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Prewar Iraqi documents are of more than academic interest.

Jan 30, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 19 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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AT HIS CONFIRMATION HEARING FOR the new post of director of national intelligence, John Negroponte pledged to keep open lines of communication with Congress. He also explained that his experience as the first U.S. ambassador to Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would help him meet the director's responsibility to--in the president's words--"make sure that those whose duty it is to defend America have the information they need to make the right decisions."

Testifying in April 2005, Negroponte said:

I saw firsthand the savage depredations of terrorists and insurgents who oppose the birth of a new democracy. These are violent, determined adversaries who cannot be thwarted, captured or killed without close coordination between all of our intelligence assets--military and civilian, technical and human.

Consider that perspective and that pledge to Congress as you contemplate the government's inability to make meaningful use of the vast majority of the documents, computer hard drives, and other remnants of the Baathist regime acquired by U.S. forces in Iraq.

More than two months ago, for instance, Rep. Pete Hoekstra requested 40 mostly unclassified documents from postwar Iraq. In a separate request on November 18, 2005, Hoekstra and Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts wrote to Negroponte seeking the public release of "tens of thousands of boxes of documents captured since the 1991 Desert Storm operation." Two weeks ago, Negroponte told Hoekstra that he was spending a significant amount of his time in consideration of this request.

So I asked Negroponte's spokesman for a progress report. He declined to say when Hoekstra might get his documents. And he told me, "The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is presently evaluating Chairman Hoekstra's and Chairman Roberts's request for public access to Iraqi documents and an overall Iraq document exploitation effort."

In fairness, Negroponte's office--like the intelligence community as a whole--has faced an abundance of pressing issues in recent weeks: the NSA wiretapping policy, Syrian support for terrorism, the Iranian nuclear program, Russian manipulation of energy markets, North Korean intransigence. Still, two months is a long time for the House Intelligence chairman to wait for unclassified documents.

To date, some 50,000 of the 2 million "exploitable items" in the possession of the U.S. government have been examined by U.S. intelligence analysts, many of them only for their relevance to the search for weapons of mass destruction. (The numbers are the best guesses of several officials who have worked on the document exploitation project.) There remain, then, approximately 1,950,000 items whose contents are unknown to anyone in the U.S. government.

Some U.S. officials, including several at the Department of Defense, have argued in internal deliberations that the exploitation of these materials is best left to historians. What is the urgency, they ask, about translating and analyzing documents that come from a deposed regime?

There are at least two answers: to defeat the insurgency in Iraq; and to gain a better understanding of the relationship between rogue regimes and the transregional terrorists they use to extend their power.

"It's not about looking at the past to understand the past," says one former U.S. official who has worked on the document exploitation project. "It is about looking at the past to understand the present and to understand the future."

Consider: Among the vast intelligence take are boxes and boxes of files captured from the Baghdad headquarters of the Iraqi Intelligence Service. According to U.S. officials familiar with them, the Iraqi Intelligence documents include detailed personnel files of Iraqi intelligence officers and operatives. While some of these files have been exploited, many of them have not. It is a safe bet that today some of these Iraqis are coordinating the insurgency. Our failure to exploit the materials we have almost suggests we do not want to know all we can about the "terrorists and insurgents who oppose the birth of a new democracy."

A hypothetical: What if these files contain fingerprints of Iraqi intelligence officials or Saddam Fedayeen fighters? The FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division runs something known as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System to track criminals in the United States. According to the FBI website, the database: