The Corner

Is the Bin Laden Trove Still Secret, Now Public, Both, or Neither?

I’ve been reading David Ignatius’s analyses of al-Qaeda documents, apparently recently seized from the bin Laden compound in Pakistan; he’s always an interesting source and an effective writer with good sense and plenty of experience. But I am curious how he came into possession of these documents and whether they have been released to the general public, and if not the latter case, why not?

His recent columns are sometimes highlighted with EXCLUSIVE, which suggests that someone in the administration made the decision to release the documents, or they were leaked, to Ignatius alone. But why so?

Now that he has written a few columns about them, why not release the material he has examined so that others can similarly take a look at the raw data, and either come to the same, different, or sort of the same conclusions as he has? While the analyses may well be insightful and balanced, no one can know that, given that Ignatius is apparently working alone (“exclusively”) with formerly classified documents under conditions that are not transparent and without a published narrative of how he obtained them and/or any detailed information about the nature of the raw data he has acquired.

All administrations have go-to people, and Ignatius has written in the past fine insider portraits of key players like Leon Panetta; but it seems unethical for an administration, in a campaign year, to chose a particular journalist to pass on the nation’s top-secret materials, and then to disseminate analyses about them in a fashion the administration apparently thought would be suitable — especially at precisely the time that Vice President Joe Biden (always to be counted on for a certain crassness) mirabile dictu amplifies all this by suddenly reminding us on the campaign trail that the mission to kill bin Laden nearly eleven months ago was the most brilliantly conceived and audacious enterprise in the last 500 years of military history. (See David Ignatius for details?)

Again, this is a different question from an administration providing interviews exclusively to friendly journalists or networks. It is rather a matter of national concern. The trove found in bin Laden’s compound either belongs to the security agency or Defense Department bureau that classified it, or the documents that were given to Ignatius belong in the public domain — otherwise, fairly or not, the impression given is that we are a sort of garrison state that choses authorized state megaphones to analyze what have become court documents. And when administration officials praise Ignatius’s sobriety and that sanction is echoed by peers in New York and Washington, then one only gets the impression that something is terribly wrong in this insular DC-NY corridor, where no one any longer seems aware of simple ethics and propriety.

It all reminds one of living in autocratic Greece circa 1973–4 when approved journalists would write op-eds on “secret” government foreign-policy documents (never released, or only released months later) that had a tendency to reflect kindly on official decision-making that average folks had heretofore not fully appreciated.

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