The Magazine

Down the Memory Hole

The Pentagon sits on the documents of the Saddam Hussein regime.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

FOR THE SECOND TIME IN recent weeks the Department of Defense has denied a request from The Weekly Standard to release unclassified documents recovered in postwar Iraq. These documents apparently reveal, in some detail, activities of Saddam Hussein's regime in the years before the war. This second denial could also be the final one: According to two Pentagon sources, the program designed to review, translate, and analyze data from the old Iraqi regime may be shuttered at the end of December, not just placing the documents beyond the reach of journalists, but also making them inaccessible to policymakers.

As a consequence, the ongoing debate over the Iraq war and its origins is taking place without crucial information about the former Iraqi regime and its relationships with presumed U.S. allies and known U.S. enemies. Despite the determined shredding and burning efforts of regime officials in the dying days of Saddam Hussein's government, much of this information still exists--in handwritten documents, in videotapes and audiotapes, in photographs and satellite images, on computer hard drives. All told, the U.S. government has in its possession more than 2 million "exploitable" items from the former Iraqi regime (the intelligence community's term of art for information it thinks might be useful). According to sources with knowledge of the project, now two and a half years old, only 50,000 documents have been translated and fully exploited. Few of those translated documents have been circulated to policymakers in the Bush administration. And although one of the translated documents was leaked to the New York Times last summer, none of the others has been released, formally or informally.

The result: Much of today's debate about the threat posed three years ago by Saddam Hussein's Iraq is based on past assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies that we now know had no real sources on the ground in Iraq. The Bush administration seems remarkably uninterested in discovering, now that we have reams of material from Saddam's regime, what the actual terror-related and WMD-related activities of that regime were. But as the political debate of recent weeks makes clear, answering these questions remains central to the debate over the war. More important, it cannot be the case that there's nothing helpful to the ongoing war on terror in these files.

Beginning in February 2005, I started asking the Pentagon's public affairs office for more information on the document exploitation (DOCEX) project headquartered in Doha, Qatar. Later in the spring, I provided to the Pentagon a list of more than 40 unclassified Iraqi regime documents and requested that they be released. Pentagon public affairs officials denied this request and indicated that a Freedom of Information Act request would likely be the only way to secure the documents, even though they were not classified. I filed a FOIA request on June 19. The FOIA request was passed from the Pentagon to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to the Army's Intelligence and Security Command. I received an "administrative denial" of my request on September 20.

One of the reasons I was given to explain the delays: "There are hundreds of thousands of other documents in the system, and it is a labor intensive process to find specific documents." That is nonsense, according to two intelligence sources with extensive background in the document exploitation project. The databases are keyword searchable.

Still, in an effort to make the searches easier, I provided the Pentagon with a new, more specific request for documents on November 21. The new request included document titles, short descriptions, dates, and even document numbers. This information came from a list I obtained with short summaries of a number of the documents in Doha. It bears noting that some of the documents described in the list have been flagged as potentially inauthentic. However, none of the documents I requested from the Pentagon was so flagged, and one analyst familiar with the document exploitation project said the government believes that at least 80 percent of the documents that have been processed are authentic.

Some of the documents that made up my most recent request sound unexceptional:

Title: Location of Weapons/Ammunition Storage with Map

Short Description: Letter saying that compound wall needs to be built higher so that new houses being built won't be able to look over into secret military base.

Agency: DIA

Document Date: May-01

Document #: CMPC-2003-000788