During a terror trial in Brooklyn last month, federal prosecutors entered into evidence several files recovered in Osama bin Laden’s compound. The documents, consisting mainly of letters to and from bin Laden during the last year of his life, gained more and more attention over the weeks that followed. There are simply too many revelations to ignore. And so the documents have been featured in news coverage around the globe, from primetime television in Pakistan to the front page of the New York Times.
The files show that the Pakistani government, including the brother of the current prime minister and Pakistani intelligence “leaders,” sought out negotiations with al Qaeda. Pakistani leaders were willing to cut a deal as long as al Qaeda directed its terror elsewhere. In another episode documented in the letters, al Qaeda successfully orchestrated the kidnapping of an Afghan diplomat, receiving $5 million in ransom. Some of the cash, according to the New York Times, came from CIA funds given to the Afghan government. Al Qaeda continued to explore ways to attack the West in bin Laden’s final year, and even considered plotting attacks from Turkey and Iran. And the files show that al Qaeda has a much more significant presence in Afghanistan than many U.S. officials have claimed.
This is just some of what the new documents reveal. And it stands to reason that there are many more front-page-worthy details in the files that remain classified.
As The Weekly Standard has previously reported, more than one million documents and files were captured during the raid that led to bin Laden’s demise. In May 2012, the Obama administration released just 17 of these files. The trial exhibits released last month bring the total number of documents available to the American public to about two dozen. This is still a paltry sampling. The calls for additional transparency, however, and for the release of more documents are growing louder.
Two weeks after the newly available bin Laden letters became a news story, CNN’s national security analyst, Peter Bergen, weighed in. “It’s long past time for the government to release more of these thousands of captured documents,” Bergen wrote at CNN.com. If anything, Bergen understated the number of files being withheld from the public. The total number, again, exceeds one million.
Ironically, the closer one looks at Bergen’s reporting on the bin Laden files, the stronger the case for transparency becomes. It is obvious the American people cannot take White House officials at their word when they describe the files’ contents. Bergen, of all people, should know this.
Before any documents were made public in May 2012, certain Washington journalists were given preferential access. Bergen was one of them. “At the White House, I was allowed to review a number of those just-declassified, unpublished documents in mid-March 2012,” Bergen writes in his 2012 book, Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad. (In the book’s acknowledgments, Bergen thanks two White House staffers, Ben Rhodes and Jamie Smith, for their help.)
After surveying the evidence he was given access to, Bergen concluded that bin Laden was out of the terror game at the time of his death. Manhunt begins with a prologue entitled “A Comfortable Retirement.” Bin Laden “spent much of his enforced leisure time writing on a variety of themes,” Bergen argued.
Bergen’s prologue concluded by driving home this theme: “It was a comfortable, if confining, retirement for al Qaeda’s leader. He was able to indulge his hobbies of reading and following the news, and of course he continued rigorously to observe the tenets of Islam. He was attended by three of his wives and surrounded by many of the children he loved. For the world’s most wanted fugitive, it was not a bad life. Not bad at all.”
Except this isn’t true. In his piece for CNN.com earlier this month, Bergen espoused precisely the opposite view. “Far from the image of the isolated man in the cave that was prevalent before he was killed, the documents portray bin Laden as a hands-on manager of al Qaeda,” Bergen wrote.
It is impossible for these two conclusions to both be right. Either bin Laden was indulging his hobbies in “retirement,” or he was a “hands-on manager.” Bergen does not alert readers to his dramatic about-face.