June 3, 2015 | The Weekly Standard

Slow Release

A few more documents from the bin Laden raid are finally revealed. They do not flatter the judgment of the Obama administration.

Co-written by Stephen F. Hayes 

After four years of fierce internecine battles and inexplicable delays, the intelligence community last week started the process of releasing more documents captured in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) posted on its website several dozen documents of uneven importance, bringing the total number of bin Laden documents available to the public to slightly more than 100.

A statement from the office of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, reports that an interagency team, working with the White House, will examine the remaining documents with the goal of releasing those “whose publication will not hurt ongoing operations against al Qaeda or their affiliates.” The statement further promises that the “intelligence community will be reviewing hundreds more documents in the near future for possible release.”

So it’s a start. But it’s not much of one.

The talk of “hundreds” of additional documents is curious. In the days after the raid, Obama administration officials touted the size and importance of the intelligence haul. Tom Donilon, who was then President Obama’s national security adviser, said that the collection was the equivalent of a “small college library.” And a Pentagon spokesman said that the captured documents represented the largest single collection of materials from a senior terrorist in U.S. history.

According to Lt. Gen. (retired) Michael Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, which participated in the exploitation of the files, the bin Laden collection totals more than 1 million documents. Jeffrey Anchukaitis, a spokesman for the DNI, disputes Flynn’s claim of a million documents. “That is not correct,” he says. But the DNI did not offer its own assessment of the size of the cache, and several current and former intelligence officials who spoke to us confirmed Flynn’s estimate.

While the announcement of the release touted the disclosures as a triumph of transparency, the reality is that the American public today can see only an infinitesimal fraction of the document cache. The same is true for members of Congress, including those on the intelligence oversight committees.

If the quantity of documents is inadequate, the quality is little better. Five intelligence sources familiar with the documents tell The Weekly Standard that the broader collection includes explosive documents about al Qaeda’s relationship with the regime in Iran and its dealings with Pakistan’s intelligence services. In one of the files, bin Laden goes into great detail about al Qaeda’s arrangement with Iran—an arrangement the Obama administration itself has cited in designations of terrorists on both sides of the relationship. That relationship spans more than two decades, and while there are signs in the documents of antagonism between the two, it’s clear their disputes did not preclude cooperation. Another document in the possession of the U.S. government describes the support al Qaeda received from the Iranian regime in the years before the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 Commission highlighted Iran’s support for al Qaeda and noted that several hijackers traveled through Iran on their way to participate in the attacks. These documents were not part of last week’s release and have not been made available to lawmakers, though they would have significant bearing on how the American public and its representatives view the current nuclear negotiations with the Iranian regime.

Still, some of the documents released thus far do provide some insight into the evolution of al Qaeda and the global jihadist movement, as well as the way in which the Obama administration dealt with those challenges. 

“Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf,” released last week, lists an eclectic assortment of reading materials found at the compound. The al Qaeda master was interested in everything from 9/11 conspiracy theories (he must have been puzzled by the claim that the hijackings were an inside job) to rational assessments of the terrorist threat produced by think tank analysts. The media are especially interested in the publications and authors bin Laden was reading—and those he wasn’t. But there is a problem with the administration’s version of transparency even in this regard.

According to multiple current and former U.S. intelligence officials, bin Laden made copious notes in the margins of the publications he read. The ODNI, however, did not release copies of the manuscripts and papers bin Laden had his couriers deliver to him. It released a partial catalogue of bin Laden’s library. The most interesting aspect of “Bin Ladin’s Bookshelf”—what bin Laden thought of the materials he read—remains classified.

The ODNI’s list also lacks any reference to the intelligence reports leaked by the anti-American activists at WikiLeaks. Prosecutors introduced evidence related to bin Laden’s reading of the WikiLeaks files at Army Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial. The Associated Press reported in 2013 that authorities produced evidence showing bin Laden had “asked for and received from an associate the Afghanistan battlefield reports that WikiLeaks published.” Indeed, a letter written by bin Laden on August 7, 2010, contains his order “to download the files that were leaked out of the Pentagon in regards to Afghanistan and Pakistan so that they can be translated and studied because it contains information about the enemy’s policies in the region.” Bin Laden added, “The Defense Secretary mentioned that these documents were leaked and that they would affect the war negatively.” Bin Laden’s versions of the WikiLeaks files are not even listed in the ODNI’s “bookshelf.”

The most valuable documents released in the past week are some of al Qaeda’s management files, especially bin Laden’s correspondence during the last year of his life with his top manager, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was killed in an August 2011 drone strike. These files, more than the others, led the CIA to radically alter its view of how al Qaeda works. Prior to the Abbottabad raid, the agency assumed bin Laden had given up day-to-day operational control of al Qaeda’s global network. It was widely believed at the agency that bin Laden was merely an ideological figurehead at the time of his death, something the Obama reelection campaign used to suggest the deterioration of al Qaeda more broadly and the attenuation of the jihadist threat. The management files tell precisely the opposite story. Bin Laden was obsessed with details, answering queries from his subordinates around the globe.

The CIA and the Obama administration misjudged al Qaeda in another way as well. They believed the Arab Spring would sound the death knell for al Qaeda’s ideology, because the uprisings that began in early 2011 were largely peaceful, while al Qaeda had long argued that political change in the Muslim-majority world was only possible through violent jihad. The bin Laden files show that al Qaeda correctly believed the opposite—that the turmoil sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa would be a boon for its operations. The security vacuums caused by the fall of dictators meant that the jihadists now had the room to operate and spread their ideas with a freedom they had never before enjoyed.

“[O]ur duty at this stage is to pay attention to the call among Muslims and win over supporters and spread the correct understanding,” bin Laden wrote just days before his death, in a letter dated April 26, 2011. Bin Laden believed “the current conditions [had] brought on unprecedented opportunities” for the jihadists. Bin Laden and Rahman discussed sending senior al Qaeda veterans to their home countries, where they could take advantage of the newly permissive environment. Senior al Qaeda operatives were dispatched to Libya and elsewhere.

One of the great mysteries of the bin Laden raid on May 2, 2011, concerns the extent of al Qaeda’s support network in Pakistan. Even before then, there was a widespread suspicion that senior or midlevel officials in the Pakistani intelligence service knew bin Laden’s whereabouts. The files released thus far do not lend credence, at all, to the highly conspiratorial story by Seymour Hersh recently published in the London Review of Books. Contrary to being a “prisoner” of the Pakistani establishment, as Hersh’s sources claim, bin Laden and al Qaeda were actively involved in the insurgency being waged against the army in northern Pakistan.

The Pakistani intelligence service even reached out to al Qaeda to negotiate a truce. In mid-July 2010, Rahman explained that the “Pakistani enemy has been corresponding with us” and the Pakistani Taliban “for a very short time.” Rahman continued, “We received a messenger .  .  . bringing us a letter from the [Pakistani] Intelligence leaders including Shuja’ Shah, and others.” (Shuja’ Shah may be Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the head of Pakistani intelligence at the time.) “They said they wanted to talk to us, to al Qaeda. We gave them the same message, nothing more.” The Pakistanis arranged the contacts through jihadists who were both sponsored by the Pakistani state and allies of al Qaeda. A former senior Pakistani intelligence official, Hamid Gul, also helped broker the talks.

In a letter to Rahman dated August 7, 2010, bin Laden blessed the ongoing negotiations. “Regarding the ceasefire with the Pakistani government, the continuation of the negotiations in the fashion that you described is in the interest of the Mujahidin at this time,” bin Laden wrote.

It does not appear that a ceasefire was agreed upon. But the documents do not fully exonerate the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. At a minimum, the files show that senior Pakistani intelligence officials knew how to get in touch with bin Laden’s lieutenants. This implies, but does not prove, that they knew al Qaeda’s leaders were nearby. Several U.S. intelligence officials say the files that remain classified contain even more explosive details.

The limited document release also sheds light on the Obama administration’s misguided approach to the Afghan Taliban. In 2010 and 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for negotiations with senior Taliban leaders. Clinton devotes an entire chapter to the episode in her book Hard Choices. But some of the recently declassified files raise new questions about the wisdom of that diplomatic effort.

As Clinton writes, the State Department’s negotiations hinged on the idea that Mullah Omar’s personal representative, Syed Tayyab Agha, could potentially agree to a peace deal that would lead the Taliban to sever its longstanding relationship with al Qaeda. The State Department was so hopeful Agha could open the door to a diplomatic breakthrough that Clinton’s team nicknamed him “A-Rod,” after the New York Yankees baseball player. The negotiations ultimately led to no tangible benefits for the United States, but did pave the way for the Obama administration’s controversial decision to swap five senior Taliban leaders held at Guantánamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is accused of deserting his fellow soldiers.

Interestingly, the Abbottabad letters show that Agha continued to communicate with bin Laden even as Foggy Bottom was trying to convince him to break ties with al Qaeda. There is no evidence of tension between Agha and his al Qaeda comrades in the few letters made available to the public.

Al Qaeda general manager Atiyah Abd al-Rahman explained to bin Laden that he was communicating with Agha in a letter dated June 19, 2010. Agha is described as the “friend of Amir Al Mo’mineen,” a title meaning “Emir of the Faithful,” which is how al Qaeda refers to Mullah Omar.

“Attached is a letter from Tayyab Agha, the friend of Amir Al Mo’mineen, and we are in contact with him, thanks to Allah,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden. Agha’s letter, Rahman added, “seems to be a reply to another, older letter from [Ayman al Zawahiri] that we sent to them maybe a year ago.” Rahman summarized the contents of Agha’s letter: “It includes a warning, reminder and discussion about: Iran, UAE and some expressions that they use.” The last part, mentioning “some expressions” used by the Taliban, is cryptic, but may be a reference to the Taliban’s public rhetoric.

In early April 2011, just weeks before bin Laden’s death, Rahman said he was going to forward new letters from Agha to his boss. “I will also include two letters from Tayyab Agha along with my responses,” Rahman wrote to bin Laden.

What do Agha’s letters say? Did he tell Rahman and bin Laden about his meetings with Clinton’s representatives? We do not know. While the missives are mentioned as attachments to memos sent to bin Laden, Agha’s letters haven’t been made public. Why not? Again, we do not know. This is one of many instances in which the documents released by the administration tell us only part of the story.

We do know Clinton’s decision to negotiate with Agha was controversial within the Obama administration. Clinton explains the behind-the-scenes debate in Hard Choices.

In 2009, President Obama ordered a strategy review for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The assessment was conducted by Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA who served as a campaign adviser to Obama in 2008. The review concluded that negotiations with senior Taliban leaders would not work because they are “extremists who could never be reconciled with the government in Kabul,” Clinton writes. Riedel’s strategy review left the door open for “bottom-up” talks, which would focus on peeling off individual Taliban commanders and fighters who were not ideological hardliners. But Riedel’s review found that “top-down” talks were bound to fail, because there was no evidence senior Taliban leaders would compromise. Clinton explains this distinction at length in Hard Choices, but she gave her top deputy on the issue, Richard Holbrooke, the go-ahead to proceed with the “top-down” negotiations anyway. Clinton admits that “some of our colleagues at the Pentagon, CIA, and White House were reluctant” to engage in the talks.

But talk they did. Clinton’s emissaries met with Agha several times in 2010 and 2011. Clinton even softened the State Department’s negotiating position to make sure the talks could move forward. Initially, Clinton and the administration insisted that the Taliban lay down its arms, break with al Qaeda, and respect the Afghan constitution before any negotiations took place. But Clinton decided to drop these “preconditions” and turn them into “necessary outcomes” of the talks instead. Clinton made this concession in a speech she delivered in February 2011. In Hard Choices, she euphemistically calls this a “nuanced change” that would “clear the way for direct talks.” In reality, of course, it was a major concession—the Taliban, and Agha, no longer had to renounce al Qaeda before talking with Clinton’s State Department.

Clinton agreed to additional measures in service of pushing the talks forward. “As a first step,” she writes in Hard Choices, “we agreed to begin working with the United Nations to remove a few key Taliban members from the terrorist sanctions list, which imposed a travel ban.” The Taliban leaders couldn’t travel abroad to take part in the negotiations without fear of arrest. So the State Department had them taken off the U.N. terrorist list. Clinton defends this move in Hard Choices. “To understand our strategy, it was important for Americans to be clear about the difference between the al Qaeda terrorists, who attacked us on 9/11, and the Taliban, who were Afghan extremists waging an insurgency against the government in Kabul.” But this ignores the fact that al Qaeda itself has invested much of its resources in the Afghan insurgency, fighting alongside the Taliban since the 1990s and enjoying its protection during the period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001. In a declassified letter written in June 2010, bin Laden’s lieutenant, Rahman, explained that al Qaeda had “very strong military activity” in Afghanistan and was closely cooperating with other insurgency groups. This is part of the reason the Taliban has been unwilling to forswear al Qaeda.

Just days after the Abbottabad raid, the State Department continued to reach out to Agha. Clinton writes that she had her representative, an official named Frank Ruggiero, “pass along a direct message from me” to Agha. This “was the time for the Taliban to break from al Qaeda once and for all, save themselves, and make peace,” Clinton let Agha know through Ruggiero. Clinton claims Agha “did not seem distressed about losing bin Laden” and “he remained interested in negotiating with us.” Clinton seems to take the absence of distress as a good sign, a further confirmation of the separation between al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. But her interpretation of those events is less an indication that Agha was actually untroubled by bin Laden’s death than it is evidence of confirmation bias—Clinton seeing what she wants to see. After all, there is no reason to believe that if Agha had been distressed about bin Laden’s demise he would have shared his anguish with the Americans who were responsible for it.

In any case, the deal that Clinton imagined with the Taliban never happened. There is also no indication in Hard Choices that just weeks before Ruggiero delivered Secretary Clinton’s message to Agha, Rahman had promised to forward Agha’s letters to bin Laden.

There are additional indications of the close relationship between al Qaeda and the Taliban in the declassified files. In May 2010, a U.S. drone strike killed Rahman’s predecessor as bin Laden’s right-hand man, Shaykh Abu Yazid al Mustafa. The Taliban honored Mustafa as a hero. “In the name of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, we offer our condolences to our brothers the mujahidin of al Qaeda and to the Islamic Nation in general for the loss of this heroic fighter,” one of the files recovered in bin Laden’s compound reads. Another newly released file recounts the lessons al Qaeda learned from the fall of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan in 2001. The third bullet point in the document mentions the “bombing of the Tayyab Agha house in Qandahar after its satellite communications” were presumably intercepted. Fortunately, from al Qaeda’s perspective, “the brothers were rescued with Allah’s grace.”

While the Taliban did not break, and has not broken, with their “brothers” in al Qaeda, as Clinton hoped, the State Department’s talks did result in some benefits for Mullah Omar’s men. It was during the Clinton-approved talks that the Taliban raised the possibility of getting its five most-senior leaders in U.S. custody released from Guantánamo.

“The Taliban’s top concern seemed to be the fate of its fighters being held at Guantánamo Bay and other prisons,” Clinton writes in Hard Choices. “In every discussion about prisoners, we demanded the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who had been captured in June 2009. There would not be any agreement about prisoners without the sergeant coming home.”

The Taliban Five, all senior Taliban figures with ties to al Qaeda, were exchanged for Bergdahl in 2014, after Clinton had left office. When the deal was finalized, Clinton’s people reached out to the press to say she had been “skeptical” of the swap and might not have gone through with it. It was an odd claim, since according to Clinton’s own book, the exchange was proposed during the State Department’s talks with Agha—or “A-Rod.” A final irony: These Taliban leaders, some of whom led al Qaeda fighters in battles against the Northern Alliance shortly before the 9/11 attacks, were themselves evidence of the unbreakable bonds between senior Taliban leaders and al Qaeda.

It's been more than four years since the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It should be unacceptable that the Obama administration has released some hundred files out of a million in its possession. The notion that the intelligence community, working with the Obama White House, would release only “hundreds” more is indefensible and ought to be a source of outrage from Republicans and any Democrats who care about national security.

Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been pushing for the intelligence community to declassify and release more. Nunes included that requirement in last year’s intelligence authorization bill, which is the reason we’re seeing more documents today. But too many Republicans have allowed the administration to withhold documents crucial to understanding the threats we face as a country. The time to force these documents into the public sphere is now, while the information can shape the way our policymakers address the threats from al Qaeda and its allies.

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjoscelyn

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.


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