By Adam O’Neal – February 20, 2014
When Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound in May 2011, they found — in addition to the terrorist’s immediate family and an extensive pornography collection — hundreds of thousands of documents with sensitive information about al-Qaeda and its global operations.
Nearly three years later, the vast majority of the intelligence cache remains classified, and some terrorism experts maintain that withholding the documents from the public is unnecessary and counterproductive.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Thomas Joscelyn told RealClearPolitics that “the only way we could really understand the full scope of what al-Qaeda is, what we’ve been facing since 9/11, is to have as many of the files released to the public as possible.”
Confusion about the material and bin Laden ensued in the wake of the raid. Not long after it took place, then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon described the collection as the size “of a small college library” and “the largest cache of intelligence derived from the scene of any single terrorist.” He also suggested that bin Laden was still involved in al-Qaeda’s strategic, operational, and propaganda efforts.
But a year later, the Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan said the documents showed that bin Laden was isolated and ineffective. And then in 2013, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper testified that over 400 intelligence reports were issued immediately after the raid, signifying that bin Laden still played an important role in the organization (or at least was privy to a significant number of its operations).
The administration released nearly 200 pages of the cache, mostly letters, in 2012. While those documents give some insight into bin Laden’s thoughts about al-Qaeda affiliates, the Arab Spring, and other topics, they aren’t necessarily a representative sample of the collection. Experts say that releasing the vast majority of the documents would clear up previous discrepancies in the narrative about bin Laden’s importance.
The Obama administration has cited national security for not releasing more of the materials. But security experts interviewed for this article found that explanation puzzling. Because the source of the documents and methods by which they were retrieved are already well known, there does not appear to be a compelling national security imperative to withhold most of them. And similar document collections — such as the Sinjar Records about foreign al-Qaeda fighters in Iraq — have been released to the public.
Joscelyn — while cautioning that he did not know the government’s motivation for withholding the documents — suggested that their release could undermine the administration’s conflicting messages about al-Qaeda’s strength and bin Laden’s involvement.
But the benefits of releasing the documents go beyond improving historical understanding, he asserts. Although some are quite dated — one of the released letters was written in September 2006 — they can still provide useful information to terrorism analysts. “Historical data feeds our understanding of the current threat environment,” Joscelyn explained. “Looking to the not-so-distant past can tell us how things function today.”
Bruce Riedel, director of The Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, concurred. “The more open we make al-Qaeda, the better we and our allies can understand it and see its strengths and weaknesses.” He added that, for example, whoever bin Laden corresponded with “tells a lot about connections between al-Qaeda and other entities in Pakistan and further afield.”
Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, asserted that releasing the material could help expose the “hollowness of [al-Qaeda’s] ideology and the cynicism of its leadership.”
“We’re always saying this is a war of ideas,” Hoffman added. “And here we’ve got potential access to this reservoir of information that could prove to be extraordinarily useful in undermining and further tarnishing al-Qaeda’s image.”
“The actual policies for combating terrorism should be debated in the public sphere to get an answer that we’re most comfortable with,” said Joscelyn. “The only way to have that debate is to have as much information as possible available to the public.”
Although the Obama administration hasn’t released anything since 2012, some interested parties hold out hope that more will eventually be declassified. While Riedel said he hadn’t seen any hints that a release is coming, Joscelyn is more optimistic. “I think there is a good chance that additional documents will be released,” he predicted. “The question is how many.”
Hoffman speculated that the government may be undertaking a systematic study of the documents before they are released, though he emphasized that he isn’t aware of any such effort. “I certainly recognize that there are compelling classification issues, but I have trouble believing that only 17 documents can be released. … To me it’s incomprehensible.”