approved for declassification and release on the one-year anniversary of the bin Laden raid. 

Three weeks before the anniversary, the administration provided that handpicked set of documents to analysts at the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. The CTC team, according to two sources familiar with the events, was instructed to prepare a study to accompany the release of the documents around the upcoming anniversary.

To some involved in the CTC study, it was clear that the report was to be part of a broader administration public relations effort. But others assumed good faith on the part of the administration. “They didn’t pressure us on timing at all,” says Lieutenant Colonel Liam Collins, at the time the director of the center. 

The administration originally approved 19 documents for declassification and release. But shortly after providing them to the CTC, Lieutenant General Doug Lute, a senior official on the National Security Council, called to ask that one of the documents be withheld. The document in question detailed the close relations between al Qaeda and senior leaders of the Afghan Taliban. Lute explained that the administration had restarted secret negotiations with the Taliban, and releasing the document could present unwanted complications. The document was not released.

The White House may have been spooked by a report from Jason Burke in the Guardian on April 29, just days before the scheduled release of the declassified materials. “Documents found in the house where Osama bin Laden was killed a year ago 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.” 

Burke continued: “The news will 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 national agenda—might once again offer a safe haven to al Qaeda or like-minded militants, or whether they can be persuaded to renounce terrorism.” Burke tells The Weekly Standard that he doesn’t know if he was shown the documents as part of a broader rollout. 

On April 30, John Brennan, then Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser and now his CIA director, made a striking claim: The elimination of al Qaeda was imminent. “If the decade before 9/11 was the time of al-Qaeda’s rise, and the decade after 9/11 was the time of its decline, then I believe this decade will be the one that sees its demise,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Then Brennan previewed the release of the bin Laden documents: 

With its most skilled and experienced commanders being lost so quickly, al Qaeda has had trouble replacing them. This is one of the many conclusions we have been able to draw from documents seized at bin Laden’s compound, some of which will be published online, for the first time, this week by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. For example, bin Laden worried about—and I quote—“the rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced and this would lead to the repeat of mistakes.”

Al Qaeda leaders continue to struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates. Under intense pressure in the tribal regions of Pakistan, they have fewer places to train and groom the next generation of operatives. They’re struggling to attract new recruits. Morale is low, with intelligence indicating that some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win. In short, al Qaeda is losing, badly.

Others echoed Brennan’s claims. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declared that the United States was “within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda,” and President Obama, in remarks the day after Brennan’s speech, boasted, “The goal that I set—to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild—is now within our reach.”

The CTC report was released on May 3 under the title “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined?” The authors were careful to note that they were given just a fraction of the document collection and that researchers there had “no part in the selection of documents.” The conclusions of the study were consistent with the administration’s line: Al Qaeda had been badly weakened, and in the months before his death Osama bin Laden had been marginalized. 

As the public heard this carefully managed story about al Qaeda, analysts at CENTCOM were poring over documents that showed something close to the opposite. 

The broader collection of documents paints a far more complicated picture of al Qaeda. There are documents laying out al Qaeda’s relationships with terror-sponsoring states, including Iran and Pakistan. There are documents that provide a close look at bin Laden’s careful cultivation of a vast array of increasingly deadly affiliates, including the one we now know as ISIS. Other documents provide a window into the complex and highly secretive system of communications between al Qaeda leaders and operatives plotting attacks. Still others offer a glimpse of relations between bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and the others who run the global terror syndicate.

One document laid bare bin Laden’s relationship with Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and suggested that the al Qaeda leader helped plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed 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,” former Obama adviser Bruce Riedel told the Hindustan Times. The documents “suggested a much larger direct al Qaeda role in the planning of the Mumbai attacks than many had assumed.” 

The CENTCOM team reviewed documents detailing the complicated and dangerous relationship between al Qaeda and Tehran and found evidence that senior Iranian officials facilitated the travel and safe haven of top al Qaeda operatives both before and after the 9/11 attacks. Other documents suggest that the relationship between Pakistan’s intelligence service and al Qaeda leaders was even stronger than many intelligence officials had understood.

The exploitation by the CENTCOM team, though far from comprehensive, generated “hundreds of additional reports” on al Qaeda that were distributed throughout the intelligence community, according to congressional testimony from Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The findings were briefed to senior intelligence and military officials, including Robert Cardillo, deputy director of national intelligence, and Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Several members of Congress were briefed as well on the findings.

Derek Harvey, who supervised the DIA/CENTCOM team and conducted some of the briefings, has considerable credibility on these issues. He was one of the first intelligence analysts to warn of the growing insurgency in Iraq—just months after the invasion—challenging the happy talk from some members of the Bush administration. Later, Harvey worked closely with Sunni tribes in Iraq to lay the groundwork for the Iraq surge in 2007—work that was highlighted in The War Within, Bob Woodward’s account of the Bush administration’s attempt to save Iraq between 2006 and 2008. When David Petraeus went to CENTCOM, he took Harvey with him to the Tampa headquarters to create and run the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence.  

Harvey would not discuss the contents of the documents. But he acknowledges that the DIA/CENTCOM conclusions contradicted the story the administration was telling the American people. “They were saying al Qaeda was on the run,” he recalls. “We were telling them al Qaeda was expanding and growing stronger.”

Meanwhile, the internal squabbling continued. The CIA, now under the direction of John Brennan, who had moved back to the agency from the White House, sought once again to limit DIA/CENTCOM’s access to the documents. And some analysts at the CTC were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the analysis in “Letters from Abbottabad.” According to three sources with knowledge of the handling of the documents, at least one CTC analyst drafted a memo—sometimes referred to as an “affidavit”—describing how the conclusions of the study would have been different had analysts been provided access to the full range of documents. The Weekly Standard asked CTC director Liam Collins about the memo in April. He responded: “I’m not tracking you on that.” Collins denied that anyone at CTC had written or distributed such a memo, and he reiterated his denial this month. 

But one U.S. intelligence official, told of Collins’s claim, scoffed, “It exists. Period.”

In July, Lieutenant General Flynn left his post as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a year earlier than scheduled. Many intelligence professionals believe he was forced out, in part because he—and many who worked for him—aggressively challenged the administration’s view that al Qaeda was dying. Flynn’s views were shaped by the intelligence in the bin Laden documents.

Before he left, Flynn spoke to reporter James Kitfield, of Breaking Defense, who asked why he pushed back on the White House’s view that al Qaeda had died with Osama bin Laden. “There’s a political component to that issue, but when bin Laden was killed there was a general sense that maybe this threat would go away. We all had those hopes, including me. But I also remembered my many years in Afghanistan and Iraq. We kept decapitating the leadership of these groups, and more leaders would just appear from the ranks to take their place. That’s when I realized that decapitation alone was a failed strategy.” 

Flynn recalled pushing to get information to policymakers with the hope that it might influence their decisions. “We said many times, ‘Hey, we need to get this intelligence in front of the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the national security adviser! The White House needs to see this intelligence picture we have!’ ” He added: “We saw all this connective tissue developing between these [proliferating] terrorist groups. So when asked if the terrorists were on the run, we couldn’t respond with any answer but ‘no.’ When asked if the terrorists were defeated, we had to say ‘no.’ Anyone who answers ‘yes’ to either of those questions either doesn’t know what they are talking about, they are misinformed, or they are flat out lying.”

There is, nevertheless, some good news. After sustained pressure from members of Congress, led by Representative Devin Nunes of California, and outside experts, including Bruce Riedel, the public will soon begin to see more of the bin Laden documents. “I have gone to great lengths to get access to these documents, but I have met with excuses and stonewalling at every turn,” says Nunes. “If there is nothing to hide, as the Obama administration claims, then it should release these vital papers.” Nunes inserted language into the Intelligence Authorization Bill requiring the director of national intelligence to complete a declassification review of the documents within 120 days and justify in writing any remaining classification.

There is little reason to believe the law will lead to the release of documents contradicting the administration’s narrative—at least not right away. Those in the administration and the intelligence community who propagated the myth that al Qaeda was dying have every incentive to fight revelations that make clear their mendacity. 

It’s far more likely that the declassification requirement will trigger another round of fighting over the documents. But that fight will take place in public—and the administration will be forced to defend withholding information. This is a small victory. 

 

Already in congressional testimony last year, DNI Clapper said there is “good reason for us to declassify” more of the documents, so long as doing so does not jeopardize “current operations.”

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