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Need to Know

John Negroponte's dismissive attitude toward the Saddam tapes seems to reflect the attitude of the intelligence community toward all of the documents captured in postwar Afghanistan and Iraq.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By THE EDITORS
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"WHERE WAS THE NUCLEAR material transported to?" asks an aide to Saddam Hussein, in a taped conversation released last week. He answers his own question: "A number of them were transported out of Iraq." This provocative snippet is part of 12 hours of taped exchanges between Saddam Hussein and his advisers. The tapes were found in Iraq after the war and were released last week by their American translator. The tapes are authentic. And they are seemingly of little interest to the U.S. government. A spokesman for John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence (DNI), downplayed their importance: "Analysts from the CIA and the DIA reviewed the translations and found that, while fascinating from a historical perspective, the tapes do not reveal anything that changes their postwar analysis of Iraq's weapons programs."

We suspect many Americans would be interested in learning more about this "nuclear material" and where it went when it was "transported out of Iraq"--and not just for "historical perspective." That doesn't mean the Saddam tapes contain some "smoking gun" on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. We don't yet know the circumstances of the Iraqi aide's conversation with his boss, or whether he was being truthful. It would certainly be nice to know more.

Unfortunately, Negroponte's dismissive attitude toward the 12 hours of Saddam tapes seems to reflect accurately the attitude of the intelligence community toward all of the documents captured in postwar Afghanistan and Iraq. It's an attitude his boss apparently doesn't share. Meeting with congressional leaders last Thursday, President George W. Bush said he wants the documents released, and released quickly.

For months, though, Negroponte and his staff have been in a tug-of-war with House Intelligence Committee chairman Peter Hoekstra, who is leading the effort to have the captured Iraqi documents released. As Stephen F. Hayes has reported on several occasions in this magazine, the U.S. government has more than two million "exploitable items" recovered in Afghanistan and Iraq since October 2001. And though there has been much talk of expediting the release of this material, Negroponte has stalled.

Late last week, a top DNI staffer met with Hoekstra. The meeting did not go well. "If there are 100 reasons not to make this information available, I got every one of them," Hoekstra told The Weekly Standard last week. "We have received a proposal that clearly demonstrates that the DNI is living in the analog age while the rest of us are in the digital age. At this rate, my grandkids and great-grandkids will be the first ones to see this information. And I don't even have grandkids yet."

The DNI proposal calls for small sets of documents to be farmed out to researchers at think tanks and universities. The documents would be scrubbed for sensitive information, and researchers would be required to sign nondisclosure agreements. The researchers could later request that documents be released to accompany publication of their work. At which point the documents would be subject to another review for sensitive information. How long would this process take? Did we mention that the DNI recently took two months to provide an insistent chairman of the House Intelligence Committee with a few dozen unclassified documents from Iraq that he had requested?

A glimpse of how this process might work could be seen with the release last week of a study about al Qaeda by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, accompanied by a small collection of documents captured in postwar Afghanistan. The researchers tell us in their foreword that the 28 documents were being released "so that they can be analyzed and used to learn more about al Qaeda and better understand the organization." Making these documents available for additional study "is critical to developing an effective long-term counterterrorism strategy."

The documents are indeed interesting. According to one document, Osama bin Laden's chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, sought assistance for his terrorist operations from both Iraq and Iran. Another al Qaeda document by an unknown author provides some "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. Other documents offer insight into the personal and ideological conflicts among al Qaeda's senior operatives. In short, we know more now than we did a week ago.

But this is the first such glimpse in the more than four years since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. And the Saddam tapes released last week, no thanks to the intelligence community, are a sliver of the 3,000-some hours of recordings of Saddam Hussein meeting with top aides.

If President Bush believes such materials should be released, as he has assured several members of Congress, he might at least pick up the phone and have a talk with John Negroponte. This material is too important to wait for Rep. Hoekstra's great-grandkids.

--The Editors