Why the public needs to see most of Osama bin Laden’s files.
Weekly Standard, by Thomas Joscelyn, January 19, 2017:
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released 98 additional items from Osama bin Laden’s compound today. If the ODNI has its way, then these files will be the last the American people see for some time. The accompanying announcement is titled, “Closing the Book on bin Laden: Intelligence Community Releases Final Abbottabad Documents.” The ODNI says today’s release “marks the end of a two-and-a-half-year effort to declassify several hundred documents recovered” during the Abbottabad raid.
But the total number of files released thus far, including today’s document dump, is just a drop in the bucket compared to what was found in the al Qaeda master’s compound. And if the public and the media care about transparency, then they should push to see more.
As THE WEEKLY STANDARD has reported in the past, more than 1 million documents and files were recovered in Abbottabad. Some of the documents (e.g. blanks, duplicates, scans of publicly available media, etc.) are basically worthless. But many thousands more illuminate how al Qaeda has operated.
On May 8, 2011, Tom Donilon, who was then President Obama’s National Security Adviser, explained that bin Laden’s documents and files would fill a “small college library.” Donilon elaborated further that the recovered intelligence demonstrated Osama bin Laden’s active role. At the time of his death, the al Qaeda founder oversaw a cohesive international network, receiving updates from around the globe on a regular basis.
In 2012, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials “described the complete collection of bin Laden material as the largest cache of terrorism files ever obtained, with about 100 flash drives and DVDs as well as five computer hard drives, piles of paper and a handwritten journal kept by the al-Qaeda chief.”
To date, the ODNI has released or listed just 620 “items” found in bin Laden’s home. Only 314 of these are “declassified material.”
That is an insignificant fraction of the total collection.
President Obama’s White House also released 17 files via West Point’s Combating Terrorism center in 2012. And a handful of additional documents made their way to the public during a terror-related trial in Brooklyn in 2015. But even including those files, the public has still only seen a small number of documents, as compared to the total cache.
Gen. Michael Flynn, who will serve as the National Security Adviser to President Trump, has read and been briefed on some of the bin Laden files. Gen. Flynn also fought to have the documents fully exploited. Last year, Flynn wrote that only a “tiny fraction” had been released to the public. That was before today’s release. But the 98 new items hardly mark an appreciable increase.
Transparency is important for a number of reasons. Consider the ODNI’s own statement on today’s release, and how it provides a remarkably incomplete picture regarding al Qaeda’s decades-long relationship with Iran.
Why would ODNI attempt to portray bin Laden’s views as fixed and negative—”hatred, suspicion”—when documents written by bin Laden himself tell a more nuanced, yet troubling story?
There’s no question that some of bin Laden’s files document the tensions and problems in al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran. Bin Laden worried that members of his family would be tracked by Iranian intelligence. At one point, al Qaeda even kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in order to force a prisoner exchange. Some senior al Qaeda leaders have been held in Iranian custody for years.
But there is much more to the story, including the documents detailing Iran’s longtime collusion with al Qaeda. The ODNI is essentially asking readers to focus on the bad days in al Qaeda’s marriage with Iran, while ignoring the good days.
One previously released document, apparently authored by bin Laden himself, summarized his views on Iran. In a letter dated Oct. 18, 2007, Bin Laden warned one of his subordinates in Iraq not to openly threaten attacks inside Iran. Bin Laden explained why (emphasis added):
You did not consult with us on that serious issue that affects the general welfare of all of us. We expected you would consult with us for these important matters, for as you are aware, Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages.
Bin Laden was pragmatic when it came to dealing with Iran for reasons that are not hard to understand: Iran was the “main artery” for his organization. Why would ODNI attempt to portray bin Laden’s views as fixed and negative—”hatred, suspicion”—when documents written by bin Laden himself so plainly contradict this?
Since July 2011, President Obama’s Treasury and State Departments have repeatedly made it clear that Iran hosts senior al Qaeda leaders. Echoing bin Laden’s letter, the State Department has even described al Qaeda’s network inside Iran as its “core pipeline.”
The Treasury and State Departments publicly accused the Iranian regime of allowing al Qaeda to operate inside Iran in: July 2011, December 2011, February 2012, July 2012, October 2012, May 2013, January 2014, February 2014, April 2014, August 2014, and July 2016.
In addition, during congressional testimony in February 2012, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the relationship as a “marriage of convenience.”
Today’s statement by the ODNI says nothing about this “convenience.”
The bin Laden files are an invaluable resource for checking the U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessments. The CIA’s erroneous assessment of al Qaeda’s strength in Afghanistan is a case in point.
In June 2010, then CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC’s This Week that al Qaeda’s footprint in Afghanistan was “relatively small,” totaling “50 to 100” members, “maybe less.”
A memo written by Osama bin Laden’s chief manager that same month told a different story. In the memo, bin Laden’s henchman explained that al Qaeda was operating in at least eight of Afghanistan’s provinces as of June 2010. In addition, just one al Qaeda “battalion” based in Kunar and Nuristan had 70 members by itself. In other words, just one al Qaeda “battalion” exceeded the lower bound of the CIA’s figures for all of Afghanistan—all by itself. U.S. officials have been forced to concede in recent months that there are far more al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan than previously estimated. If they had accurately assessed bin Laden’s files, then they would have already known that.
Osama bin Laden’s files are a crucial resource to understanding the 9/11 wars, and al Qaeda’s strengths and weaknesses. The American public should be able to see as many of them as possible.