Did Obama Waste the Bin Laden Intelligence Trove?

by Patrick Brennan

In the latest issue of The Weekly Standard, Steve Hayes has an important piece looking at what happened to the reams of intelligence acquired in the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The intelligence included “10 hard drives, nearly 100 thumb drives, and a dozen cell phones — along with data cards, DVDs, audiotapes, magazines, newspapers, [and] paper files.” A week after the raid, a Pentagon official called it “the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.”

But Hayes’s reporting reveals that this treasure didn’t quite yield the dividends you’d expect. Here’s how he summarizes it:

In all, the U.S. government would have access to more than a million documents detailing al Qaeda’s funding, training, personnel, and future plans. The raid promised to be a turning point in America’s war on terror, not only because it eliminated al Qaeda’s leader, but also because the materials taken from his compound had great intelligence value. Analysts and policymakers would no longer need to depend on the inherently incomplete picture that had emerged from the piecing together of disparate threads of intelligence—collected via methods with varying records of success and from sources of uneven reliability. The bin Laden documents were primary source material, providing unmediated access to the thinking of al Qaeda leaders expressed in their own words. 

A comprehensive and systematic examination of those documents could give U.S. intelligence officials—and eventually the American public—a better understanding of al Qaeda’s leadership, its affiliates, its recruitment efforts, its methods of communication; a better understanding, that is, of the enemy America has fought for over a decade now, at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives. 

Incredibly, such a comprehensive study—a thorough “document exploitation,” in the parlance of the intelligence community—never took place. The Weekly Standard has spoken to more than two dozen individuals with knowledge of the U.S. government’s handling of the bin Laden documents. And on that, there is widespread agreement.

“They haven’t done anything close to a full exploitation,” says Derek Harvey, a former senior intelligence analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and ex-director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). 

A couple things went wrong: For one, the Obama administration seems to have tailored the limited amount of documents it made public to reinforce a particular narrative crucial to its political interests — that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which came to be known as “core al-Qaeda,” had largely been defeated. A report issued by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center around the anniversary of the raid in 2012, for instance, emphasized that bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network had been substantially weakened, citing a small number of declassified documents from the trove.

The second issue is some bureaucratic infighting: The CIA allegedly jealously held onto the documents, churning out hundreds of reports soon after the intelligence was captured but refusing to let other intelligence agencies have a look. The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency and intelligence analysts at the U.S. military’s Central Command (“CENTCOM”) were desperate to delve into the documents, but it took months to get access to the raw intelligence.

When they finally did, Hayes reports, a number of important revelations were made: Osama bin Laden and core al-Qaeda’s connections with global terrorist groups were more numerous and deeper than expected, calling into question whether al-Qaeda in any sense, even if its ability to strike from Afghanistan and Pakistan was diminished, could really be called “on the path to defeat.” Bin Laden, for instance, appears to have been much more closely involved than had been believed in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which were carried out by the Pakistani Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (which has not been closely associated with al-Qaeda, but one of its founders was a mentor of bin Laden’s in the 1980s).

Hayes’s reporting and the episode reflects some deep disagreements within the U.S. intelligence community, about the nature and relative importance of al-Qaeda in the war on terror, and the operational problems that and other bureaucratic issues can present. It certainly doesn’t reflect well on the Obama administration’s handling of those ongoing conflicts.

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