By Frank Cilluffo and Sharon L. Cardash
In the aftermath of the death of Usama bin Laden, much has been made of the “treasure trove” of material found in his safe house. From the computer hard drives, CD-ROM’s, flash drives, notebooks and other items extracted there, it is thought – hopefully correctly – that a range of valuable and actionable findings could be discovered. If true, plots potentially underway could be disrupted and key figures captured or at least thwarted. Moreover, we could glean critical insights into al Qaeda tradecraft, including with whom they communicate and how, as well as their methods and means of delivering and distributing their videos and audio messages to jihadi websites and interactive forums.
With all of these possible outcomes at stake, it is wrong – indeed counterproductive – to be discussing in significant detail in the public domain, such as newspapers, the lode of intelligence that may have been found and its implications for action in the field. The media certainly has a role to play and is doing what it should. Yet one wonders how journalists are getting their hands on some of the crucial, sensitive pieces of information that underlie popular speculation about who will be the next al Qaeda figure to meet their maker and how this might occur. Transparency is one of the pillars of democracy. Taking responsible reporting beyond limits and/or sharing hot leads with the press before the intelligence community and Special Forces can fully exploit these leads is troubling. Exposing tactics, techniques and procedures to the light of day before their time could end up hurting the very efforts and interests they are intended to further.
Al Qaeda has proven to be a resilient organization, continually learning from their mistakes and from our successes, both strategically and tactically. By risking the compromise of our own sources and methods, we make our adversaries’ job of evading our reach easier.
We were able to maintain utmost secrecy surrounding our plans and intentions prior to the raid on Usama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. It was a wise decision not to share our plans with Pakistan (or anyone else) out of concern to avoid compromising the mission and tipping off our target. After all, it took years of painstaking intelligence work to lead us to that point.
Now our adversaries know that we may have their playbook and they are scrambling to shore up their vulnerabilities. Let’s just hope that we don’t end up having ourselves to blame for tipping off Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anwar al-Awlaki and their jihadi brethren before we are able to fully cash in the treasure.