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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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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. 

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