Coverage of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s killing has been a prime example of American establishment journalism, a public relations operation designed to validate all the activities of the national security state and the military industrial-complex in the past year. This operation has been bolstered by the official release of documents found in bin Laden’s residence by the SEALs team that raided the compound in May 2011. Most news organizations have published their own glimpse into what the documents reveal. However, few questioned the fact that only 17 documents out of thousands of documents seized in the raid were released.
There was one exception: Matt Apuzzo, who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his work exposing NYPD surveillance operations against Muslims, challenged the release of only a tiny fraction of the documents.
The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point confessed in their report on the documents, “Given the small collection of documents released to the CTC, it is impossible to construct a coherent evolution of al-Qa`ida or its current state.” The report also noted, “It is critical to address the academic limitations of studying declassified captured battlefield documents. Such a study is fraught with risks, not least because the academic community is not involved in the process of declassification and is therefore unaware of the larger classified corpus of documents.”
But, of course, as a military center for academic research, it did not condemn the Obama administration for putting the Center in this position:
When scholars pursue a research topic that involves materials subject to classification by the government, they face what one may term the “(de)classification challenge.” They have no choice but to wait for materials to be declassified, however frustrating the waiting period may be. The process of declassifying materials could occur all at once or in different stages; if it is the latter, it is even harder to reach firm or even plausible conclusions.
The intelligence community’s role is all just a part of how things work. It is routine, like how military intelligence analysts arbitrarily apply classification designations to incident reports that come from the battlefield, which plays a role in keeping that information from the public for decades. This “declassification challenge” is part of the terrain for military members conditioned to accept secrecy as a default without question. (And, of course, this is why the acts committed by Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of releasing classified information to WikiLeaks, are considered so offensive to the ethics and culture of the military.)
Based on the tiny fraction of documents news organizations have been reporting President Barack Obama was put on a “terror hit list,” how Bin Laden wanted al Qaeda to use the media better, how bin Laden was frustrated with affiliate al Qaeda groups, how bin Laden wanted to significantly reduce operations in Muslim countries so innocent Muslims would stop being killed, etc. These headlines are not really scoops. There was no barrage of reports, but since June 2011 reports have been trickling out as a result of selective leaks from government officials. And in March, the New York Times reported bin Laden had plotted to kill Obama. These stories are not new, however, the public relations campaign by the Obama administration is new and planned to settle any debate over Obama’s ability to handle national security as Obama campaigns for re-election.
The real news or significant revelations have received little to no attention. Gareth Porter published a detailed news story on how the documents conflict with what officials said in the immediate moments after the killing. Clearly, bin Laden was in exile and that was why he was holed up in the Abbottabad compound. He continued to correspond with and engage leaders in the al Qaeda network, but he did not have much power to direct them. He also had lost whatever public support he had built up in the aftermath of the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. However, few news organizations have taken the time to question the intelligence community over the fact that for years he was not No. 1 in al Qaeda. Someone else was directing the bulk of operations.
Also, As’ad AbuKhalil of Al Akhbar English has a post on what the documents show about the relationship between Iran and al Qaeda. This is what the Combating Terrorism Center concluded:
References to Iran show that the relationship is not one of alliance, but of indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of detained jihadis and their families, including members of Bin Ladin’s family. The detention of prominent al-Qa`ida members seems to have sparked a campaign of threats, taking hostages and indirect negotiations between al-Qa`ida and Iran that have been drawn out for years and may still be ongoing.
As AbuKhalil points out, this contradicts Democrats, Republicans, former Bush administration officials, and current Obama administration officials. It contradicts former CIA director George Tenet, who claimed “the notion that sectarian differences would preclude such an alliance is ‘outmoded.’” He also says the letters conflict with claims about “links between al-Qaeda and al-Awlaki and “links between al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab.” Anwar Al-Awlaki, a US-born Yemen cleric, was killed in a drone attack last year.
All of the US diplomatic cables that WikiLeaks had have been released. The media organization, which has been targeted by the US government in the past two years, did not decide to only publish some of the cables. They knew that in order to truly gain an understanding of US diplomatic relations the full cache would have to be published. They also knew that they had to eventually release them all or else they might be accused of promoting some sort of political agenda (which is not to say that releasing all the cables has silenced critics who consider the media organization to be anti-American).
The Obama administration, on the other hand, does not want the public to have a full understanding of bin Laden. One can speculate why this may be and suggest, perhaps, there was correspondence between Pakistani government agencies that would make US intelligence agencies look bad. One can speculate that the “far-reaching network” Americans have been conditioned to fear is much more loose and much less threatening than the US government would have Americans believe. Instead, the public gets 17 selected documents that actually could be used in the coming months to promote more drone strikes and wider military intervention in Yemen if necessary.
It is overwhelmingly clear that the administration is not interested in transparency and openness when it comes to bin Laden. They are interested in exploiting him for political gain. Like George W. Bush invoking 9/11 to shut down political debates and win support, Barack Obama plans to invoke Bin Laden. And based on the fact that the administration won’t release photos or videos and plans to not release anymore documents, the nature of this seems even more opportunistic.
If there weren’t an election, would the American people even get to see the mere 17 documents? Would they instead see none? Don’t expect the establishment media to raise a discussion. They find the way they serve government when they are called upon to serve an honorable part of the job. They welcome the chance to promote glory and wallow in the pride of US presidents and other officials. Unless WikiLeaks gets a batch of bin Laden letters from an anonymous person inside the US government, this is probably the last information the American people will get on the man who was Public Enemy No. 1 until Obama gave the order to take him out.