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The New Documents

The release of the Saddam tapes should neither be hyped nor dismissed.

2:25 PM, Feb 15, 2006 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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FOR MORE than a year, THE WEEKLY STANDARD has sought the release of documents captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have pressured Pentagon officials, cajoled intelligence analysts, listened to would-be whistleblowers, interviewed Iraqis and filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests with multiple government agencies. Today, because of two developments that have nothing to do with these efforts, we will all learn more about the captured documents and what they tell us about our enemies in the global war on terror.

Yesterday, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, released 28 captured al Qaeda documents in connection with the publication of a study called, Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al Qaeda's Organizational Vulnerabilities. The documents come from the Department of Defense's HARMONY database. They provide a fascinating look into the ideology of terror that motivates al Qaeda members and sympathizers, the conflicts among these individuals and groups, and their widely disparate views on everything from Mohammad Farah Aidid in Somalia to the late King Fahd in Saudi Arabia, from working with "infidels" to the terrorists' reaction to the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Tonight on ABC News, first on World News Tonight and later on Nightline, we will hear excerpts from 12 hours of audio recordings reportedly made of meetings Saddam Hussein had with his senior advisers over the course of a decade. The full tapes, or transcripts of them, will be made available Saturday. The recordings are said to contain numerous references to weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's thwarting of U.N. weapons inspectors. Already, some are touting the tapes as a "smoking gun" that will prove Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Others are dismissing the tapes as old news and insignificant. All of this before anyone other than a handful of people know what is on the tapes and before one second of any of the tapes has been played in public.

So let's take a step back and put this in context. Estimates from people involved in the document exploitation project tell us the U.S. government has in its possession some 2 million "exploitable items." Of that number, less than 3 percent--somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 items--have been fully exploited. The information that will be made public by the end of this week--28 captured al Qaeda documents and 12 hours of audiotape from Iraq--will provide a glimpse of a fraction of a fraction of the total collection.

A hypothetical: If the tapes are in fact authentic, imagine that they include audio of Saddam Hussein talking about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Does this mean that Iraq actually had these weapons Saddam thought he had? Not necessarily. One of the leading theories about Iraqi WMD holds that Iraqi scientists misled Saddam about his WMD capability. These scientists, according to this theory, lied to their superiors for fear of reprisals if their lack of progress on WMD development was discovered. That Saddam believed he had these proscribed weapons is not proof that he did.

Similarly, on the al Qaeda documents: The scholars from West Point examine the relationship in the 1980s between the jihadists from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the former Iraqi regime. Saddam supported and trained some of these jihadists in his effort to destabilize the Syrian regime. On the one hand, this data suggests that whatever their religious and ideological differences, the jihadists and the allegedly secular Iraqi regime were not opposed to cooperating against a common enemy. This view is supported by an al Qaeda document that reports, among other things, that Osama bin Laden's chief deputy Ayman al Zawahiri sought assistance from both the Iraqi regime and Iran. On the other hand, another al Qaeda document sets forth "lessons learned" from the experience of the past jihadist-Iraq collaboration and concludes that such relationships can be counterproductive and are to be avoided in the future. It's all very interesting and it will be helpful to learn more.

What these documents demonstrate more than anything else is that the U.S. intelligence community and the Bush administration should make document exploitation a high priority.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.