Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. special operations forces is a major success in our country's war against al-Qaeda. As a result of the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation program and the intelligence gained from detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a major fraction of al-Qaeda's senior leadership has been captured or killed since 2001.
This conclusion was inadvertently reinforced recently by WikiLeaks' illegal disclosure of more than 700 classified Defense Department files on Guantanamo Bay detainees.
But first, the downside.
Their publication has harmed our security and cemented the impression among allies that America is incapable of keeping secrets.
Indeed. Who would trust their analysis, let alone their means and methods of collection, to a nation which cannot keep its own secrets?
But the material also provides compelling evidence of the effectiveness of Bush administration anti-terror policies after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The classified files from Guantanamo Bay, particularly those on senior operative Abu Faraj al-Libi, contain clues about al-Qaeda's courier network and even mention Abbottabad. Had bin Laden closely followed WikiLeaks' release of these documents April 25, it is unlikely he would have been there when U.S. Navy SEALs descended into his compound days later.
Which fact tends to explain the late rush put on this operation. The sixteen hours taken to reach a final decision thus placed the operation in considerable jeopardy.
The WikiLeaks files reveal that those detainees who could not be held on sufficient evidence were released or transferred to other countries. Among those who were judged not likely to be threats, and released, a sizable number returned to the cause they had claimed to disavow, including a man who, post-Guantanamo, served as deputy leader of al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen; a senior Taliban commander; a propagandist for al-Qaeda's online magazine; and multiple suicide bombers.
The documents should also disprove some myths that have dogged Guantanamo and the reputations of those who honorably serve there. The classified record, for example, confirms that three detainees who died in 2006 were suicides -- not, as some have irresponsibly alleged, victims of brutal interrogations. The documents chronicle the lengths to which military guards accommodated Muslim religious sensibilities: sounding a call to prayer five times a day, providing halal meals and touching Korans only with gloves -- not flushing them down toilets, as was falsely alleged by one U.S. magazine. There was no policy of mistreatment, much less torture.
The material in these files should have been the stuff of tomorrow's histories, not today's headlines. I co-sponsored the Freedom of Information Act in 1966 and have long believed that the free flow of information is vital to our democracy, but the desire for transparency must be balanced with national security interests. Bush administration officials have much to gain from the release of this sort of record, but for our country's benefit it must come in the proper time and through proper channels.