New intelligence at the White House: Osama bin Laden killed

President Obama announced Sunday night that Osama bin Laden was killed in a compound in Abottabad, Pakistan:

” . . . shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground.  I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”

Slightly after 1:00 a.m. Sunday, a U.S. Joint Special Operations Force attacked, and almost ten years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the man who served as icon for violent networks is gone. From an intelligence standpoint, it is regrettable that bin Laden was not captured alive. He could have been a useful intelligence source. But the pursuit and its conclusion still demonstrate what rational, effective intelligence looks like.

After bin Laden went missing in late 2001, Bush and Cheney publicly downplayed bin Laden. Bush administration emails also show little interest in bin Laden behind the scenes.

Prolonged inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has produced emails between the Bush White House and offices in the Bush Justice Department. The FOIA search included email records from former Attorney General John Ashcroft; Michael Chertoff, previously assistant attorney general in the Criminal Division and later secretary of Homeland Security; former Deputy Attorney Gen. James Comey; former Deputy Attorney Gen. Paul McNulty; Philip J. Perry, acting associate attorney general and son-in-law of Vice President Dick Cheney; former Associate Attorney Gen. Jay B. Stephens; and David Ayres, Ashcroft’s chief of staff.

The Office of Information Policy, which handles FOIA requests, found emails mentioning bin Laden in the Bush administration only in Attorney General and Office of Public Affairs records. Alberto Gonzales, Bush’s first White House counsel and then Attorney General, did not use email.

White House emails from 2001 through 2008, generally reported as missing, numbered in the millions. Thousands went between the White House and top Justice officials, through government accounts and private accounts including some at the Republican National Committee.

The FOIA requests produced 26 emails pertaining to Osama bin Laden. The 26 emails between Bush’s White House and his Justice Department that mention bin Laden break down as follows:

Seven insider emails referred to bin Laden in 2001. Five were press releases from White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, between Sept. 24 and Dec. 17. One was a copy of Bush’s address to the Joint Session of Congress a week after 9/11 sent around by Kenneth B. Mehlman, later chairman of the Republican National Committee, in which Bush mentioned “a person named Osama bin Laden.” The other email mention of bin Laden in 2001 occurred in a forwarded newspaper article about Ashcroft.

In 2002, one email referred to bin Laden—a bogus claim, forwarded under the heading “Do you remember?,” that Oliver North warned Congress about bin Laden in the Iran-Contra hearings but was shut off by then-Sen. Al Gore. North himself denied this claim, which is debunked on Snopes.com.

Three emails referred to bin Laden in 2003—one press briefing, one forwarded newspaper article, and a statement from Director of Public Affairs Mark Corallo criticizing a records access study.

In election year 2004, fifteen internal emails mentioned bin Laden–again, only forwarded press releases, newspaper articles, or talking points, some reacting to disclosure of the famous Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

In short, no email archives indicate that Bush’s inside circles were interested in capturing Osama bin Laden (or Mullah Omar of Afghanistan). A talking point, not a target–bin Laden became chiefly, as we now know, a public relations tool to gear up the invasion of Iraq.

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