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
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
Title: IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service] Request to move Persons, Prisoners, and VIPs to Private Residences
The descriptions of other documents are more provocative:
Title: Intelligence coded memo by two IIS officers containing info on various topics; weapons boat, Palestinians training in Iraq, etc.
Title: Presidential instruction from Hussein concerning mass graves in southern Iraq, and how to handle the PR/media fallout.
Presumably, this was a plan to blame any mass graves on deaths supposedly caused by depleted-uranium artillery shells used by U.S. forces in the first Gulf War--a favorite talking point of the pro-Saddam left in the 1990s.
Other document descriptions raise more questions than they answer:
Title: Chemical, Biological Agent Destruction
Title: IIS Correspondence for the Iraq Embassy in the Philippines and Iraqi MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs].
Were biological and chemical agents destroyed by the Iraqi regime? When? How? How many? Does the correspondence between the Iraqi Embassy in Manila and the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs shed any new light on the $25 million ransom that Muammar Qaddafi paid Abu Sayyaf in the summer of 2000, ostensibly to secure the release of 25 Westerners held hostage by the Filipino al Qaeda affiliate? Who traveled to Pakistan? What was his involvement with bin Laden? Did he have anything to do with the Iraqi government?
One would think the U.S. government would want answers to questions like these. But the DIA has been angling since last spring to close the DOCEX program in Doha. According to two Pentagon sources with direct knowledge of the issue, the future of that DOCEX program has been the subject of intense debate in recent weeks. Analysts with knowledge of the project say that the work is not close to being completed and warn that the closure of the DOCEX project there could mean the premature end to an important effort.
Although there are other facilities doing similar work in Baghdad and suburban Washington, the effort in Qatar is the most robust, with approximately 700 translators working in three shifts to review materials. (In a November 21 article in these pages--"Where Are the Pentagon Papers?"--I mistakenly reported that the Qatar effort employed some 200 translators. In fact, there are three shifts, each using 200-plus translators.)
Asked whether the program is on the verge of elimination, a spokesman for the DIA says that the Qatar DOCEX program is like any other program, in that it is subject to annual reviews and may always be defunded from one year to the next.
If anything, given the stakes in Iraq and the potential trove of useful information captured in postwar Iraq, one might expect the Bush administration to allocate additional resources to these document exploitation efforts. Instead they are about to be closed down. Why?
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.