The Magazine

Where Are the Pentagon Papers?

The administration refuses to defend itself.

Nov 21, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 10 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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WHEN SENATOR CARL LEVIN REQUESTED the partial declassification of a Defense Intelligence Agency report in mid-October, the response was swift: He had it in his hands in eight days, reports the New York Times.

If only I were a senator.

For two years, I have been working to obtain copies of unclassified documents discovered in postwar Iraq. My reasoning is simple: If we understand what the Iraqi regime was doing in the months and years before the war, we will be better able to assess the nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and, perhaps, to better understand the insurgency. It's not a light subject, to be sure.

But the quest for the documents, while frustrating, has also been highly amusing. It is a story of bureaucratic incompetence and strategic incoherence. It is also a story--this one not funny at all--about the failure to explain the Iraq war. Two years after I started my pursuit, I'm not much closer to my goal.

Why? I have been told countless times by officials of the executive branch that there is no need to reargue the case for war, that what matters now is winning on the ground, that our intelligence professionals don't have time to review history, so occupied are they with current intelligence about current threats. I'm sympathetic to at least part of that thinking; it's hard to insist in the face of new and evolving threats that intelligence analysts should spend their precious time evaluating the past.

So if the intelligence professionals don't have time to analyze the papers left behind by Saddam Hussein's government, why not let the press and private-sector scholars do it?

Besides, in the end, the notion that the Bush administration doesn't need to continue to make the case for war is shortsighted.

Talk to senior American diplomats and military officers in Iraq today and they will tell you that the insurgents closely monitor the debate here in the United States. As domestic support for the war dwindles, the insurgents increasingly believe they can win; they fight harder, they raise more money, they gain new recruits. If these U.S. officials are correct, then continuing to make the case for war in Iraq--to remind people with specifics, not platitudes, why we're fighting--is not a distraction but a central component of fighting to win.

Talk to Sen. John McCain, who urges "a renewed effort to win the homefront," lest we lose sight of this fact: "Success or failure in Iraq is the transcendent issue for our foreign policy and our national security, for now and years to come." Said McCain, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute last week, "A renewed effort at home starts with explaining precisely what is at stake in this war--not to alarm Americans, but so that they see the nature of this struggle for what it is. The president cannot do this alone."

I DON'T REMEMBER when I first heard about the project in Doha, Qatar, but I do remember that I was very interested in learning more about it. The effort, led by Central Command with assistance from the Defense Intelligence Agency, is reviewing the detritus of the former Iraqi regime: videotapes, photographs, and many, many documents. One aspect of the effort is something called "Doc-Ex," short for document exploitation. Several intelligence analysts, together with several dozen translators, most of them from Jordan, are sifting through millions of pages of documents unearthed in Iraq after the toppling of the regime.

It's not an easy job. Some of the documents are forged. Others are hard to read after being damaged by fire, or the water used to extinguish those fires, in the days and weeks after the U.S. invasion. Making the job even more difficult is the fact that many of these documents have come from larger sets of documents that never made it to Doha. We know that the Iraqi regime in the run-up to war systematically destroyed what it considered the most incriminating evidence of its misdeeds. So our analysts are essentially looking at isolated pieces of a much larger puzzle without knowing whether they will ever have the remaining pieces.

The document collection effort in Iraq was haphazard, to say the least. No comprehensive guidance was ever provided to soldiers and intelligence officials on what exactly they should collect. This lack of direction meant that in many cases unit commanders made decisions about what to gather and what to discard. When David Kay ran the Iraq Survey Group searching for weapons of mass destruction, he instructed his team to ignore anything not directly related to the regime's WMD efforts. As a consequence, documents describing the regime's training and financing of terrorists were labeled "No Intelligence Value" and often discarded, according to two sources.