The Magazine

Who'll Let the Docs Out?

Bush wants to release the Saddam files but his intelligence chief stalls.

Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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On February 16, President George W. Bush assembled a small group of congressional Republicans for a briefing on Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley were there, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad participated via teleconference from Baghdad. As the meeting was beginning, Mike Pence spoke up. The Indiana Republican, a leader of conservatives in the House, was seated next to Bush.

"Yesterday, Mr. President, the war had its best night on the network news since the war ended," Pence said.

"Is this the tapes thing?" Bush asked, referring to two ABC News reports that included excerpts of recordings Saddam Hussein made of meetings with his war cabinet in the years before the U.S. invasion. Bush had not seen the newscasts but had been briefed on them.

Pence framed his response as a question, quoting Abraham Lincoln: "One of your Republican predecessors said, 'Give the people the facts and the Republic will be saved.' There are 3,000 hours of Saddam tapes and millions of pages of other documents that we captured after the war. When will the American public get to see this information?"

Bush replied that he wanted the documents released. He turned to Hadley and asked for an update. Hadley explained that John Negroponte, Bush's Director of National Intelligence, "owns the documents" and that DNI lawyers were deciding how they might be handled.

Bush extended his arms in exasperation and worried aloud that people who see the documents in 10 years will wonder why they weren't released sooner. "If I knew then what I know now," Bush said in the voice of a war skeptic, "I would have been more supportive of the war."

Bush told Hadley to expedite the release of the Iraq documents. "This stuff ought to be out. Put this stuff out." The president would reiterate this point before the meeting adjourned. And as the briefing ended, he approached Pence, poked a finger in the congressman's chest, and thanked him for raising the issue. When Pence began to restate his view that the documents should be released, Bush put his hand up, as if to say, "I hear you. It will be taken care of."

It was not the first time Bush has made clear his desire to see the Iraq documents released. On November 30, 2005, he gave a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. Four members of Congress attended: Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee; Sen. John Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona; and Pence. After his speech, Bush visited with the lawmakers for 10 minutes in a holding room to the side of the stage. Hoekstra asked Bush about the documents and the president said he was pressing to have them released.

Says Pence: "I left both meetings with the unambiguous impression that the president of the United States wants these documents to reach the American people."

Negroponte never got the message. Or he is choosing to ignore it. He has done nothing to expedite the exploitation of the documents. And he continues to block the growing congressional effort, led by Hoekstra, to have the documents released.

For months, Negroponte has argued privately that while the documents may be of historical interest, they are not particularly valuable as intelligence product. A statement by his office in response to the recordings aired by ABC said, "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."

Left unanswered was what the analysts made of the Iraqi official who reported to Saddam that components of the regime's nuclear program had been "transported out of Iraq." Who gave this report to Saddam and when did he give it? How were the materials "transported out of Iraq"? Where did they go? Where are they now? And what, if anything, does this tell us about Saddam's nuclear program? It may be that the intelligence community has answers to these questions. If so, they have not shared them. If not, the tapes are far more than "fascinating from a historical perspective."

Officials involved with DOCEX--as the U.S. government's document exploitation project is known to insiders--tell The Weekly Standard that only some 3 percent of the 2 million captured documents have been fully translated and analyzed. No one familiar with the project argues that exploiting these documents has been a priority of the U.S. intelligence community.

Negroponte's argument rests on the assumption that the history captured in these documents would not be important to those officials--elected and unelected, executive branch and legislative--whose job it is to craft U.S. foreign and national security policy. He's mistaken.