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DOCEX Down

The New York Times goes to war against an army of analysts.

11:00 PM, Nov 8, 2006 • By MICHAEL TANJI
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IT'S INTERESTING that the New York Times--the apparent arbiter of what is truly secret and what ought to be published--is suddenly so concerned about the possible release of classified material captured in Iraq--material they claim has helped Iran with its own nuclear weapons development program. The perpetrators of this dastardly deed? The vast right-wing conspiracy of course.

Per the Times story, conservatives in the House and Senate, along with the president, pressured the director of national intelligence to release the unclassified documents captured by U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom in an attempt to--paraphrasing the Times and assorted skeptics--find WMD needles in a massive paper haystack. As the intelligence community was overwhelmed with the scale of the effort required to make full use of this data, those in the public with the requisite skills and interest would be turned loose like an army of analysts.

Not content to point out that the streets of Baghdad weren't paved with nerve-gas-filled artillery shells, major news weeklies dug out quotes from anonymous intelligence officials who dismissed out of hand the idea that amateurs could outdo the work of experts with security clearances, or that anything of value could be found in the detritus of post-war Iraq. The Senate intelligence committee's own Phase II intelligence report pointed out that the intelligence community had essentially given up on further work associated with captured media. If the professionals did not see any point in continuing, why bother?

As I used to be an intelligence official associated with this mission, I don't mind telling you that there were some very good reasons to bother.

First and foremost were the nearly 3,000 troops who died either liberating the Iraqi people from a dictatorship or defending them against an Iranian fueled insurgency that targets civilians and hides behind children. Intelligence guides military operations and, if the latter is ever going to trust the former again, intelligence practitioners and those who lead them are obliged to do everything they can to confirm the military's successes and demonstrate that it has learned from its mistakes.

Second, there are significant problems with the exploitation process. I have explained the general concept and its shortcomings in the pages of this magazine previously. This is a mission that could be doing great things, but when offered the chance to make dramatic improvements in their capabilities--capabilities that could have more rapidly put meaningful, actionable intelligence in the hands of people who could use it to greatest effect--the lead agency for DOCEX responded by downsizing and downgrading its exploitation office.

Finally, a dedicated captured media analysis effort was made available to the very analysts who were earlier called upon to assess the threat posed by Saddam's regime. They could have cared less. The primary post-war attempt to justify the case for action focused on physical inspection of a limited number of suspected WMD sites, all while the notes, memos, and other documentation from those responsible for any such programs were mostly ignored. The unspoken message was clear: the war is over; everyone thinks we screwed up, so we are moving on. Up until this point I had never heard of anyone opting to give up on an intelligence problem because there was too much information to be addressed.

Overwhelmed with mountains of mostly unclassified data and with the world outside the intelligence community making great strides with distributed, information-age methodologies, it was to be expected that those who were advocating for a full accounting of the state of pre-war Iraq would suggest turning the grunt work over to the public. It was a radical but intelligent course of action, yet it still took the threat of legislation and presidential intervention to get the director of national intelligence to cooperate. This is the same DNI that is now touting the use of classified blogs--a secret version of Wikipedia--and the army of analysts approach that has been applied to the National Intelligence Estimate on Nigeria. While the "public intelligence agency" effort for captured Iraqi media did not initiate these advancements in intelligence methodology, it is encouraging to think that it served as an impetus to advance them.