Why Declassifying More Bin Laden Documents Is Healthy For America’s Spy Agencies Too

on June 19 | in CIA, Intelligence Analysis, Intelligence Reform, War of Ideas

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There are folks in America who, for some reason, really want access Osama bin Laden’s porno collection. According to the FOIA request, however, the CIA doesn’t want to release the gigabytes of pornography taken from his Abbottabad compound because it’s tucked away in an operational file that exempts it from FOIA requests. Also, it’s against U.S. law to send obscene matter through the mail (Never mind the requester, David Covucci of BroBible.com, also wrote a really overbroad FOIA request.)

Yet last month, the US government dipped into that same massive database and released over a hundred unclassified and declassified documents to the public. It’s a fascinating trove that provide insight the mind of al Qaeda leader and his strategy as American raids were capturing or killing many of his lieutenants.

The fight over bin Laden’s porno stash aside, sick the documents’ release is a welcome sign the intelligence community is perhaps taking its declassification obligations seriously. If this is indeed the case, the broader public will actually support the intelligence community more because regular folks will better comprehend its inner workings.

Since 2011, there have been calls to declassify the gigabytes of data removed from bin Laden’s compound. There have been a few public releases of the trove, but most of the data remains classified. It was understandable this information stay secret following the raid so the U.S. government could generate leads to further decimate the terror group.

It’s been years since the operation, and chances are the vast majority of these leads have been either fully exploited—or have gone cold. Bin Laden’s documents are now quickly gathering electronic dust as historic artifacts.

The wheels of government often turn slowly and the default stance for folks in the intelligence business is often to proceed at a snail’s pace to declassify anything—if at all. For example, in a fascinating experiment, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University recently sent out identical, simple, legally-binding FOIA requests to 21 federal agencies to document compliance with the law. Unsurprisingly, the FBI dragged its feet; CIA refused outright to fulfill this request, unreasonably indicating it required an “unreasonable effort.” Surprisingly, DHS met its legal obligations within nine business days.

So kudos to that much-maligned arm of government—Congress—which stepped in with the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, which President Obama signed into law last July. Section 313 stated the Director of National Intelligence (DNI): “(A) complete a declassification review of documents collected in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during the mission that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011; and (B) make publicly available any information declassified as a result of the declassification review.”

What we’re now seeing are the first fruits from this endeavor. Declassification reviews are often awful slogs through the bureaucratic firmament. Every document has to be checked and rechecked by a number of readers, and whole bureaucracies have to sign off on the final product. Just to oblige everyone of consequence to respond to emails sometimes takes weeks.

And remember, many intelligence officials are loath to provide classified information to anyone. Running the gauntlet of the interagency process makes the process even more difficult, even for those agencies that are trying to make the information more publicly available. Furthermore, declassifying material isn’t usually at the top of any Agency chief’s priority list – after all, they’ve got an organization to run!

At least in this case, however, the law requires bin Laden’s documents to be subject to a declassification review. Some think there’s a nefarious political reason why the documents aren’t already public. Given that there were reportedly over a million documents seized in 2011, this’ll probably be the first of a series making its way through the cumbersome declassification process. But it’s going to take time.

Of course, there are probably documents and secrets that should remain behind closed doors. Releasing classified material to the public without even reading them, as Edward Snowden recently admitted to doing, is a recipe for disaster for the security of this country and our allies.

For the intelligence community, the sky will not fall if the vast majority these documents will be released. The bin Laden documents, obscene or otherwise, will probably not cause “exceptionally grave” or “serious” damage if they are publicly available. For that matter, neither will most classified documents from a generation or two ago.

If current efforts to declassify bin Laden’s documents helps to change the mindset of the relevant employees of the intelligence community, this will be a net good for this country, and paradoxically for our security. After all, the American people generally trust the intelligence community is trying to protect it from dangers both at home and abroad.

Trust is a two-way street. The intelligence community is ultimately responsible to the American people. Strengthening these bonds through timely, systemic, transparent public release of declassified documents on world events we care deeply about—like the bin Laden raid—is a way to solidify these links.

As the U.S. faces new challenges in the post 9/11 era, it’s important to know where we came from and what we’ve accomplished. It will profit both the intelligence community and the taxpaying public to continue to declassify the bin Laden trove and other national security documents.

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