WHEN SENATOR CARL LEVIN REQUESTED the partial declassification of a Defense Intelligence Agency report in mid-October, the response was swift: He had it in his hands in eight days, reports the New York Times.

If only I were a senator.

For two years, I have been working to obtain copies of unclassified documents discovered in postwar Iraq. My reasoning is simple: If we understand what the Iraqi regime was doing in the months and years before the war, we will be better able to assess the nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and, perhaps, to better understand the insurgency. It's not a light subject, to be sure.

But the quest for the documents, while frustrating, has also been highly amusing. It is a story of bureaucratic incompetence and strategic incoherence. It is also a story--this one not funny at all--about the failure to explain the Iraq war. Two years after I started my pursuit, I'm not much closer to my goal.

Why? I have been told countless times by officials of the executive branch that there is no need to reargue the case for war, that what matters now is winning on the ground, that our intelligence professionals don't have time to review history, so occupied are they with current intelligence about current threats. I'm sympathetic to at least part of that thinking; it's hard to insist in the face of new and evolving threats that intelligence analysts should spend their precious time evaluating the past.

So if the intelligence professionals don't have time to analyze the papers left behind by Saddam Hussein's government, why not let the press and private-sector scholars do it?

Besides, in the end, the notion that the Bush administration doesn't need to continue to make the case for war is shortsighted.

Talk to senior American diplomats and military officers in Iraq today and they will tell you that the insurgents closely monitor the debate here in the United States. As domestic support for the war dwindles, the insurgents increasingly believe they can win; they fight harder, they raise more money, they gain new recruits. If these U.S. officials are correct, then continuing to make the case for war in Iraq--to remind people with specifics, not platitudes, why we're fighting--is not a distraction but a central component of fighting to win.

Talk to Sen. John McCain, who urges "a renewed effort to win the homefront," lest we lose sight of this fact: "Success or failure in Iraq is the transcendent issue for our foreign policy and our national security, for now and years to come." Said McCain, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute last week, "A renewed effort at home starts with explaining precisely what is at stake in this war--not to alarm Americans, but so that they see the nature of this struggle for what it is. The president cannot do this alone."

I DON'T REMEMBER when I first heard about the project in Doha, Qatar, but I do remember that I was very interested in learning more about it. The effort, led by Central Command with assistance from the Defense Intelligence Agency, is reviewing the detritus of the former Iraqi regime: videotapes, photographs, and many, many documents. One aspect of the effort is something called "Doc-Ex," short for document exploitation. Several intelligence analysts, together with several dozen translators, most of them from Jordan, are sifting through millions of pages of documents unearthed in Iraq after the toppling of the regime.

It's not an easy job. Some of the documents are forged. Others are hard to read after being damaged by fire, or the water used to extinguish those fires, in the days and weeks after the U.S. invasion. Making the job even more difficult is the fact that many of these documents have come from larger sets of documents that never made it to Doha. We know that the Iraqi regime in the run-up to war systematically destroyed what it considered the most incriminating evidence of its misdeeds. So our analysts are essentially looking at isolated pieces of a much larger puzzle without knowing whether they will ever have the remaining pieces.

The document collection effort in Iraq was haphazard, to say the least. No comprehensive guidance was ever provided to soldiers and intelligence officials on what exactly they should collect. This lack of direction meant that in many cases unit commanders made decisions about what to gather and what to discard. When David Kay ran the Iraq Survey Group searching for weapons of mass destruction, he instructed his team to ignore anything not directly related to the regime's WMD efforts. As a consequence, documents describing the regime's training and financing of terrorists were labeled "No Intelligence Value" and often discarded, according to two sources.

Still, the job in Qatar is daunting. When I spoke to a senior intelligence official last January about the progress being made on the document exploitation project, the official said he hoped all the documents would be "eyeballed"--not translated and evaluated, merely looked at--at least once by August. When I pressed him, saying that timeline seemed unrealistically optimistic, he shrugged. "Probably."

It was. According to several officials familiar with the project, analysts and translators are still swimming in documents. They often work in two shifts, day and night, but the total manpower devoted to the project is less than 200 people. There have been discussions about outsourcing the work--perhaps to the Iraq Memory Foundation, formerly affiliated with Harvard University--but no final decision has been made.

I formalized my interest in the project and these documents with a written request to the Pentagon press office in February 2005. I was interested in seeing some of the documents and said I was willing to travel to Doha if necessary. Despite vague promises of help, nothing happened.

Working outside formal Pentagon lines of inquiry, I soon learned more. Many of the documents from Doha had been entered into a database known as HARMONY. HARMONY is a thick stew of reports and findings from a variety of intelligence agencies and military units, and alongside the Iraqi documents were reports from contributing U.S. agencies. Eventually, I got a list of document titles that seemed particularly interesting:

1. Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) Correspondence to Iraq Embassy in the Philippines and Iraq MFA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

2. Possible al Qaeda Terror Members in Iraq

3. IIS report on Taliban-Iraq Connections Claims

4. Money Transfers from Iraq to Afghanistan

5. IIS Agent in Bulgaria

6. Iraqi Intel report on Kurdish Activities: Mention of Kurdish Report on al Qaeda--reference to al Qaeda presence in Salman Pak

7. IIS report about the relationship between IIS and the Kurdish Group Jalal Talibani [sic]

8. Iraqi Mukhabarat Structure

9. Locations of Weapons/Ammunition Storage (with map)

10. Iraqi Effort to Cooperate with Saudi Opposition Groups and Individuals

11. Order from Saddam to present $25,000 to Palestinian Suicide Bombers Families

12. IIS reports from Embassy in Paris: Plan to Influence French Stance on U.N. Security Council

13. IIS Importing and Hiding High Tech Computers in Violation of UN

14. IIS request to move persons, documents to private residences

15. Formulas and information about Iraq's Chemical Weapons Agents

16. Denial and Deception of WMD and Killing of POWs

17. 1987 orders by Hussein to use chemical weapons in the Ealisan Basin

18. Ricin research and improvement

19. Personnel file of Saad Mohammad Abd Hammadi al Deliemi

20. Memo from the Arab Liaison Committee: With a list of personnel in need of official documents

21. Fedayeen Saddam Responds to IIS regarding rumors of citizens aiding Afghanistan

22. Document from Uday Hussein regarding Taliban activity

23. Improvised Explosive Devices Plan

24. IIS reports on How French Campaigns are Financed

25. French and German relationships with Iraq

26. IIS reports about Russian Companies--News articles and potential IIS agents

27. IIS plan for 2000 of Europe's Influence of Iraq Strategy

28. IIS plans to infiltrate countries and collect information to help remove sanctions

29. Correspondence from IIS and the stations in Europe

30. Contract for satellite pictures between Russia, France and Iraq: Pictures of Neighboring Countries (Dec. 2002)

31. Chemical Gear for Fedayeen Saddam

32. Memo from the IIS to Hide Information from a U.N. Inspection team (1997)

33. Chemical Agent Purchase Orders (Dec. 2001)

34. Iraq Ministry of Defense Calls for Investigation into why documents related to WMD were found by UN inspection team

35. Correspondence between various Iraq organizations giving instructions to hide chemicals and equipment

36. Correspondence from IIS to MIC regarding information gathered by foreign intelligence satellites on WMD (Dec. 2002)

37. Correspondence from IIS to Iraqi Embassy in Malaysia

38. Cleaning chemical suits and how to hide chemicals

39. IIS plan of what to do during UNSCOM inspections (1996)

40. Secret Meeting with Taliban Group Member and Iraqi Government (Nov. 2000)

There are thousands of similar documents. Most of them are unclassified. That's important: Most of them are unclassified.

Because I'd been told that these documents are all unclassified, I requested copies from the Pentagon press office. For reasons I still do not entirely understand, the Pentagon would not provide them. Captain Roxie Merritt, the director of Pentagon press operations, suggested I file a Freedom of Information Act request. I did so on June 19, 2005. Two weeks later I received a letter from the Pentagon's Office of Freedom of Information and Security Review.

The information you requested is under the cognizance of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). We have referred your request to them at the address provided below requesting they respond directly to you.

Defense Intelligence Agency

Attn: SVI-1, Room E4-234

Washington, DC 20340-5100

On July 22, 2005, I emailed Captain Merritt in the Pentagon public affairs office. Captain Merritt was then--and remained throughout the process--gracious and professional. I got the feeling she was being as helpful as the bureaucracy would allow her to be.

She wrote:

DIA FOIA has confirmed they have your request. Here is the challenge as they described it to me.

"This is not a simple request. . . . There are multiple agencies/ organizations involved. It isn't as though the documents are laying around in a neat pile waiting for someone to ask for them. The most logical place for the requested documents to be is in a database known as HARMONY. INSCOM (NGIC) is the program manager (owner) of HARMONY, but as they are quick to point out, "anyone" can enter items into the database, so they do not consider themselves the "owner" of the information in the database. Whoever input the information into HARMONY is the release authority of that information and you can't determine who that is until you find the requested documents. For the 44 requested documents, you're talking mega-hours of searching. Of course, the documents may not even be in HARMONY, which would require searching elsewhere (our FOIA folks are looking into that as well). Our FOIA monitor is talking with INSCOM to determine the most efficient way of retrieving the requested documents."

I didn't understand it either.

For weeks I heard nothing. So on August 23, 2005, I emailed Captain Merritt again. She responded quickly.


Had my folks check. . . . DIA referred the request to Army's INSCOM which does FOIA on behalf of NGIC . . . the owner of HARMONY. I asked if they had advised you of the referral . . . they had not, but will do so.

In early September I received a letter from the DIA.

This responds to your request under the Freedom of Information Act dated 19 June 2005. Therein you requested from the Department of Defense 43 documents. Your request was referred to the Defense Intelligence Agency on 1 July 2005 and assigned case number 0622-05.

The thrill of having been assigned a DIA case number was short-lived. I learned in the next paragraph that the DIA was no longer handling the request.

These documents are under the purview of the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command and your request has been forwarded to that organization for processing and direct response to you.

On September 14, 2005, I emailed Captain Merritt and asked for a contact name at INSCOM. She tasked a subordinate to get back to me. That never happened.

Then, two weeks later, I received a letter dated September 20, 2005. It came from the FOIA office of the Army's Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Meade, Maryland. Once again, I had gotten a case number. And once again the case number was meaningless.

Since additional time is needed to search for records at another element of our command, we are unable to comply with the statutory 20-day time limit in processing your request. Therefore, you may consider this an administrative denial of your request . . .

And so I did.

SOME OF THE DOCUMENT TITLES I requested are suggestive, others less so. It's possible that the "Document from Uday Hussein regarding Taliban activity" was critical of one or another Taliban policies. But it's equally possible, given Uday's known role as a go-between for the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda, that something more nefarious was afoot.

What was discussed at the "Secret Meeting with Taliban Group Member and Iraqi Government" in November 2000? It could be something innocuous. Maybe not. But it would be nice to know more.

Was there really a contract for satellite pictures among Russia, France, and Iraq in December 2002? That would have been a mere three months before the war, at a time when France was telling the U.S. government it supported "serious consequences" for Iraqi noncompliance with U.N. inspections.

One of the documents, "Iraqi Efforts to Cooperate with Saudi Opposition Groups and Individuals," had been provided to the New York Times last summer. Thom Shanker, one of the Times's best reporters, wrote a story based on the document, which was an internal Iraqi Intelligence memo. The Iraqi document revealed that a Sudanese government official met with Uday Hussein and the director of the Iraqi Intelligence Service in 1994 and reported that bin Laden was willing to meet in Sudan. Bin Laden, according to the Iraqi document, was then "approached by our side" after "presidential approval" for the liaison was given. The former head of Iraqi Intelligence Directorate 4 met with bin Laden on February 19, 1995. The document further states that bin Laden "had some reservations about being labeled an Iraqi operative"--a comment that suggests the possibility had been discussed. (According to another Iraqi Intelligence document, authenticated by the DIA and first reported on 60 Minutes, the regime considered bin Laden an "Iraqi Intelligence asset" as early as 1992, though it's unclear that bin Laden shared this view.)

According to a report in the Times, bin Laden requested that Iraq's state-run television network broadcast anti-Saudi propaganda; the document indicates that the Iraqis agreed to do this. The al Qaeda leader also proposed "joint operations against foreign forces" in Saudi Arabia. There is no Iraqi response provided in the documents. When bin Laden left Sudan for Afghanistan in May 1996, the Iraqis sought "other channels through which to handle the relationship, in light of his current location." The IIS memo directs that "cooperation between the two organizations should be allowed to develop freely through discussion and agreement."

What kind of cooperation resulted from this discussion and agreement?

You'd think the U.S. government, journalists, and policy types--not to mention attentive citizens--would want to know more. You'd think they'd be eager.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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