Opening bin Laden’s trove of secrets

The documents taken during the raid on bin Laden's compound include 220 million pages of digital text and bin Laden's handwritten journal with plans for future operations.

What happened

U.S. intelligence officers last week discovered evidence that al Qaida was planning to derail American trains on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, as they pored over the vast haul of documents, hard drives, and DVDs recovered from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout. That plot—described by Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, as “a rambling aspiration”—was the first piece of intelligence made public following the raid that killed bin Laden. U.S. officials said that similar intel nuggets were being pulled every hour from the trove, which includes 220 million pages of digital text and bin Laden’s handwritten journal with plans for future operations. President Obama said that al Qaida could be dealt “a fatal blow” if the U.S. followed through “aggressively” on this information.

But the president’s aggressive tactics were criticized by bin Laden’s adult sons, who said Obama had “blatantly violated” international law by ordering their father’s execution. In a joint letter released to The New York Times, the family said it wanted to know why “an unarmed man was not arrested and tried in a court of law.” The statement—written by bin Laden’s son Omar, 30, who has denounced his father’s attacks on civilians—also called on the U.S. to release a photo of bin Laden’s body, as the family was “not convinced” of his death. Obama had previously ruled out publishing the image, which he said could be used as a “propaganda tool” to incite violence.

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What the editorials said

Obama made the wrong call over bin Laden’s death photo, said The Boston Globe. While it’s true the image could “rile up some of bin Laden’s followers,” the “absence of any photographic evidence” will likely allow dangerous conspiracy theories to develop. More important, this raid “was done in the name of the American people,” who “should be able to see the results.”

Publishing these shots would have been a betrayal of our ideals, said the Los Angeles Times. Obama’s “refusal to disseminate graphic photographs” echoes our nation’s conviction “that war is not an excuse to degrade the enemy.” Bin Laden may have been a “vicious terrorist,” but that’s “no cause for desecration of his remains—or the exposition of his wounds.” A picture’s publication would have failed to “quell the doubts” of conspiracy theorists, said the Portland Oregonian. Despite evidence to the contrary, these people still believe that 9/11 was an “inside job.” So let’s take Obama at his word—not to mention al Qaida’s confirmation—and accept that we won’t “see Osama bin Laden walking this earth again.”

What the columnists said

The haul of documents and data from bin Laden’s compound should make al Qaida’s friends and leaders “feel a real fear,” said James Andrew Lewis in Newsday. As they trawl through the data, U.S. agents might find clues pointing to al Qaida’s “wealthy Arabian funders,” and how the terror organization’s regional franchises are “led and how to get in touch with them.”

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s failure to keep a “zipped lip” means a lot of this intelligence might now be useless, said Peter Brookes in the New York Post. “Instead of broadcasting” our find, we should have waited a while “so we could more fully exploit some of the windfall” before al Qaida took “defensive measures.” By blabbing about our successes, Obama has made it harder for us to collect intelligence in the future, and potentially put “our forces in harm’s way.” The failure to take bin Laden alive has also undermined our fight against al Qaida, said Rich Lowry in We should have taken the terror leader to “a secret location for interrogation” and waterboarded him until he gave up “every possible lead.” But since Obama thinks “coercive interrogation” is “un-American,” there was only “one good option for bin Laden: a bullet in the eye.”

But can you imagine the problems we’d face if bin Laden had been captured? asked Jeff Greenfield in The Washington Post. He’d likely have been kept at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, as it would have been too risky to put him on trial in Guantánamo. And the legal questions would be “nothing next to the security consequences” of taking him alive. Terrorists could seize schools in India, and threaten to execute every pupil unless bin Laden was freed. Soon, we’d all be wishing that the SEALs had “pushed that bastard out of the helicopter” when they first nabbed him.

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