More than 13 years have passed since al-Qaeda terrorists killed almost 3,000 Americans in al-Qaeda’s single-most devastating attack. In the interim, NATO forces collapsed the Pakistani-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Even if Afghanistan remains problematic, millions of Afghans have defied threats to march repeatedly to the polls and Afghanistan last year had its first ever-democratic transfer of power. Al-Qaeda has also changed. President Obama launched an operation that killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. And the United States has changed as well. There has, of course, been a change in administration (and, for that matter, a change in king in Saudi Arabia as well). More astounding, nearly three-quarters of U.S. senators and representatives entered office after 9/11. There are 35 million more Americans today than there were on 9/11, the equivalent of folding Canada’s population into that of the United States.

And yet, so much remains inexplicably unknown about that day. President George W. Bush redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities report. A number of congressmen have read the redacted pages. Thomas Massie, a Republican representing Kentucky’s 4th Congressional district, said, “I had to stop every two or three pages and rearrange my perception of history.” He added, however, “There is nothing in there that would affect our national security,” and suggested it was a desire not to embarrass some states that led the Bush administration to withhold the Commission’s findings. Steven Lynch, a Democratic representing Massachusetts’ 8th Congressional district, agreed. “These documents speak for themselves. We have a situation where an extensive investigation was conducted, but then the Bush [administration] decided for whatever purposes to excise 28 pages from the report,” he said, adding: “Maybe there were legitimate reasons to keep this classified. But that time has long passed.” Former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida has also been at the forefront of efforts to declassify and release those 28 pages.

Lawrence Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, addressed the issue of the 28-pages in a recent New Yorker article:

A former staff member of the 9/11 Commission who is intimately familiar with the material in the twenty-eight pages recommends against their declassification, warning that the release of inflammatory and speculative information could “ramp up passions” and damage U.S.-Saudi relations. Stephen Lynch agrees that the twenty-eight pages were buried in order to preserve the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. “Part of the reason it was classified was the fact that it would create a visceral response,” he told me. “There would be a backlash.”

Both Republican and Democratic administrations abuse declassification. Simply put, the purpose of classification is to protect sources and methods. Protection from political embarrassment and exposure of hypocrisy are not legal reasons to shield information from the public. Now, certainly, some of the information in the 28-pages might have been derived from sensitive sources, but more than 13 years on, the idea that keeping them secret would protect methods is risible. If the U.S. intelligence community and its capabilities haven’t evolved in the last 13 years, then the real scandal is how exposed and insecure the United States really is. Fortunately, however, the intelligence community has largely kept up with the times.

If any Saudi officials were culpable in the 9/11 attacks—or members of any other government—then the least of what they should be concerned about is embarrassment and public antipathy for their actions. The passage of time already inures the Saudis to the rage that might result; after all, Riyadh can claim that it is reformed and changed. While Saudi counter-terror cooperation was half-hearted at best up to and perhaps in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, once Saudi Arabia began experiencing blowback from the monster it helped create and fund, it became a far more honest partner. Saudi Arabia today is no Pakistan, Qatar, or Turkey. But no country should get a free pass for the involvement of any of its citizens, princes, or officials in an attack on the United States. In effect, arbitrarily classifying material or delaying its declassification is politicization of intelligence, plain and simple.

As for the bin Laden documents: President Obama rhetorically both casts himself as the anti-Bush and has promised to be the most transparent president ever. And yet, when it comes to opacity on issues of terror, Obama is really no different than his predecessor. The issue for Obama is not simply the 28 pages. When Navy SEALS raided bin Laden’s compound, they removed millions of files. The second the SEALS landed in Abbottabad, there began a countdown on the utility of the intelligence seized.

The Obama administration, however, has ignored the bin Laden cache’s operational expiration date, and released only 17 documents. While still chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers argued that far more than the 17 documents might be released, and that the United States could learn from their contents. Administrations should stop underestimating the American ability to handle complexity and deal with the reality of the world, rather than the simplistic notion of adversaries and diplomacy that too often they seek to project.

On January 20, 2017, a new president will take the oath of office. Already, a handful of Democrats and perhaps a dozen Republicans are exploring their options, starting the carefully calibrated game of footsie with the press. Journalists should not let any candidate off the hook. Every aspirant to the presidency should pledge him or herself to full transparency and to complete the historical reckoning from 9/11 that all the victims, their families, and, indeed, every American deserves.

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