The Final Obama Scandal–59gh.,b26
Closing the book on a deceptive narrative about the al Qaeda threat
Less than 24 hours before the official end of the Obama presidency, while White House staffers were pulling pictures off the walls and cleaning out their desks, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) posted without fanfare another installment of the documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s compound during the May 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The press statement that accompanied the release made an unexpected declaration: This batch of newly released documents would be the last one. “Closing the Book on Bin Laden: Intelligence Community Releases the Final Abbottabad Documents,” the statement was headlined. According to a tally on the ODNI website, this last batch of 49 documents brings the total number released to 571.
For analysts who have paid attention to the Abbottabad documents, the numbers immediately caused alarm. For years, the Obama administration told the American people that the haul from the bin Laden compound was massive and important. In an interview on Meet the Press just days after the raid, Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, said the material could fill “a small college library.” A senior military intelligence official who briefed reporters at the Pentagon on May 7, 2011, said: “As a result of the raid, we’ve acquired the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.” Sources who have described the cache to THE WEEKLY STANDARD over the years have claimed that the number of captured documents, including even extraneous materials and duplicates, totals more than 1 million.
Can it really be the case that this release “closes the book”? The short answer: No, it can’t.
“[Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper and the old administration may want this to be closed, but it’s far from closed,” says Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). “Now the truth will begin to come out. It’s just the beginning.”
The documents have been at the center of an intense, five-year political battle between Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration, and an equally pitched bureaucratic battle between the Central Intelligence Agency and ODNI on one side, and U.S. military intelligence agencies on the other. The Obama administration and the intelligence community leaders who have been loyal to the president argue that the document collection provided valuable intelligence in the days after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but that what remains is unimportant and, in any case, supports the Obama administration’s approach to al Qaeda and jihadist terror over the past eight years. Republicans and military intelligence officials have a different view: Used properly, the document collection can serve as an important tool in understanding al Qaeda and other Islamic radicals—their history, their ideology, their structure, their operations, and even, five years on, their plans—not only for U.S. intelligence officials, but for lawmakers, historians, and the American public.
Based on his conversations with analysts who have worked on the documents, Nunes believes that many of those not yet released will contradict Obama administration claims about al Qaeda, its relationships, and its operations.
In 2014, Nunes fought to include language in the Intelligence Authorization Act requiring the declassification and release of the bin Laden documents. The law mandated the release of all documents in the collection that could be disclosed without hurting U.S. national security. The intelligence community was required to specify any documents deemed too sensitive to release publicly and offer an explanation justifying that decision. Nunes says he has not yet received such an explanation for any of the tens of thousands of documents withheld from the public.
Why do the documents still matter? Over the course of eight years, President Obama and his advisers repeatedly downplayed the jihadist threat. The story of how bin Laden’s documents were mischaracterized and mishandled offers important insights into how the administration pushed a deceptive narrative about al Qaeda and its branches around the globe. The jihadist threat grew—not diminished—over the course of the Obama administration. To this day, America and its allies continue to fight al Qaeda everywhere from West Africa to South Asia.
. Since 2011, al Qaeda has grown rapidly in jihadist hotspots such as Syria, where today the group has 10,000 or more fighters, its largest guerrilla army yet.
When he ran for reelection, he told the American people that al Qaeda was “on the run” and had been “decimated.” His advisers sought to downgrade the nature of the threat to one of “violent extremists” and “lone wolf” attacks. Obama sold his efforts against al Qaeda as something close to a total victory.
“Today, by any measure, core al Qaeda—the organization that hit us on 9/11—is a shadow of its former self,” President Obama claimed on December 6, 2016, during his final counterterrorism speech. “Plots directed from within Afghanistan and Pakistan have been consistently disrupted. Its leadership has been decimated. Dozens of terrorist leaders have been killed. Osama bin Laden is dead.”
But by most measures, al Qaeda is bigger today than ever. The organization and its branches are fighting in insurgencies in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Obama briefly mentioned al Qaeda’s “branches” in some of these countries during his speech, but he left Americans with the impression that al Qaeda has been reduced to a nuisance—if that.
Obama said nothing about al Qaeda’s massive force in Syria. But the U.S. military has reported that U.S. attacks killed upwards of 150 “al Qaeda operatives” in Syria during the first weeks of 2017.
Obama’s public case on his success against al Qaeda centered on what he calls “core al Qaeda,” which neither he nor his advisers ever bothered to define precisely.. Obama was right that “dozens” of other “core” al Qaeda jihadists have been killed in drone strikes and raids during his tenure. But those leaders have been replaced, in some cases by men who have proven even more effective in building the terror group’s global network and guiding its transnational efforts.
How many senior al Qaeda leaders were there at the beginning of his administration, in January 2009? How many are there today? Obama never answered these rudimentary questions—he never provided basic metrics to measure his own claims. But the fact that U.S. military and CIA officials continued to fire missiles at al Qaeda operatives around the globe on a regular basis, at the direction of a president who claimed to have defeated al Qaeda, suggests that Obama understood his rhetoric didn’t match reality.
One explanation for the discrepancy between the number of files released and the overall total comes from the ODNI itself. The statement accompanying the latest release reported that an “interagency review of the classified documents” had been conducted “under the auspices of the White House’s National Security Council staff.” That is, the Obama national security team determined what the American people would or would not see in this release and how the release would be characterized.
Obama’s domestic policy case in 2012 was straightforward. He claimed to have enacted policies that led to a broad economic recovery—slower than he’d hoped, but picking up steam. He boasted that he’d begun to transform the health care industry and would provide better care for all Americans while lowering costs.
On foreign policy, Obama touted two related accomplishments: He had ended the war in Iraq and was wrapping up in Afghanistan. He had al Qaeda “on the path to defeat.” Obama boasted, with good reason, that his administration had been responsible for killing Osama bin Laden. He suggested, without good reason, that because bin Laden was dead, al Qaeda would soon meet the same fate.
His team used carefully selected bin Laden documents to help him make that case. On March 18, 2012, David Ignatius of the Washington Post reported that a “senior Obama administration official” had shown him a “small sample of the thousands of items” captured in bin Laden’s compound. Ignatius claimed the documents showed that bin Laden was “a lion in winter” who “lived in a constricted world, in which he and his associates were hunted so relentlessly by U.S. forces that they had trouble sending the simplest communications.” Bin Laden knew he was “losing,” but was “still looking for the knockout blow,” Ignatius claimed.
John Brennan, who was then Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, delivered a major speech at the Wilson Center in Washington on April 30, 2012. Brennan conceded that “the dangerous threat from al Qaeda has not disappeared.” But he claimed that the “core al Qaeda leadership is a shadow of its former self” and added: “we can look ahead and envision a world in which the al Qaeda core is simply no longer relevant.”
The message was clear: Jihadist groups may be metastasizing around the world, but they weren’t tied to al Qaeda’s self-contained “core,” which was the real threat.
This narrative was fraudulent. Osama bin Laden, in the days and weeks and months before his death, was not only managing al Qaeda’s international operations, he was micromanaging them. Testifying before HPSCI in April 2013, Director of National Intelligence Clapper explained that there were “over 400 intelligence reports that were issued in the initial aftermath immediately after the raid.” These reports, based on bin Laden’s documents, dealt principally with the “immediate threats” or “threat plotting.” Obviously, bin Laden had been far from retired.
Simply put, the White House wanted people to think that al Qaeda’s leaders didn’t maintain a cohesive international network and weren’t very influential. That was flat wrong.
The Obama White House wanted people to believe that al Qaeda’s “core” leadership had little sway outside of South Asia. But in the final months of Obama’s presidency, with the undeniable reality of al Qaeda’s growth and strength, his officials began to tell a different story.
Testifying before the Senate on June 28, 2016, Brett H. McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, discussed al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, al-Nusra Front. “With direct ties to Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor, Nusra is now al Qaeda’s largest formal affiliate in history,” McGurk said.
Obama cited a letter from bin Laden to bolster his case. Obama quoted the letter in a way that suggested the al Qaeda leader had been concerned and defeated. Obama read these words from bin Laden: “We could lose the reserves to enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.”
Bin Laden did write those words. They came at the end of two paragraphs dealing with his strategy for fighting the Americans. But the full passage actually undermined Obama’s case. The “reserves” bin Laden described were a force in addition to those actively engaged in fighting Americans. And the point of bin Laden’s argument about the reserves was to make clear those “reserves” had been moved out of the drones’ primary kill box, which was in northern Pakistan at the time. The full passage reads:
The Ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] should put forward some, but enough, forces to fight America. The Ummah must keep some of its forces on reserve. This will be in the Ummah’s best interests. The Ummah will use the reserve in the future, but during the appropriate time.
In the meanwhile, we do not want to send the reserves to the front line, especially in areas where the enemy only uses air strikes to attack our forces. So, the reserves will not, for the most part, be effective in such conflicts. Basically, we could lose the reserves to enemy’s air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.
So bin Laden did worry about losing his “reserves,” but he took steps to make sure they did not perish. Other documents make it clear that bin Laden ordered many of his subordinates to relocate to safe havens in Afghanistan and elsewhere, where they would be out of the drones’ reach.
bin Laden had written: “We still have a powerful force which we can organize and prepare for deployment.”
The cherrypicking was pervasive. In some releases, the ODNI and the White House had the full correspondence between bin Laden and his lieutenants but inexplicably released only part of it. One letter written by bin Laden, dated August 7, 2010, was included in the initial May 2012 release of documents. It concerned al Qaeda’s relationship with al Shabaab, the al Qaeda branch in Somalia. In that letter, bin Laden wrote that he wanted al Shabaab to keep its affiliation with al Qaeda secret because he was concerned that announcing a formal relationship might attract unwanted attention from the West or could hurt fundraising in the Gulf.
Some analysts, including those at West Point’s counterterrorism center, misread this letter as an indication that al Shabaab and al Qaeda did not have a formal relationship. This was incorrect—a fact that would have been obvious had the ODNI and the White House released the entire set of correspondence.Why would the White House and ODNI release an attachment to a letter and not the letter itself? That’s unclear. But in both the attachment and the longer letter, bin Laden was acknowledging the formal relationship—a fact that cut against the administration’s claim that bin Laden was isolated and uninvolved in managing al Qaeda’s branches.
It’s obvious why the White House and ODNI withheld some other documents. According to sources familiar with the document release in May 2012, the White House deliberately withheld files showing the extraordinarily close ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban. At the time, the administration was pushing for “peace” talks with the Taliban, on the premise that the Taliban was more moderate than al Qaeda and might be encouraged to play a positive role in the future of Afghanistan. The main goal of the nascent negotiations was to persuade the Taliban to renounce its longtime alliance with al Qaeda. But the documents collected in the Abbottabad raid included many that clearly showed the intimacy of the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship (there were individuals with leadership roles in both organizations.
In her book Hard Choices, Clinton says that she and her team were encouraged that a deal could be struck after Tayyab Agha, a senior aide to Taliban founder Mullah Omar, agreed to meet. They found him straightforward and gave him the nickname “A-Rod,” like the baseball player Alex Rodriguez. The Taliban was mainly interested in freeing five of its top commanders from Guantánamo. Clinton writes that she proposed trading the senior Taliban figures for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the accused deserter who was then being held by the Taliban-al Qaeda axis. The talks ultimately accomplished nothing in America’s interest. The Taliban is on the rise inside Afghanistan today, after refusing to lay down its arms. The Clinton-approved talks did pave the way for the controversial swap of the “Taliban Five” for Bergdahl. But that’s it.
. Some of the memos reveal that Agha, the man who was supposedly going to help end the Taliban’s alliance with al Qaeda, was directly communicating with senior al Qaeda leaders in 2010 and 2011, even as he was the Obama administration’s main point of contact for negotiations with the Taliban. There is no hint of tension between the Taliban and al Qaeda in the documents, which only saw the light of day thanks not to the Obama White House but to that 2015 terrorism trial in Brooklyn.
That same letter from Rahman to bin Laden describes al Qaeda’s “very strong military activity” inside Afghanistan, including the group’s presence in at least eight different provinces. Rahman explained that bin Laden’s forces were closely cooperating with Siraj Haqqani, who is currently one of the Taliban’s top two deputy leaders and was already a key figure in the organization at the time.
Appearing on ABC’s This Week, then-CIA director Leon Panetta claimed that al Qaeda’s presence in the country was “relatively small” and “at most . . . 50 to 100” fighters.. Yet in his letter, Rahman reported the strength of one of al Qaeda’s “battalions” in Afghanistan as 70 fighters—more in just that one unit, in just one province, than the low-end of the CIA’s range for the entire country. And the group was fighting in several provinces at the time. Think about that: The administration chose to use its erroneous assessment in public discussions of al Qaeda for nearly six years, even though primary source evidence from bin Laden’s own compound directly refuted it.
The Taliban never did abandon al Qaeda.
If many Americans have forgotten about Afghanistan, following the lead of their president, al Qaeda has not. And now the Trump administration inherits an Afghanistan with an entrenched and emboldened al Qaeda, still working side by side with the Taliban.
Bin Laden set forth a plan for “scholars” and others to warn Sunnis throughout the Muslim world of the Shiite Iranian threat. There is no question that this particular missive from bin Laden is filled with invective toward the Iranians.
As you are aware, Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages.
“There is an agreement between the Iranian government and al Qaeda to allow this network to operate. There’s no dispute in the intelligence community on this.” A Treasury official added: “This network serves as the core pipeline through which al Qaeda moves money, facilitators, and operatives. Without this network, al Qaeda’s ability to recruit and collect funds would be severely damaged.”
Why would the White House and ODNI claim that bin Laden’s views of Iran were characterized by “hatred” and “suspicion” without mentioning that bin Laden nonetheless viewed Iran as the most important conduit for money, manpower, and supplies to keep al Qaeda alive? We can only speculate that the administration’s efforts to build support for and defend its controversial nuclear deal with Iran may well have dictated that decision.
. We asked specifically about the October 2007 letter in which bin Laden called Iran the “main artery” for al Qaeda. The ODNI spokesman responded: Bin Laden “had a delicate dance with Iran. He maintained a fierce, private hatred of Shia Muslims. But he didn’t publicly criticize Iran since he had family members in hiding there.”
We responded by asking what might seem an obvious follow-up: “Doesn’t the very fact that he had family members hiding there—with the blessing and sometimes active protection of the Iranian regime—demonstrate rather clearly that the Iran-UBL/AQ relationship was also mutually beneficial and at times even friendly?”
The passage-way you cite is not the same thing as collusion with the Iranian government. That is, AQ had the ability to transit the country; but it wasn’t done in any sort of partnership with the Iranian government.
This, too, was incorrect. It’s not only the case that the Iranian regime knew that al Qaeda operatives were working in Iran, there was an agreement that explicitly permitted it. And it’s not only the case that the al Qaeda operatives had the ability to transit Iran, the Iranian regime facilitated that transit. The coordination with Iran came as a result of a secret agreement and included active assistance to al Qaeda members.
. Beginning in 2011, the Treasury Department, responsible for cutting off funds to terrorists and those who support them, issued a series of designations targeting senior al Qaeda personnel inside Iran. The designations were based, in part, on the intelligence found in bin Laden’s Abbottabad home. In the Treasury designations, the U.S. government speaks of “an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government” that allowed senior al Qaeda officials “to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials.” Another Treasury designation says that Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security “facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.” Another Treasury designation reported that “Iran continues to allow al Qaeda to operate a core pipeline that moves al Qaeda money and fighters through Iran to support al Qaeda activities in South Asia.”
In October 2012, Treasury revealed for the first time the terms of the “agreement between al-Qa’ida and the Iranian government.” Al Qaeda “must refrain from conducting any operations within Iranian territory and recruiting operatives inside Iran while keeping Iranian authorities informed of their activities,” Treasury explained. “In return, the Government of Iran gave the Iran-based al-Qa’ida network freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.” If al Qaeda members “violate these terms” then they can be detained; otherwise they have the ability to roam free.
Al Qaeda operates inside Iran to this day. In July 2016, the Treasury Department designated three al Qaeda leaders who are stationed inside Iran. One of them, known as Abu Hamza al Khalidi, is al Qaeda’s “Military Commission Chief,” the equivalent of the group’s defense minister. He is described in a bin Laden memo as part of a “new generation” of leadership.
bin Laden’s successors have more fighters answering to them today than ever before.
President Obama attempted to unilaterally declare an end to the 9/11 wars. To justify their counterterrorism strategy, Obama and his advisers saw the enemy they wanted to see, not the one they were actually fighting. They routinely ignored the first rule of warfare: The enemy gets a vote. There’s no telling how many current intelligence assessments have Obama’s misunderstandings baked into them. The Trump administration will have to correct and replace any Obama-style analyses that outlive his presidency.
There is no better place to start than by releasing Osama bin Laden’s files. Al Qaeda is a more complex and sophisticated adversary than Obama believed. The American public deserves to know how the man who launched the 9/11 wars really saw the world.
Stephen F. Hayes is editor in chief of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
weekly std, stephen hayes, thomas joscelyn, devin nunes, thomas donilon, david ignatius, wash post,peter bergen, cnn, brett mcgurk, lt gen doug lute,tayyab agha, siraj haqqani, davis