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Unfounded Assumptions

DOCEX challenged the assumptions of the intelligence community and the press.

11:00 PM, Nov 13, 2006 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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IN THE WAKE OF the New York Times's November surprise, the government's release of documents captured in Iraq has come to a grinding halt. For more than one week now, the site that had published files from Saddam's archives has been offline. Unfortunately, there is a good chance that the document release project, which had published thousands of documents and other pieces of captured media since March, will never be restarted.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra has long been a champion of releasing the materials captured in Iraq, as long as they did not jeopardize national security. He had to fight a thoroughly disinterested intelligence bureaucracy to jump-start the project. But Tuesday's election results mean that Hoekstra will no longer be positioned to carry on the fight. Within just a few months he will lose his chairmanship to a Democratic replacement, who will most likely have little interest in exposing Saddam's crimes. Instead, the Committee will likely focus more attention on the Bush administration's supposed prewar intelligence abuses.

That's a shame. The documents and other captured media provide a unique window into one of the most secretive regimes in history. As a general rule, Saddam's minions did not advertise their misdeeds in public. The documents and other files released on the Internet, therefore, provided one of the best sources for exploring what the Butcher of Baghdad was really up to during his decades-long rein of terror.

But the captured materials are valuable for a variety of other reasons, not the least of which is intelligence reform. For too long, the U.S. Intelligence Community has been content in its failure to recruit human intelligence assets among our enemies. As a result, IC operatives and analysts frequently filled gaps in their knowledge with simple-minded assumptions. The Iraqi intelligence documents provide numerous examples of just how wrong-headed these assumptions can be and the necessity of good human intelligence (HUMINT) collection.

Take the issue of Iraq's contacts with al Qaeda. No informed observer disputes that the Iraqi regime was in contact with al Qaeda operatives. But the conventional wisdom inside the CIA is that these contacts did not amount to much. This judgment is not based on a deep knowledge of either al Qaeda or the Iraqi regime. The CIA failed to recruit significant assets inside either. Instead, it is based on an assumption.

Bob Baer was one the few CIA operatives to aggressively pursue intelligence collection throughout the Middle East and other terrorist hotspots in the 1990's. Both of Baer's accounts of his decades on the job (Sleeping With The Devil and See No Evil) provide valuable insights into the workings of America's shadowy spook organization. Much of Baer's writings also reflect a keen understanding of how our terrorist enemies work. There is one notable exception.

In the mid-1990s Baer was stationed in Khartoum, Sudan. At the time, Khartoum was also home to the man who would become the most wanted terrorist in the world: Osama bin Laden. In Sleeping With The Devil, Baer notes that bin Laden was frequented by many guests, including Saddam's operatives. He writes:

A lot of Arabs were making the pilgrimage to Khartoum to see bin Laden. Iraqi intelligence had met with bin Laden on several occasions. Although we couldn't be positive, we assumed the emissaries were only taking bin Laden's measure, making sure he wasn't about to turn on them.

Thus, the CIA knew that bin Laden was meeting with Iraqi Intelligence. But without good human intelligence assets inside those meetings, or reliable electronic eavesdropping on the proceedings, the CIA couldn't be sure what exactly was going on. The Agency simply assumed there was no cause for concern.

Thanks to the document release project, however, we learn that this assumption was unwarranted.

One document released on the web earlier this year is an authenticated Iraqi intelligence memorandum summarizing several Iraqi contacts with al Qaeda in the mid-1990s. The memo discusses some of the very meetings Baer dismisses in his book. Some of the contents of the document had been previously reported in the New York Times and THE WEEKLY STANDARD, but the version released by the government allowed the public to read an English translation first-hand.

The story told by the internal Iraqi memorandum does not support the CIA's assumption.

The document was apparently authored in early 1997 and Iraqi intelligence recounts two requests from bin Laden for assistance. The first was a request for the Iraqi regime to rebroadcast al Qaeda propaganda from a leading Sheikh. Saddam agreed.