Last week Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an anti-terrorism think tank, hosted a panel on the current state of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. The panel included senior fellows Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Thomas Joscelyn, with Georgetown’s Director of the Center for Security Studies Bruce Hoffman. FDD’s Vice President for research Dr. Jonathan Schanzer moderated.
The most dismaying portion of this talk was the knowledge that information at our fingertips is not publicly available. At the time of bin Laden’s death, hundreds of thousands of documents were recovered that likely contain invaluable information concerning al-Qaeda’s organization and bankrollers. To date, only seventeen of them have been declassified along with a handful of videos. The panelists, particularly Joscelyn—who became visibly more agitated as he related these numbers—were all in agreement that this was unacceptable. Gartenstein-Ross estimated that 90 percent of the documents were not harmful to U.S. national security, and must be declassified to perform open source research.
When asked what they thought that drop-in-the-bucket statistic of the declassified documents meant in terms of the United States Government’s attitude towards classifying documents vis a vis their war on terror strategy, Joscelyn offered, “What was offensive to me was…that you could see a change in the narrative in what the documents said.” The first version claimed bin Laden was heavily involved, only to be reversed a year later. He continued, “That says to me we need transparency…because if we’re going to have that sort of flip in the narrative, then the American public needs to see for themselves what the evidence is, because we have such competing claims here.” He asserted that the minimalist interpretation of the paltry amount of documents is false, and that given the time and resources devoted to battling al-Qaeda, the public should have a better idea of who America has been up against for the last decade.
Hoffman’s point was more direct—and pessimistic: “What it says about our attitudes?” he asked. “Well, the main thing is that history doesn’t matter.” He lamented that the few documents had been released were ambiguous, rendering any analysis gleaned from them woefully incomplete. The “historical blindness” resulting from the attitudes about declassification and war deprives the U.S. the opportunity to examine details on how al-Qaeda operated and how it might evolve under future leadership.
Joscelyn’s insightful observation made a compelling national security case to declassify those documents: if Edward Snowden’s actions could disrupt national security initiatives, couldn’t releasing al-Qaeda’s documents have a similar effect?