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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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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.

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