In a speech at the National Defense University on May 23, Barack Obama declared an end to the global war on terror. The threat posed by al Qaeda, its affiliates, and those it inspires can be managed, he said. “As we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. . . . [I]f dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11.”
The president described an al Qaeda so thoroughly enervated that the threat it poses no longer requires a sustained, global campaign dedicated to its elimination. “Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on a path to defeat,” he said. “Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.”
The shift in policy the president announced is risky even if he’s right about the diminished threat posed by al Qaeda. And it’s dangerous if he’s incorrect.
There are many reasons to think he’s wrong, and some of the most compelling are being kept from the American public. They come from al Qaeda itself, in the documents captured during “Neptune Spear,” the operation on May 2, 2011, that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. In addition to loading bin Laden’s bullet-ridden body into the waiting helicopter, the Navy SEALs who participated in the raid brought out with them numerous bags full of valuable intelligence from the compound in Abbottabad. The captured data included computer hard drives, thumb drives, data cards, audio and videotapes, and paper files. In a television interview six days after the raid, the White House’s top national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said the collection could fill a “small college library.”
It’s been two years since that material was captured. To date, the Obama administration has made public just 17 documents. Those documents were released in May 2012, on the first anniversary of the Abbottabad raid—and six months before the presidential election. There has been nothing since, raising concerns among Obama administration critics and defenders alike.
“After two years the public has seen a tiny and insignificant taste of what was in OBL’s hideout,” says Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA and former top Obama adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan. “The U.S. government could safely release far more to help the public and experts better judge the threat al Qaeda and its allies still pose. What we have seen is far too little, far too late.”
A top former U.S. counter-terrorism official agrees. “This is ridiculous,” he says.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the handful of documents released last year painted a picture of al Qaeda consistent with the president’s election-year narrative: The top echelon of al Qaeda central was being decimated, and the survivors were demoralized. The group’s affiliates were disorganized and consumed by internecine power struggles. Bin Laden himself was near-delusional, a sad old man almost entirely detached from the operations of the group he founded, left to write manifesto-length missives to leaders who may or may not have paid him much attention.
The headline of a Washington Post column by David Ignatius, who previewed last year’s release, described bin Laden as a “lion in winter.” The title of the report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center that accompanied the documents was “Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?” The authors of the West Point study repeatedly made clear that they were offering only a glimpse of al Qaeda and bin Laden based on a small sample of documents selected by the government.
“Such a study is fraught with risks,” the report noted,
not least because the academic community is not involved in the process of declassification and is therefore unaware of the larger classified corpus of documents. . . . [W]hen an academic center, such as the CTC, is provided declassified documents to study and analyze before releasing them to the public, its researchers have no part in the selection of documents to be declassified and are privy only to declassified documents. . . . Analyzing the state of al Qaeda on the basis of the [17 declassified] documents is like commenting on the tailoring of a jacket when only a sleeve is available. Although a sleeve cannot substitute for the remaining parts of the jacket, it can still offer important features about the overall jacket: it can indicate its color, its textile design, and most likely the quality of its stitches and lining.