The CIA director is intent on drawing connections between al-Qaeda and Iran—but to what end?
In January, the intelligence community announced the end of a 30-month project to de-classify the documents recovered from Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan. While the documents, grabbed by the U.S. commandos who killed the long-hunted leader of al-Qaeda in 2011, contained more chaff than wheat—duplicate records, widely available literature, and more than enough pornography to make a supposedly pious sheikh blush—they also yielded invaluable intelligence on the group’s structure, capabilities, and intentions.
The de-classification effort, which involved teams of intelligence officers sifting through millions of pages to determine what could be released without compromising sensitive sources or methods, produced reams of information that the intelligence community recognized Americans had a right to know about a group that had killed nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens on 9/11. I’m all for such transparency (I even teach a class on the subject). And this effort was personal for me; I was a CIA counterterrorism analyst when bin Laden was killed and was serving on the National Security Council staff when the intelligence community assured the White House—and, in turn, the public—that all of the bin Laden files of significant public interest and suitable for de-classification had been released.
So when the CIA recently announced it would be releasing additional records from the bin Laden files, it turned more than a few heads. The Agency claimedthat Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA, authorized the release “in the interest of transparency and to enhance public understanding of al-Qaeda and its former leader.” But this release by Pompeo wasn’t about transparency. A close read of his statements and the CIA’s public rollout of the new documents suggests, instead, that their release is part of his ongoing campaign to link al-Qaeda to Tehran and, in so doing, undermine the Iran nuclear deal.
When Pompeo reinitiated the de-classification effort, he did so under the auspices of the CIA rather than the DNI, signaling this was a new and distinct effort, which he would be orchestrating from Langley. At the time, his announcement failed to garner much public attention, but it left commentators familiar with the recently concluded DNI-led de-classification effort puzzled.
Pompeo is also a fierce critic of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the multinational deal with Iran that verifiably prevents Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and threatens to impose crippling sanctions if Iran violates it. Pompeo was said to have been a key architect behind President Trump’s announcement last month that the nuclear deal was no longer in America’s national security interest, which essentially left Congress to decide whether sanctions should be re-imposed. There’s an irony to this: In opposing the 2015 pact, Pompeo and other anti-Iran hawks in Washington are essentially arguing that a state with terrorist links should be untethered from unprecedented constraints on its nuclear program.
At a national security summit last month organized by the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), Pompeo finally offered the beginnings of a rationale for this new round of de-classification. The moderator asked him about alleged ties between Iran and al-Qaeda, a hobgoblin of the anti-Iran deal crowd. It’s no surprise that this came up: The FDD’s raison d’être has evolved into undermining the nuclear deal with Iran. Prominent FDD-affiliated voices argue, without credible substantiation, that a “better deal” with Tehran can and must be negotiated, while others espouse nothing short of regime change, believing that an avowedly anti-Israel state sponsor of terrorism should not be countenanced. It’s this latter crowd that has consistently pointed to Iran’s ties with al-Qaeda as a prime exhibit in their case for regime change.
Pompeo seemed only too happy to feed these hawks. “I think it's an open secret, and not classified information, that there have been relationships, there are connections” between Iran and al-Qaeda. “[T]he CIA is going to release, here, in the next handful of days, a series of documents related to the Abbottabad raids that may prove interesting to those who are looking to … take a look at this issue a little bit further.”
Several weeks later, Pompeo made good on his word. The CIA press statementannouncing the new release took care to describe the new documents as distinct from the ones that emanated from the DNI, and noted that they were part of an Agency initiative authorized by Pompeo. The CIA made no mention of cooperation with DNI on the matter; intelligence officials have told me there was none.
What’s more, the CIA provided the only advance copy of the new documents to FDD’s in-house publication, The Long War Journal (LWJ). This choice of venue was, on its own, unorthodox: In years past, intelligence officials have provided embargoed looks at soon-to-be-released de-classified material to major outlets, including CNN and the The Washington Post, commensurate with the intense public interest in the bin Laden documents.
Among the themes plucked from the files by The Long War Journal were “new details concerning al-Qaeda’s relationship with Iran.” As it pointed out, the files do, indeed, contain new tactical details, including an account from a senior jihadist of a deal with Iranian authorities to host and train Saudi al-Qaeda members as long as they agreed to plot against their common enemy, American interests in the Gulf region. On its own, that revelation would suggest a degree of operational coordination between the two entities. But according to the account, the al-Qaeda members violated the terms of that agreement, spurring Iranian officials to renege and crack down on the network.
This document and others analyzed to date add texture to but do not alter the fundamental and longstanding understanding of the consistently tense, and occasionally openly hostile, relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda. Other elements in the bin Laden cache reinforce this idea, including a description of al-Qaeda’s abduction of an Iranian diplomat as part of an effort to exchange him for al-Qaeda members detained in Iran. In its analysis, the Long War Journal noted that the new tranche could contain additional revelations. But its initial examination turned up nothing that would alter the assessment of an on-again, off-again marriage of convenience pockmarked by bouts of bitter acrimony.
While it’s impossible to discern Pompeo’s exact motives in this latest release, his own statements—as well as the decision to provide the files to the FDD-affiliated publication—make it seem something far less than an exercise in radical transparency. Instead, the release seems more like a calculated shot in the arm as part of his bid to bolster the case against the 2015 nuclear deal.
Both in public and reportedly in private, Pompeo has been one of the Trump administration’s most vociferous critics of the nuclear deal. His remarks are uncharacteristic of CIA leaders, who typically take a ‘just the facts’ approach. He told a public audience in July, for example, that Tehran was not abiding by the spirit of the deal, claiming that Iran was only begrudgingly and belatedly upholding its nuclear-related commitments. News accounts, moreover, have portrayed him as pressuring CIA analysts to surface intelligence pointing to Iran’s non-compliance, which, by all accounts, they have not found.
Pompeo is playing politics with intelligence, using these files in a ploy to bolster the case against Iran by reinvigorating the debate on its terrorist ties. While the politicization of intelligence is more than sufficient cause for concern, the fact that he appears to be returning to the Bush administration’s pre-Iraq war playbook underscores the danger. This effort reeks of former vice president Dick Cheney’s consistent false allegations of links between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the 9/11 attacks, a nexus the Bush administration debunked only after we had lost too much in blood and treasure.
To be sure, the United States appears to remain a long way from military action with Iran, but the same could have been said of Washington’s posture towards Iraq at the outset of the Bush administration. History doesn’t repeat itself, as the saying goes, but it does rhyme. And Americans must remain vigilant to ensure that Pompeo—who sits atop the world’s finest clandestine service and has at his disposal all of its capabilities—isn’t allowed to write it.
(Image via Flickr user Mark Taylor)
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