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The Big Reveal: The Story of How 470,000 Documents from Osama Bin Laden's Compound Finally Got Into the Open


Osama bin Laden in 1988
Osama bin Laden in 1988

THE MAGAZINE: From the November 13 Issue

The CIA has finally released 470,000 files recovered from the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. Here's why it took so long.

Stephen F. Hayes

The Weekly Standard, Noember 7, 2017 - On the penultimate day of the Obama administration, less than 24 hours before the president would vacate the White House, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a press release meant to put to rest what had been a pesky issue for his office. “Closing the Book on Bin Laden: Intelligence Community Releases Final Abbottabad Documents,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) announced. “Today marks the end of a two-and-a-half-year effort to declassify several hundred documents recovered in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound in May 2011.” Accompanying the press release were 49 documents captured during the raid, bringing the total number of documents made public to 571.

For anyone who had paid even casual attention to the long-running debate over the Abbottabad documents—a group that doesn’t include many journalists—the ODNI announcement was cause for a chuckle. Closing the book on Osama bin Laden? The final Abbottabad documents?

In the heady days immediately after the May 2 Abbottabad raid, President Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, had described the intelligence haul brought back from Pakistan by the Navy SEALs and CIA operatives as extensive enough to 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.”

Why would ODNI think it could get away with such an aggressive lie? Why would officials there believe that they wouldn’t be asked to reconcile the fact that they were releasing just 571 documents with the repeated pronouncements that the Abbottabad collection was the largest haul of terrorist intelligence ever?

The answer: The self-proclaimed “most transparent administration in history” had spent more than five years misleading the American people about the threat from al Qaeda and its offshoots and had paid very little price for having done so. Republicans volubly disputed the president’s more laughable claims—the attack on the Benghazi compound was just a protest gone bad, al Qaeda was on the run, ISIS was the terrorist junior varsity—but the establishment media, certain that Obama’s predecessor had consistently exaggerated the threat, showed little interest in challenging Obama or the intelligence agencies that often supported his spurious case.

In this context, ODNI’s bet wasn’t a crazy one. No one outside of a small group of terrorism researchers and intelligence professionals had paid much attention to the fate of the bin Laden documents. The likelihood that these ODNI claims would get much scrutiny in the middle of the frenzy that accompanies a presidential transition was low. ODNI dismissively swatted away questions about the absurd claims in the release with absurd claims about the document collection itself: The unreleased documents weren’t interesting or important, just terrorist trash of little interest to anyone. The documents being withheld would do little to enhance our understanding of al Qaeda or the jihadist threat more generally, they said.

This is what the politicization of intelligence looks like.

* *

In the spring of 2012, with the Republican presidential primaries nearing an end and shortly before the first anniversary of the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound, Obama’s National Security Council hand-picked 17 documents to be provided to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point for analysis. (Obama’s NSC would later hold back two of those documents. One of them, laying out the deep ties between the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda leadership, would complicate Obama administration efforts to launch negotiations with the Taliban, according to an explanation the NSC’s Doug Lute offered to West Point.) The West Point documents were shared with Obama-friendly journalists. Their conclusion was the only one possible, given the documents they were provided: At the time of his death, Osama bin Laden was frustrated and isolated, a relatively powerless leader of a dying organization. In the summer and fall of 2012, Obama would use this theme as the main national security rationale for his reelection: Al Qaeda was alternately “on the run” or “decimated” or “on the path to defeat.”
“Thanks to the service and sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is winding down. Al Qaeda has been decimated. Osama bin Laden is dead,” Obama said in Green Bay, Wis., on November 1, five days before his reelection.

Even the deadly attack two months earlier in Benghazi, conducted by jihadist groups with extensive ties to al Qaeda, didn’t cause Obama to recalibrate his narrative. The president would tout the imminent demise of al Qaeda more than two dozen times between those attacks and Election Day.

In the weeks following the bin Laden raid, the documents went through an immediate interagency triage for actionable intelligence. That initial scrub yielded valuable information that led to the capture and killing of key al Qaeda associates. But then the documents sat, largely untouched, for months at a time. From that point on, the Obama administration’s interest in the Abbottabad documents didn’t extend much beyond their public relations implications. Simply put, a fuller release of the cache would have fatally undermined the message that al Qaeda had been decimated and that the war on terror was being reduced to a few mopping-up exercises.

As a result, some of the documents were never translated. Relevant intelligence agencies engaged in a protracted fight about who could have access to the information. The Defense Intelligence Agency was repeatedly denied full access by the CIA, which had “executive authority” over the collection and which was run throughout much of the bureaucratic infighting by John Brennan, an Obama crony who had predicted in April 2012 that al Qaeda would meet its demise by the end of the decade.

The U.S. intelligence community never conducted a full-scale review of its own intelligence collection on al Qaeda using the Abbottabad documents. “There was never any kind of evaluation of our work on al Qaeda based on the documents,” says one senior U.S. intelligence official involved with the documents. Obtaining the documents presented an opportunity to check what the intelligence community thought it knew about al Qaeda and its leaders against what actually happened. Who were our good sources? Who was providing misinformation? Was there a source who had better visibility into leadership decisionmaking than we’d assessed? Someone we relied on who wasn’t as important as we’d thought? In some important respects, the bin Laden documents were like the answer key to a test you’d taken. It’s telling that many in the intelligence community didn’t want to review their work or revisit their conclusions.

After Obama’s reelection, the administration repeatedly shut down requests from Republican lawmakers, led by Rep. Devin Nunes, for access to the documents. Then the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act turned those requests into a demand backed by law. That’s the only reason the 571 documents were released. And that’s where matters stood through the early months of the Trump administration.

No more. On Wednesday, November 1, CIA director Mike Pompeo announced the release of “nearly 470,000 additional files” from the Abbottabad raid. From 571 to 470,000: The “most transparent administration in history,” you might say, has just been trumped, by nearly three orders of magnitude.

* *

The new materials make clear that ODNI sought to mislead the country not only about the size of the collection but about its contents, too. The January ODNI press statement claimed that the batch of 49 documents it was then making public “mirrors the themes in previous releases,” chief among them Osama bin Laden’s “hatred, suspicion of Iran.” It was true that this was what previous ODNI releases claimed. But it is misleading in the extreme to pretend that the story of Iran and al Qaeda told through the captured bin Laden documents is solely one of hostility.

Bin Laden had described Iran as the “main artery” for al Qaeda in one of the previously released letters recovered in Abbottabad. The details on Iran’s support for al Qaeda, some of them buried until now, led to terrorist designations by the Treasury Department and even caused some intelligence analysts to revisit the assumption that the Shiite radicals in Iran wouldn’t back the Sunni al Qaeda. In a 2011 interview, David S. Cohen, a senior Treasury Department official who went on to become deputy director of the CIA, described the intelligence, which detailed a network of financial support for al Qaeda that operated out of Iran: “There is an agreement between the Iranian government and al Qaeda to allow this network to operate,” Cohen said. “There’s no dispute in the intelligence community on this.” Iran was providing a “core pipeline” of support that included safe haven for al Qaeda members and the facilitation of travel and the flow of money and weapons.

Al Qaeda accepted this help warily, it is true, and the al Qaeda-Iran relationship is based on mutual interest rather than ideological or doctrinal affinity. But to ignore the secret agreement altogether—to set aside the years of collaboration and to elide bin Laden’s own description of Iran as the “main artery” for al Qaeda, all in order to downplay the threat such an alliance presents—is a textbook case of cherry-picking.

Asked about ODNI’s misleading characterization of the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda, Barrett wrote: “[Osama 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.”

In a follow-up email, I made the rather obvious point that the willingness of Iran to allow bin Laden family members to hide in Iran contradicted ODNI claims of a deep antipathy between Iran and al Qaeda. Moreover, why would ODNI cite the documents as evidence of bin Laden’s hatred of Iran when the man himself acknowledged Iran’s crucial role in sustaining and strengthening al Qaeda? Didn’t this suggest a relationship that was mutually beneficial and, at times, even friendly?

Barrett responded: “I was wrong about the ‘in hiding.’ Instead, I should have said, there were many senior [al Qaeda] members, and at least one [Osama bin Laden] family member, under house arrest there. The passageway you cite is not the same thing as collusion with the Iranian government. That is, [al Qaeda] had the ability to transit the country; but it wasn’t done in any sort of partnership with the Iranian government.”

It was an extraordinary claim, and newly released documents make clear that the Iranian regime actively facilitated this travel. Beyond that, it was clear that there was, in fact, precisely the kind of “partnership” between Iran and al Qaeda that ODNI was disclaiming. The Treasury Department had designated terrorists specifically citing the “secret deal” between Iran and al Qaeda.

After a few more mostly unproductive exchanges, TWS sent Barrett language from Treasury designations and the Iran section of the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror. Among them: the designation of Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, which noted that he was “an Iran-based senior al-Qaeda facilitator currently living and operating in Iran under an agreement between al-Qaeda and the Iranian government. Iranian authorities maintain a relationship with Khalil and have permitted him to operate within Iran’s borders since 2005”; the designation of Atyiah Abd al-Rahman, bin Laden’s handpicked emissary to Iran, “a position which allowed him to travel in and out of Iran with the permission of Iranian officials”; a Treasury statement that read, “by exposing Iran’s secret deal with al-Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory, we are illuminating yet another aspect of Iran’s unmatched support for terrorism”; a Treasury designation of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), which “has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.”

We included several other examples. Barrett tapped out: “I’m not an Iran expert so I have to consult people and follow up with you Monday, I’m afraid.” We heard nothing more on Iran.

Barrett and I had one final exchange on November 2, after the new trove of documents was released. Offered an opportunity to revise his now plainly misleading statements from January, he emailed: “ODNI supports CIA Director Pompeo’s decision to release additional Abbottabad materials. While the files provide additional insights, they do not change the assessments of the interagency document exploitation task force.”

* *

The overriding foreign policy message of Obama’s first term was that the war on terror had been badly botched by his predecessor but was now in his capable hands and therefore being swiftly brought to a favorable close. The overriding imperative of his second term was to make a deal with the Iranian government. In a manner of speaking, Barack Obama wanted what al Qaeda already had: a mutually beneficial partnership with Tehran. Revealing to the American people the truth about Osama bin Laden’s cozy working relationship with the Iranian government might have fatally undermined that diplomatic quest, just as the ongoing vitality of al Qaeda, amply testified to in the bin Laden documents, would have contradicted Obama’s proud claims in 2012 that al Qaeda was “on the run.” So Obama, with the eager cooperation of some in the intelligence community, bottled up the bin Laden documents and ran out the clock.

The CIA release of the additional 470,000 documents includes a 19-page report on al Qaeda’s relationship with Iran authored by an unidentified al Qaeda operative. The author lays out some tensions between al Qaeda and Iran but makes clear those differences don’t preclude cooperation. The document reports that the Iranian regime was giving its “Saudi brothers” in al Qaeda “everything they needed.” This included safe haven in Iran, the facilitation of travel for senior al Qaeda operatives, and “money, arms,” and “training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in exchange for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.”

The newly released documents also include a video from the wedding of Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son and a prominent al Qaeda voice today. The video shows Hamza bin Laden and several other notable senior al Qaeda figures celebrating his marriage at an unidentified mosque. With the shouting of a child in the background echoing off marble walls, the shaky video shows the younger bin Laden, dressed in a gold robe and a black and white keffiyeh, reciting his wedding vows in a quiet, serious tone. The video was shot in Iran.


Stephen F. Hayes is editor in chief of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.


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