The Magazine

The Truth Is Out There . . .

But too much of it is still classified.

Nov 28, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 11 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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FINALLY. For much of the past week, the White House has been engaged in an aggressive effort to defend the case for war in Iraq. Thus far, it has mainly pointed out the obvious: In the months and years before the invasion, many of those who now accuse the White House of misleading the country to war themselves were making precisely the same claims about the threat from Iraq as the Bush administration.

President George W. Bush accused his critics of "rewriting history." Vice President Dick Cheney called the attacks a low point of his three decades in public life. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reminded Pentagon reporters of what Clinton administration officials were saying not so long ago. The White House press office distributed point-by-point rebuttals of claims from Democratic partisans. On Thursday, a senior White House official circulated among conservative opinion leaders a devastating eleven-page response to an error-riddled New York Times editorial. The White House created a new Iraq-focused rapid response team to monitor and counter the seemingly endless stream of misinformation from political opponents and misreporting from a political press.

The White House has relied on already-public documents--such as the Duelfer Report on Weapons of Mass Destruction, the 9/11 Commission Report, the Robb-Silbermann Report on Iraq Intelligence, and Phase I of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report--to make two points: (1) Bush administration policymakers made claims that were consistent with the consensus views of the U.S. intelligence community, and (2) there is no evidence that Bush administration policymakers "pressured" intelligence analysts to produce these assessments.

That effort was necessary. It is not sufficient.

So what should come next? A massive declassification effort, to include both prewar intelligence assessments provided to policymakers by the U.S. intelligence community, and the numerous documents, photographs, and videotapes recovered in postwar Iraq.

Much of the back-and-forth between the Bush team and its critics concerns the claim that the administration exaggerated or even fabricated intelligence about Iraq. The Bush administration says its public rhetoric was backed up by intelligence assessments; administration critics disagree. The problem with this debate is that we are dependent on these interested parties to describe the underlying intelligence. Why not declassify it all--subject to a scrubbing for sources and methods--and let the public judge for itself?

There is some risk in this. The Bush administration had large chunks of the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction declassified in July 2004. It pushed for this declassification in part because the National Intelligence Estimate plainly supported the administration's prewar claims. But the move backfired. The establishment media--egged on by Democrats in Congress--seemed to be more interested in the dissenting views footnoted throughout the document than the consensus product.

But the alternative isn't attractive either. Two weeks ago, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin released two short excerpts of a much longer DIA assessment from February 2002. The excerpts Levin provided show that DIA analysts in early 2002 raised questions about the credibility of claims made by a senior al Qaeda operative about alleged Iraqi training of al Qaeda terrorists in chemical and biological warfare. That Bush administration officials continued to speak of Iraq-al Qaeda training is evidence, Levin claims, of administration deception.

So what did the rest of the February 2002 DIA document say? We don't know, because Levin declassified only two short passages. What did subsequent DIA analyses say? We don't know. What did CIA analyses say? We don't know. Did all DIA assessments of this al Qaeda operative conclude that his claims were not credible? We don't know. And why did Levin declassify only these two sections of this one document? We don't know.

By declassifying the bulk of prewar intelligence on Iraq, we could get answers to these important questions.

More urgent, however, is the expedited declassification and release of documents and other articles captured in postwar Iraq. The U.S. government possesses millions of pages of documents that taken together will provide intelligence historians--to say nothing of the American public--with an inside view of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Although it's been two-and-a-half years since the fall of the regime, only a fraction of these documents have been translated, reviewed, and catalogued. This work continues in Doha, Qatar, in Baghdad, and at a site in suburban Washington, D.C. But the work progresses slowly. It is a painstaking process, and resources devoted to it have thus far been severely limited.