If the White House hoped that releasing documents scored by Seal Team Six at Osama’s hideaway would ease anxiety about the threat of terrorism, it badly misjudged the value of reading bin Laden’s mail.
The government turned over a cache of the captured documents to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point for translation, analysis and publication. The center is a crackerjack outfit that turns out some of the world’s best analysis on global terrorism. And it did a bang-up job with the 17 declassified documents released yesterday.
But one question has intelligence experts scratching their heads: Why would the government publish these documents in the first place?
There’s a straightforward political answer, of course: The White House has been preening all week over how it has neutered al Qaeda, and these documents support that point. They suggest an al Qaeda central frustrated and flummoxed as it tries to control the movement it helped create.
Al Qaeda central was on the ropes before President Obama came into office. Getting bin Laden actually had marginal impact on the global threat. It didn’t make us safer.
Moreover, the letters suggest we still have good reason to be afraid, very afraid. For one thing, they affirm that, from South Asia to North Africa, the landscape is dotted with bloodthirsty, fanatical terrorist groups.
Yes, bin Laden complained that his “brothers” aren’t doing enough to attack us. But there’s nothing to suggest they won’t get around to it.
Some already have. At least three attacks aimed at America can be linked to the late Anwar al-Awlaki, part of the “Foreign Operations Unit” of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, headquartered in Yemen.
Further, these children of Satan are as great a threat to their own communities as they are to us. Bin Laden’s letters are laced with complaints that “affiliates” are killing too many Muslims.
He’s not upset about it on humanitarian grounds, mind you. He just rues the fact that slaughtering innocents in Islam’s backyard has generated bad press for his team.
So, there’s much to be alarmed about in the documents. But even scarier is the fact that the government decided to make them public. What was it thinking? We’re in the middle of war. Why are we telling the enemy what we know about what the enemy knows?
In releasing these documents and our analysis, we’re telegraphing to our enemies how we see them and how we interpret their strengths and weaknesses. Why don’t we just invite them to sit in on briefings at the National Counterterrorism Center?
Even if the government sat on the documents for years, even if experts believed they’d mined bin Laden’s letters for every ounce of actionable intelligence, even if they carefully cherry-picked what they sent to the Combating Terrorism Center — there is still the question of why bother to release anything. Did al Qaeda send in a Freedom of Information Act request?
The first rule of intelligence is this: Don’t tell the enemy anything if you don’t have to. It would be like FDR releasing the messages captured by ULTRA, the US-British signals-intelligence program that broke the Nazis’ most secret codes.
Rather than giving us cause not to worry about al Qaeda, the government’s decision to release these documents raises questions about its commitment and competency to win this war.
On top of the president’s speech in Kabul, layered with half-truths about the challenges of his risky course of winding down the US effort too soon, the letter release suggests that Washington is becoming increasingly lackadaisical in its efforts to combat transnational terrorism.
James Jay Carafano is a national-security expert at The Heritage Foundation.
First Appeared in The Washington Post.