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An Army of Analysts

Collective analysis of captured Iraqi documents may produce much more than just answers about pre-war Iraq.

7:59 AM, Mar 14, 2006 • By MICHAEL TANJI
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It is perhaps coincidental, but certainly apropos, that at the start of "Sunshine Week"--an annual promotion of openness and transparency in government--we receive word from Director of National Intelligence Negroponte that documents captured in Iraq will be released to the public for review and analysis. As someone who spent the last several years exploiting captured media for the U.S. government, I am keenly aware of the staggering scope and scale of the current effort. To be frank: Uncle Sam needs all the help he can get.

The significance of what can be uncovered by an external and independent analysis of captured media was recently illustrated by the Combating Terrorism Center at the Military Academy at West Point. The Center's 100-plus page analysis of just 28 declassified Iraqi documents provided some unique insights into the terrorism problem. That's 28 documents out of at least two million.

Recently, the New York Times reported on the publication of a report on the state of Iraq prior to and immediately after the start of Iraqi Freedom. This effort was a fusion of 600 captured documents, interviews, and interrogations of former regime members. It is not known if those interviewed were presented with copies of their own work written at the time Saddam was still in power, though given the state of Iraq immediately after shock and awe it is unlikely. As I have written previously, there is really only one way to re-create the information systems used by the senior leadership in Iraq prior to the war. A more comprehensive analysis of pre-war Iraq would include such an effort because even under the friendliest of circumstances (interviewees were reportedly "wined and dined"), for some there will always be cause to be taciturn.

Both of the aforementioned efforts received a certain amount of intelligence community support, which meant the imposition of a pre-publication review requirement. Releasing documents to the public precludes the imposition of such a restriction, so in the interest of preventing an adversary from aggregating intelligence (piecing together an essentially classified picture by assembling unclassified and seemingly innocuous data points) some form of pre-release review is probably prudent. This may add some time to the starting point of any collective analysis, but it also means that the speed at which analytical findings are released are limited only by the effort put forth by the assembled analysts.

From a traditional intelligence perspective, a group analysis effort is something of a new concept. Intelligence "Community" projects are occasionally called for, but these are more collegial bouts over the odd debatable point--most analysts agree on 80 percent of any given issue area--than thorough and original examination of a given problem by any interested parties. Collective projects like the one analyzing documents on Guantanamo Bay detainees have produced encouraging preliminary results. Whether you call it a blog-swarm, the "wisdom of the crowds," or an "Army of Davids," the general concept is the same: the more determined individuals that are set on a problem, the better the result.

A successful collaborative analysis of Iraqi documents has implications that go beyond just this problem set. Such an endeavor will not go unnoticed by the reform-minded in the intelligence community. In fact, it could very well help accelerate currently nascent efforts at blogging and collective analysis that are creeping along in the intelligence community, which is ostensibly the information-based enterprise. The adoption of such tactics could help overcome problems like group-think (Saddam would never support terrorists, Sunnis and Shiites would never work together) and highlight previously unseen or under-appreciated gaps in our knowledge (WMDs in Iraq are a slam-dunk).

The results of any collective analysis of captured Iraqi documents may not provide proof positive of any particular pre-war assumption, but the knowledge gained in the trying could help ensure that future intelligence efforts against high value and hard targets are not post mortem affairs.

Michael Tanji is a former senior intelligence officer and an associate of the Terrorism Research Center. He opines on intelligence and security issues at blog.groupintel.com.