Paul Pillar

Troves, Canards, and Bum Raps

A few days ago I was hoping to get away for a decent interval from the saturation commentary on Osama bin Laden (to which I, joining hordes of others, contributed throughout last week). But I need to take one more swat at what has rapidly developed into a widely held canard: that examination of the “trove” (a word that already has achieved cliché status as applied to the material found at the compound in Abbottabad) that the SEALs carted off somehow has refuted earlier conventional wisdom that in recent years bin Laden had been more of a big idea man and source of inspiration and ideology than a hands-on organizer of terrorist operations. When I addressed this subject earlier I noted the first public take on the “trove” confirmed, rather than refuted, that view of bin Laden. Now a further take, as reported in Thursday's lede in the Washington Post, confirms it further. The picture is of a man who was exhorting more than directing. This was how the Post portrayed the description provided by anonymous officials involved in exploitation of the “trove”:

Bin Laden’s directions tended to be big-picture in nature, officials said, focusing more on broader objectives than on granular operational details. “I wouldn’t call it command and control” that bin Laden was exercising, the senior U.S. intelligence official said. Indeed, there is no indication that bin Laden even knew the specific whereabouts of [al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-]Zawahiri and others. Al-Qaeda’s fragmented nature and operational security appear to have kept its leader substantially in the dark.

An additional twist on the canard have been some comments that have attributed what has supposedly been disproven not just to a general conventional wisdom but instead to the George W. Bush administration. Maureen Dowd, whose columns I love to read because she usually skewers those who richly deserve skewering and does it in a highly entertaining fashion, said this last week:

Whereas the intelligence work that led to the destruction of Bin Laden was begun in the Bush administration, the cache of schemes taken from Osama’s Pakistan house debunked the fanciful narrative that the Bush crew pushed: that Osama was stuck in a cave unable to communicate, increasingly irrelevant and a mere symbol, rather than operational. Osama, in fact, was at the helm, spending his days whipping up bloody schemes to kill more Americans.

Today I heard on public radio another journalist whose work I generally respect make essentially the same accusation against the Bush administration. There are a couple of things wrong with that charge. One, as noted, nothing really has been debunked. And second, what supposedly was debunked was not something that the Bush administration specifically was pushing (certainly not in the somewhat extreme form as phrased by Dowd). Or if it was, I must have slept through it.

There is much that can be said, and that has been said, about how that administration's blunders—and especially the gargantuan blunder of going to war in Iraq—has redounded to the disadvantage of the United States regarding, among many other things, counterterrorism and the fight against al-Qaeda. We have heard many times about how the transfer of attention and resources to the Iraq fiasco damaged efforts in South Asia, including the effort to nab bin Laden. And what we have heard about that is true. We should continue to study the Bush administration's blunders as a lesson in how not to make national security policy and in what the United States must endeavor to avoid in the future. But it only detracts from the lessons to make other charges that are bum raps.