The Magazine

John Brennan and the Bin Laden Files

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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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.”

John Brennan

John Brennan

NEWSCOM

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.” 

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