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Let the Sunshine In

It’s high time for the administration to release the bin Laden documents

Jun 10, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 37 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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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. 

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