Top U.S. intelligence officials revealed new details about the exploitation of Osama bin Laden’s extensive archive during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday. The officials revealed that at least several hundred intelligence reports have been generated based on an analysis of bin Laden’s files.
California congressman Devin Nunes asked Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper about the files, saying he was “concerned” about the way bin Laden’s library has been handled by the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC).
THE WEEKLY STANDARD has reported that “hundreds of thousands of documents and files” were recovered during the raid that killed bin Laden in early May 2011.
Clapper assured Nunes that the IC has done a good job of analyzing the documents, giving the intelligence bureaucracy “at least a B-plus or A-minus” for its work.
But there were two wrinkles in Clapper’s testimony.
First, Clapper’s description of the intelligence gleaned from the files is not consistent with how John Brennan, now the CIA director, previously characterized bin Laden’s cache.
Clapper explained that in the “immediate aftermath of the raid” a joint task force drawing from multiple intelligence agencies successfully identified the “immediate threats,” or “threat plotting” in bin Laden’s files.
“There were … at least 400, over 400 intelligence reports that were issued in the initial aftermath immediately after the raid,” Clapper said. “I don't know what that number is since then.”
This indicates that Osama bin Laden was still very much the active leader of al Qaeda’s international terrorist network. Comments made by other senior Obama administration officials shortly after bin Laden was killed, as well as the initial round of press reporting on bin Laden’s files, painted the same picture. Al Qaeda’s CEO managed a cohesive terrorist organization at the time of his death.
But that is not how Brennan, who previously served as President Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, portrayed al Qaeda and bin Laden’s role one year after the Abbottabad raid. Brennan and his surrogates portrayed bin Laden as an isolated leader with little to do.
Brennan did not comment on bin Laden’s files during the open session of the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing.
The existence of more than 400 intelligence reports based on the “initial” review of bin Laden’s files belies the claims made by Brennan and the administration’s surrogates.
The second wrinkle came when Clapper revealed that while the CIA has “executive authority,” or control, over the documents, CENTCOM has led the way in combing through them for additional intelligence. Clapper praised the military’s efforts in this regard.
Clapper explained that the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center for Excellence at CENTCOM continues to go through the files “on a very, very detailed basis…almost in an academic research context to read out any further findings…from these documents that might bear on a threat.”
Clapper’s testimony is consistent with what several U.S. intelligence officials previously told THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Although the CIA and the intelligence community’s inter-agency team did an excellent job during the initial exploitation of the documents, senior intelligence managers lost interest in bin Laden’s secrets. The CIA, in particular, showed little interest in continuing to dig into the history of al Qaeda, or how the broader terror network operates, once the “immediate” threats were thought to have been identified.
John Brennan and his allies inside and out of government have led the way in trying to declare al Qaeda all but dead.
During a speech at the Wilson Center on April 30, 2012, Brennan announced the then impending release of just 17 documents from bin Laden’s library. The documents were released by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) a few days later. Brennan cherry-picked from the documents to claim that al Qaeda is “losing badly” and “a shadow of its former self” – a description that President Obama has continued to repeat, even as the organization is undoubtedly gaining ground in jihadist hotspots throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
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.
The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, elaborated on Clapper’s praise for CENTCOM’s ongoing effort during the House Intelligence Committee hearing.
“I don't have the number off the top of my head, but I know that there have been hundreds of additional reports that have been subsequently published that has allowed us to understand what we have, you know, been facing for some time,” Flynn explained.
These “hundreds of additional reports” are in addition to the more than 400 that were initially produced, meaning that at least several hundred intelligence reports have been generated from bin Laden’s files.
Flynn said that these intelligence reports are “being shared” outside of CENTCOM with other U.S. “military organizations around the world,” including Africa Command and the European Command.
A “good reason” to declassify
President Obama and John Brennan have tried to define as narrowly as possible the threat posed by the al Qaeda-led jihadist network. Others within the U.S. Intelligence Community disagree with the way they define the threat.
During his Wilson Center speech, Brennan said that Obama has urged his advisers to be as transparent as possible so that the public can judge the “efficacy and ethics” of America’s counterterrorism strategy.
Releasing only 17 documents from the hundreds of thousands of files recovered during the bin Laden raid is hardly the model of transparency.
DNI Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee that there is “a good reason for us to declassify” more of the bin Laden documents “to the extent that we can,” such that “current operations” are not jeopardized. That bin Laden’s documents are still relevant to ongoing counterterrorism operations goes to show just how phony the Brennan spin was all along.
Clapper added that he has recently had meetings to discuss ways “to make [bin Laden’s files] available more widely for academic research.”
To his credit, Clapper is arguing for more transparency – something that has been sorely lacking when it comes to bin Laden’s secret files.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.