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Exploiting Osama Bin Laden’s Files

11:02 AM, Apr 12, 2013 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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According to Brennan, the documents show that al Qaeda’s leaders “struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates” and are “struggling to attract new recruits.” Quoting bin Laden, Brennan said the terror master worried that the “rise of lower leaders who are not as experienced…would lead to the repeat of mistakes.” Bin Laden, Brennan said, confessed to “disaster after disaster” in the seized documents.

Journalists who were given preferential access to the documents by the White House amplified this storyline. CNN’s Peter Bergen has argued that the al Qaeda threat is overhyped, and the al Qaeda affiliates are not a big concern. Bergen has cited the bin Laden documents – or at least those shown to him by the Obama administration – to make his case.

“At the White House,” Bergen writes in his book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, “I was allowed to review a number of those just-declassified, unpublished documents in mid-March 2012.” There is nothing about the 400 intelligence reports issued as a result of the CIA’s initial review of the documents, or the “immediate threats” the U.S. government tracked down, in Bergen’s telling.

Instead, Bergen begins his book with a prologue announcing that bin Laden enjoyed a “comfortable retirement” in Pakistan. “It was to placid environs of Abbottabad half a decade after his great victory on 9/11 that Osama bin Laden decided to retire,” Bergen writes.  Bin Laden “was able to indulge his hobbies of reading and following the news, and of course he continued rigorously to observe the tenets of Islam,” surrounded by three of his wives and “many of the children he loved.” For bin Laden, Bergen says, “it was not a bad life. Not bad at all.”

Like Brennan, Bergen referred to the documents only to bolster his case that al Qaeda was more or less dead and bin Laden was “isolated” when Navy SEALs ended his life.

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius was similarly given special access to “a small sample” of bin Laden’s documents “by a senior Obama administration official.” Ignatius repeated the same talking points, concluding that bin Laden was “a lion in winter.”

The Obama administration also gave West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) just 17 documents to release to the public. The CTC authored a report on this paltry set, concluding that bin Laden “enjoyed little control over either groups affiliated with al Qaeda in name,” such as AQAP or Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), “or so-called fellow travelers,” such as the Pakistani Taliban. 

There are additional examples in this vein. But the summaries of bin Laden’s documents provided by Brennan, Bergen, Ignatius and the CTC all leaned decidedly in one direction: Bin Laden was far from being a menace.

It is not that the examples cited by Brennan and others do not exist in bin Laden’s documents. They do, but they have been spun into a disingenuous narrative. Al Qaeda has suffered some significant blows since September 11, 2001, including the loss of a number of senior leaders and damage to its brand from the indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere. But bin Laden’s organization lives on, is making gains in other ways, and is adapting to its adversaries in the long war.

Thus, the examples cited by Brennan and those whose access to the documents was controlled by the White House tell only part of the story – an incredibly small part of the story.

Compare, again, Brennan’s narrative to what Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee. Clapper says the U.S. Intelligence Community generated “over 400 intelligence reports” from an “initial” review of bin Laden’s files.

Clapper’s testimony is simply not consistent with the idea that bin Laden was in retirement, or a “lion in winter.” As The Weekly Standard has reported, other documents that were not released to the public – and which presumably were not shown to Bergen, Ignatius, and the CTC -- also undermine Brennan’s storyline.

CENTCOM’s “secondary exploitation”

Bin Laden’s files continue to yield valuable intelligence nearly two years after al Qaeda’s CEO was killed. The 400 intelligence reports mentioned by Clapper were the low-hanging fruit.

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