Last week, the CIA announced that it was declassifying and releasing a new trove of documents from the government’s files on Osama bin Laden, ostensibly in the interest of transparency and public education. The files, which were collected during the 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, include parts of bin Laden’s personal diary, as well correspondence, photos, videos, statement drafts, and other information. Notably, they also feature a senior Al Qaeda member’s account of Iranian support for the terror group, sparking concerns that the goal of the release has more to do with politics than open government.
While undoubtedly valuable to public understanding of Al Qaeda, the disclosures warrant further scrutiny because of their timing and the agency responsible. In January of this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) finished its own declassification project on the bin Laden files –“Bin Laden’s Bookshelf” – after 30 months of interagency review. The release of additional bin Laden files by the CIA, so soon after the end of a rigorous, ODNI-led interagency process, raises serious questions not only about the underlying intent, but also about classification policy in the intelligence community.
The Trump administration’s continued lambasting of the Iran Deal, as well as Jared Kushner’s secret visit to Saudi Arabia prior to that country’s recent political upheaval (including anti-Iran rhetoric), indicate that the White House attitude toward Iran is growing increasingly hostile. This anti-Iran environment casts the CIA disclosure in an unflattering light – it appears to be motivated more by politics than a sincere desire for greater transparency. That the documents were released in advance to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD)’ in-house publication, the Long War Journal, bolsters the idea that the disclosures were political. FDD is loudly opposed to the Iran Deal, and as Ned Price points out in The Atlantic, the organization hosted CIA Director Mike Pompeo at a national security summit last month for a discussion of Iran’s alleged support for Al Qaeda, during which Pompeo informed the audience of the impending disclosures.
The document release should also cause the public to question the government’s declassification policies. If these documents could be released with no redactions in November, why weren’t they released as part of the ODNI’s much larger, more rigorous project in January? When the intelligence community reviews documents for declassification, is it truly releasing all documents that can be safely disclosed, or is it keeping documents classified not for national security reasons, but so that they can be released later for political purposes? We should be asking questions about the reasons for over-classification in the intelligence community and throughout the federal government as we examine these and other disclosures.