THE BIN LADEN DOCUMENTS REVEAL CIA SPIN OF US INTELLIGENCE ASSESSEMENTS
Stephen Hayes Weekly Standard Magazine 11-20-17
Ned Price is not happy.
The former CIA analyst and National Security Council official was at the center of the Obama administration’s efforts to mislead the American people about the continuing threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates and about the rogue states whose support allowed it to regain its strength and expand. With the release on November 1 of 470,000 documents, images, videos, audio, and computer files captured during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the fact that the Obama administration politicized this intelligence became indisputable and the brazenness of its effort clear.
Those responsible are understandably nervous, and they’re lashing out. Ned Price, now an NBC News analyst and a fellow at the New America Foundation, is leading the way. “The newly-released documents don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know,” he tweeted almost as soon as the documents were released. The claim is absurd.
Did we know the contents of Osama bin Laden’s 228-page handwritten journal? Did we know that he first spoke of striking America in the mid-1980s? Did we know he wanted to boycott American apples?
Did we know that bin Laden was surprised by the ferocity of the American response to 9/11 or that he had a subordinate translate Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars so that he might better understand the new U.S. president? Did we know bin Laden’s thoughts on the Arab Spring as it unfolded? Did we know bin Laden sometimes issued statements based on his dreams?
Did we know, as Thomas Joscelyn put it in these pages last week, the extent to which bin Laden “remained an active manager of his far-flung network until his dying day, receiving updates from loyalists around the globe. Groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Shabaab in Somalia all sought and received his guidance”?
The U.S. intelligence community had released only 571 of the captured documents between May 2015 and January 2017. The nearly half-million documents just released by the CIA tell us countless things we did not know. We’d never heard bin Laden’s own explanation for how he became a “committed” Muslim or that he credits a prominent Turkish Islamist for his theological evolution. We’d never seen the adult face of Hamza bin Laden—Osama’s heir, whom al Qaeda is grooming for a senior leadership post.
We now have many more details of al Qaeda’s support from Iran. We didn’t know, for instance, that the Iranian regime, which had alternately harbored and detained Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was supposedly surprised when the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq chose to return to Iraq and fight upon his release.
We have new insights into the ties between the leadership of al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban.
We even learned that bin Laden took in American pop culture as he condemned it and that someone in his compound had a copy of the popular “Charlie Bit My Finger” YouTube video downloaded on a computer.
We learned all this in just one week. Terrorism researchers and scholars will be studying this new information for years in order to gain a fuller understanding of bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Why would Ned Price say something so demonstrably false?
Because the other thing we learned by studying these newly released documents is that the narrative of bin Laden and al Qaeda carefully created by the Obama administration—that of an isolated, impotent jihadist leader detached from his deteriorating terror network and at odds with the regime in Iran—was deeply misleading.
Price sells himself as a disinterested intelligence professional and a partisan of only the truth. He made news at the outset of the Trump administration when he wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post announcing his resignation from the CIA. The headline: “I didn’t think I’d ever leave the CIA. But because of Trump, I quit.”
In the piece, Price described the importance of an impartial intelligence community, dedicated to providing unvarnished analyses to the country’s leading policymakers, and made a strong case that we ought to be concerned about Trump’s eagerness to set aside the concerns of U.S. intelligence professionals on Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And he denounced as inappropriate Trump’s comments at the CIA in the opening days of his administration”:
Standing in front of a memorial to the CIA’s fallen officers, he seemed to be addressing the cameras and reporters in the room, rather than the agency personnel in front of them, bragging about his inauguration crowd the previous day. Whether delusional or deceitful, these were not the remarks many of my colleagues and I wanted to hear from our new commander in chief.
Price wrote that intelligence professionals are “taught to tune out politics” and insisted that his decision to quit “had nothing to do with politics.” But he had left out an important detail. A little more than six months earlier, he had contributed $5,000 in support of Hillary Clinton. The Post updated his op-ed with a clarification: “This column should have included a disclosure of donations made by author Edward Price in support of 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In August, Price gave a total of $5,000 to the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party.”
For reporters who had dealt with Price in the three years he had been detailed to the NSC from the CIA, his politics came as no surprise. As NSC spokesman, Price worked at the center of the Obama administration’s national-security spin machine, a fact illuminated in the much-discussed 2016 profile of deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes in the New York Times Magazine. Together, the two carefully cultivated an echo chamber of Obama loyalists in the media, who could be counted on to amplify White House messaging, praise the president’s initiatives, and defend him whenever necessary.
So it was business as usual for Price when the CIA released the Abbottabad documents, and he rapidly laid out a counternarrative on Twitter:
CIA released what it claims are the final public files from Bin Laden’s lair. I’m all for transparency, but this isn’t about that.
In January, [the director of national intelligence], which led the declassification effort, released what it said was the final tranche of Bin Laden files.
The DNI-led review was overseen by career intel officials, who concluded that, w[ith] the Jan[uary] files, all those of public interest were released.
But a funny thing happened when CIA Director Pompeo came into office. I’m told he re-launched a review of the files.
In doing so, he took officers away from important missions to pore—and re-pore—over the millions of documents.
How can we be sure this was a CIA effort? Unlike previous releases, today’s files are hosted on CIA.gov, not the DNI site.
Why would he do that? It seems he’s convinced the unreleased files would tie al-Qa’ida to Iran.
He said as much at the gathering of a conservative group, [the Foundation for Defense of Democracies], opposed to the Iran deal in September.
As luck would have it, CIA provided an advance copy of today’s files to Long War Journal, this group’s publication.
The ploy is transparent despite the fact that the newly-released documents don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.
What’s not as transparent are the motives of Pompeo, the administration’s leading and most influential Iran hawk.
But these moves suggest he’s reverting to the Bush administration’s playbook: Emphasize terrorist ties as a rationale for regime change.
Price wrote this tweetstorm up as an article for the Atlantic several days later, but the incoherence remained. In one section, he allowed that “it’s impossible to discern Pompeo’s exact motives in this latest release,” only to declare a few sentences later that he, Ned Price, had managed the impossible and could see the CIA director’s exact motives. “Pompeo is playing politics with intelligence,” Price wrote, “using these files in a plot to bolster the case against Iran by reinvigorating the debate on its terrorist ties.”
For years, the Obama White House resisted calls to release the bin Laden documents. The self-proclaimed “most transparent administration in history” gave a series of convenient and self-contradictory reasons for its refusal to share the collection.
At times, we were told the documents couldn’t be released because the information was too sensitive and valuable to make public. At others, however, the administration asserted that there wasn’t much to the cache and what remained unreleased was mostly jihadist detritus that wouldn’t interest anyone.
Sometimes the explanations came from the intelligence agencies; sometimes they came from the National Security Council. In most cases, however, the answers were plainly coordinated. White House officials were copied on emails from the intelligence agencies and vice versa. Ned Price helped direct these efforts.
The January 2017 DNI release that Price holds up as definitive was called “Closing the Book on Bin Laden.” But it covered just 571 documents from the vast Abbottabad collection—a tiny fraction. The accompanying press release claimed that the newly released batch of documents “mirrors themes in previous releases,” among them bin Laden’s “hatred, suspicion of Iran.” It is true that this is what previous ODNI releases claimed. But it just isn’t true that this is what the Abbottabad documents show.
In one previously released document, bin Laden credited Iran for serving as the “main artery” for the strengthening and growth of al Qaeda.
And a document released earlier this month—one we never would have seen if Price had gotten his way—expands on this earlier knowledge. This 19-page report, authored by a senior al Qaeda operative, says that the Iranian regime provided “Saudi brothers” in al Qaeda “everything they needed,” including “money, arms,” and “training in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon, in exchange for striking American interests in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.” And a video made public as part of the latest release shows Hamza bin Laden reciting his wedding vows—alongside several senior al Qaeda operatives—in Iran.
In 2015, during the intense debate over the Iran nuclear deal, the government threat assessment on Iran largely elided the country’s role in supporting terrorism. Language that had appeared in previous threat assessments from the intelligence community was gone in the new version. A spokesman for the ODNI told us at the time that the changes had been made for reasons of space and were not an effort to downplay Iran’s support for terror.
But that is just what the White House team was trying to do.
Multiple U.S. Treasury Department designations cited a secret agreement between Iran and al Qaeda under which the Iranian regime actively harbored al Qaeda’s “core pipeline.” A February 2012 designation reported that Iranian officials “facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports.” An October 2012 designation reported: “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. This network also sends funding and fighters to Syria.” A February 2014 Treasury designation singles out “a key Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator who supports al-Qaeda’s vital facilitation network in Iran, that operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities.” Sources familiar with the intelligence on Iran have told us that much of the language characterizing the Iran-al Qaeda relationship in those designations comes from the Abbottabad documents.
There were tensions between Iran and al Qaeda, to be certain, including over Hamza’s eventual detention in the country. And the documents—new and old—describe moments of frustration and mistrust between these two American enemies. Bin Laden did not want Iran to export its Shiite version of Islam throughout the region, and he considered plans to combat Iranian expansion. Al Qaeda also kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in order to free hostages held by the Iranian government. Any assessment of the threat presented by Iran and al Qaeda ought to take account of these strains and must appreciate that the relationship is based on mutual exploitation rather than ideological or doctrinal affinity.
That’s not what the previous assessment from the ODNI did. And background statements from “senior intelligence officials” and NSC spokesmen working under the supervision of Price gave the same misimpression. In the past, Obama officials dismissed Iran-al Qaeda cooperation as “baseless conspiracy theories” and claimed, “anyone who thinks Iran was or is in bed with al Qaeda doesn’t know much about either.” The CIA’s release of the vast bulk of the Abbottabad documents reveals a much more complicated picture—and the degree to which such statements had been White House-driven spin.
No wonder Ned Price isn’t happy.
Stephen F. Hayes is editor in chief of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.