The Magazine

False Alarm

The New York Times usually favors making information public.

Nov 13, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 09 • By THE EDITORS
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For the second time this year, the New York Times has taken an interest in the vast collection of documents captured in postwar Iraq. The Times first noticed these materials six months ago, when the U.S. government began posting images of them on the Internet. In a dismissive report, the Times noted that intelligence professionals opposed the document release but had gone along under pressure from Republicans engaged in a quixotic attempt to find an ex post facto justification (terror connections, weapons of mass destruction efforts) for the Iraq war.

By now, thousands of documents have been posted, and last Friday, the Times wrote about them for a second time in its lead story on page one. The government had posted on the site a captured document detailing Iraqi plans for a nuclear weapon dating back to the first Gulf war, in 1991, when Iraq was less than a year away from completing a bomb. This was foolish and dangerous, the Times article suggested, as it provided a road map possibly useful to Iran and others seeking to build nuclear weapons. In their misbegotten effort to justify the Iraq war, the Times said, congressional Republicans, "conservative publications," and "amateur historians" had caused documents to be released that jeopardized national security. As a result of the Times's harrumphing, the government promptly shut down the document website.

Let us first reiterate what ought to be obvious. The U.S. government should not release documents that damage national security. In a speech this summer, House Intelligence Committee chairman Pete Hoekstra reported that the intelligence community had classified and withheld more than 30 percent of the Iraqi documents it has reviewed. If the intelligence community nevertheless released nuclear plans that really could be helpful to Iran, et al. (which is unclear), then it shouldn't have. Neither Hoekstra nor "conservative publications" nor "amateur historians" urged potentially dangerous disclosures. They simply urged that citizens be allowed to read for themselves what was found in the files of Saddam's regime in order to judge claims about terror connections and WMD threats.

The New York Times usually favors making information public. Indeed, twice in the past two years it has published details about eavesdropping and finance-tracking efforts by the U.S. government, two of the most effective and most closely guarded programs in the war on terror. The Times stubbornly defended that reporting even after government officials said the articles had done significant damage to national security. No matter, countered the Times, the public has a right to know.

But not about Saddam and the captured Iraqi records. And when the documents did begin to trickle out, the Times summoned only enough interest to dismiss the effort as a waste of time. So people who get their news from the Times may not know about the contents of documents that have already been released. One lays out plans for "Blessed July," an Iraqi regime-sponsored terrorist plot targeting Western interests in northern Iraq and Europe. Another mandates that the Iraqi regime pay foreign terrorists in the country at the same rate it paid its homegrown terrorists in the Saddam Fedayeen. Yet another details an offer from Hamas to stage suicide attacks against Americans. Still another presents a detailed plan for "utilizing" Arab suicide bombers. And on it goes.

And there are other interesting documents that have not yet been released, but whose existence has been reported here and in other publications, as well as in official government reports.

There's the one that confirms Saddam Hussein's Iraq trained thousands of non-Iraqi terrorists from 1998 to 2003. And the one that shows the Iraqi regime provided money and weapons to Abu Sayyaf, an al Qaeda affiliate in the Philippines. And the one that lists hundreds of jihadists imported from Gulf countries before the war. And the one demonstrating that for a decade, ending only with its overthrow, Saddam Hussein's regime harbored and financed the man who had mixed the chemicals for the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the native Iraqi Abdul Rahman Yasin. It's a document that might be relevant to the national debate--now in its fifth year--about whether Iraq is part of the war on terror or a distraction from it. And yet the Times has not once mentioned it in its pages.

That news apparently isn't fit to print, which is why the document-release project, enlisting the attention of thousands of ordinary, interested web readers, is valuable. Of course the intelligence community should make sure that potentially dangerous information is not released. But as long as the New York Times remains an advocate of secrecy and suppression of debate, the American people should see for themselves the evidence about the nature and activities of Saddam's regime.

--The Editors