After four years of fierce internecine battles and inexplicable delays, the intelligence community last week started the process of releasing more documents captured in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) posted on its website several dozen documents of uneven importance, bringing the total number of bin Laden documents available to the public to slightly more than 100.
A statement from the office of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, reports that an interagency team, working with the White House, will examine the remaining documents with the goal of releasing those “whose publication will not hurt ongoing operations against al Qaeda or their affiliates.” The statement further promises that the “intelligence community will be reviewing hundreds more documents in the near future for possible release.”
So it’s a start. But it’s not much of one.
The talk of “hundreds” of additional documents is curious. In the days after the raid, Obama administration officials touted the size and importance of the intelligence haul. Tom Donilon, who was then President Obama’s national security adviser, said that the collection was the equivalent of a “small college library.” And a Pentagon spokesman said that the captured documents represented the largest single collection of materials from a senior terrorist in U.S. history.
According to Lt. Gen. (retired) Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which participated in the exploitation of the files, the bin Laden collection totals more than 1 million documents. Jeffrey Anchukaitis, a spokesman for the DNI, disputes Flynn’s claim of a million documents. “That is not correct,” he says. But the DNI did not offer its own assessment of the size of the cache, and several current and former intelligence officials who spoke to us confirmed Flynn’s estimate.
While the announcement of the release touted the disclosures as a triumph of transparency, the reality is that the American public today can see only an infinitesimal fraction of the document cache. The same is true for members of Congress, including those on the intelligence oversight committees.
If the quantity of documents is inadequate, the quality is little better. Five intelligence sources familiar with the documents tell The Weekly Standard that the broader collection includes explosive documents about al Qaeda’s relationship with the regime in Iran and its dealings with Pakistan’s intelligence services. In one of the files, bin Laden goes into great detail about al Qaeda’s arrangement with Iran—an arrangement the Obama administration itself has cited in designations of terrorists on both sides of the relationship. That relationship spans more than two decades, and while there are signs in the documents of antagonism between the two, it’s clear their disputes did not preclude cooperation. Another document in the possession of the U.S. government describes the support al Qaeda received from the Iranian regime in the years before the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 Commission highlighted Iran’s support for al Qaeda and noted that several hijackers traveled through Iran on their way to participate in the attacks. These documents were not part of last week’s release and have not been made available to lawmakers, though they would have significant bearing on how the American public and its representatives view the current nuclear negotiations with the Iranian regime.
Still, some of the documents released thus far do provide some insight into the evolution of al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement, as well as the way in which the Obama administration dealt with those challenges.
“Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf,” released last week, lists an eclectic assortment of reading materials found at the compound. The al Qaeda master was interested in everything from 9/11 conspiracy theories (he must have been puzzled by the claim that the hijackings were an inside job) to rational assessments of the terrorist threat produced by think tank analysts. The media are especially interested in the publications and authors bin Laden was reading—and those he wasn’t. But there is a problem with the administration’s version of transparency even in this regard.
According to multiple current and former U.S. intelligence officials, bin Laden made copious notes in the margins of the publications he read. The ODNI, however, did not release copies of the manuscripts and papers bin Laden had his couriers deliver to him. It released a partial catalogue of bin Laden’s library. The most interesting aspect of “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf”—what bin Laden thought of the materials he read—remains classified.