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John Brennan and the Bin Laden Files

Mar 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 25 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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“The documents and files found in Abbottabad showed a close connection between bin Laden and Saeed, right up to May 2011,” Riedel told the Hindustan Times. And that’s not all. Riedel said that the recovered intelligence “suggested a much larger direct al Qaeda role in the planning of the Mumbai attacks than many assumed.”   

This is a bombshell. It changes the public understanding of how al Qaeda operates both inside and out of Pakistan. The Hindustan Times reported Riedel’s comments on April 4, 2012. Yet less than one month later, there was no sign of the Mumbai connection in what the administration released to the public.

The story of bin Laden’s documents is not merely a historical curiosity. The files have a direct bearing on the future of America’s counterterrorism strategy. 

This brings us back to John Brennan, the man President Obama would have lead the CIA. It was Brennan who announced, during his Wilson Center speech last April, the pending release of the 17 bin Laden documents. It was in that same speech that he reiterated President Obama’s promise of more transparency. 

The linchpin of Brennan’s approach to fighting al Qaeda is the use of pinprick drone strikes and special operations raids to take out select al Qaeda members who are thought to threaten the American homeland. Brennan and his fellow administration officials certainly know that al Qaeda’s affiliates are growing in places like Syria, where upwards of 10,000 al Qaeda fighters are on the ground today. But they want to define the threat in such a way that a more robust American military response is not necessary. 

Brennan portrays al Qaeda’s South Asian “core”—itself imprecisely defined—as a threat distinct from al Qaeda’s affiliates. Coincidentally, this is what the administration-approved assessment of the 17 documents suggested. Others should carry out most of the fighting against the affiliates, the administration believes. Only certain al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists should feel the wrath of American drones. 

But if al Qaeda lives on as an extended network, with Ayman al Zawahiri at its helm, then the picture becomes far more complex. Drones cannot contain the growing threat from al Qaeda in places like Syria. Similarly, it took French military forces to stem al Qaeda’s advances in Mali. The administration and its surrogates would have us believe that these are all discrete problems, and America can mainly “lead from behind.”

It is for that reason, among others, that the American public deserves to see bin Laden’s files. To use Brennan’s own words, let the American people “make informed judgments” about the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. Let them see bin Laden’s files.


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