The House Intelligence Committee will be holding a hearing on “Worldwide Threats” today. The most senior U.S. intelligence officials are scheduled to testify.
Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the al Qaeda-led terror network has been rightly seen as the principal threat to America’s national security. But with the killing of Osama bin Laden and other senior terrorist leaders, President Obama and some of his advisors have claimed that al Qaeda is a “shadow of its former self.” They have made this claim even as al Qaeda has undoubtedly gained ground in various jihadist hotspots, including Syria.
One of the best sources for assessing the al Qaeda threat remains behind lock and key: Osama bin Laden’s extensive archive.
As THE WEEKLY STANDARD has previously reported, hundreds of thousands of documents and files were captured during the raid that killed bin Laden. To date, only 17 of these documents and a handful of videos have been released to the public. The 17 documents were released through West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) in May 2012.
The Obama administration says it is committed to transparency. In an April 30, 2012 speech at the Wilson Center, John Brennan, who was then Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser and is now the director of the CIA, announced the release of “some” of bin Laden’s documents to the public. During that same speech, Brennan said that 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.”
“[O]ur democracy depends” upon “transparency,” Brennan said.
Brennan, who will be testifying today, made these claims during a speech titled, “The Efficacy and Ethics of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy.” Transparency, Brennan argued, helps the American public assess the Obama administration’s approach to combating terrorism.
Yet, the administration’s handling of the bin Laden files has been anything but transparent. Releasing just 17 files from a cache the size of a “small college library” (as Obama’s national security adviser Tom Donilon described it) is anything but transparent.
Today’s hearing is a good opportunity for interested congressmen to explore the Obama administration’s handling of bin Laden’s documents. Here are basic questions that could be asked:
(1) How many total files (documents, video, audio, etc.) were recovered in bin Laden’s lair? This total figure should include not only all of the documents authored by bin Laden himself, but also files created by other al Qaeda operatives and, in fact, anyone else. This total also includes any works authored in the West that al Qaeda deemed important enough to comment upon – such as leaked State Department cables.
(2) Why were only 17 documents released to the public? Do the intelligence officials testifying before the committee consider this paltry subset to be significant? Who picked the 17 documents that were released?
(3) Does the administration have any plans to release more documents to the public? If not, why not?
(4) Will the administration share with Congress a complete list of the documents and files recovered (including any descriptions of the documents generated by the intelligence community)? Will the administration give Congress, including members of the intelligence committee, access to the original documents and translations of them? If not, why not?
(5) What do the documents say about al Qaeda’s ties to the Taliban, and role inside Afghanistan? The Guardian has reported that some of the documents recovered in bin Laden’s compound “show a close working relationship between top al Qaeda leaders and Mullah Omar, the overall commander of the Taliban, including frequent discussions of joint operations against NATO forces in Afghanistan, the Afghan government, and targets in Pakistan.” Both Osama bin Laden and his replacement, Ayman al Zawahiri, were involved in coordinating attacks with the Taliban. However, the documents showing tight collusion between the Taliban and al Qaeda were not released to the public. Why?
THE WEEKLY STANDARD has previously detailed how the contents of bin Laden’s documents were spun to paint a politically convenient picture of the threats America faces. The administration has tried to use the documents to advance its claim that al Qaeda is “on the path to defeat.
These basic questions are a good starting point for exploring the true contents of bin Laden’s files. If the administration is right about al Qaeda’s declining fortunes, then it should have no problem releasing the contents of bin Laden’s archive.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.