On February 16, President George W. Bush assembled a small group of congressional Republicans for a briefing on Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley were there, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad participated via teleconference from Baghdad. As the meeting was beginning, Mike Pence spoke up. The Indiana Republican, a leader of conservatives in the House, was seated next to Bush.
"Yesterday, Mr. President, the war had its best night on the network news since the war ended," Pence said.
"Is this the tapes thing?" Bush asked, referring to two ABC News reports that included excerpts of recordings Saddam Hussein made of meetings with his war cabinet in the years before the U.S. invasion. Bush had not seen the newscasts but had been briefed on them.
Pence framed his response as a question, quoting Abraham Lincoln: "One of your Republican predecessors said, 'Give the people the facts and the Republic will be saved.' There are 3,000 hours of Saddam tapes and millions of pages of other documents that we captured after the war. When will the American public get to see this information?"
Bush replied that he wanted the documents released. He turned to Hadley and asked for an update. Hadley explained that John Negroponte, Bush's Director of National Intelligence, "owns the documents" and that DNI lawyers were deciding how they might be handled.
Bush extended his arms in exasperation and worried aloud that people who see the documents in 10 years will wonder why they weren't released sooner. "If I knew then what I know now," Bush said in the voice of a war skeptic, "I would have been more supportive of the war."
Bush told Hadley to expedite the release of the Iraq documents. "This stuff ought to be out. Put this stuff out." The president would reiterate this point before the meeting adjourned. And as the briefing ended, he approached Pence, poked a finger in the congressman's chest, and thanked him for raising the issue. When Pence began to restate his view that the documents should be released, Bush put his hand up, as if to say, "I hear you. It will be taken care of."
It was not the first time Bush has made clear his desire to see the Iraq documents released. On November 30, 2005, he gave a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. Four members of Congress attended: Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee; Sen. John Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona; and Pence. After his speech, Bush visited with the lawmakers for 10 minutes in a holding room to the side of the stage. Hoekstra asked Bush about the documents and the president said he was pressing to have them released.
Says Pence: "I left both meetings with the unambiguous impression that the president of the United States wants these documents to reach the American people."
Negroponte never got the message. Or he is choosing to ignore it. He has done nothing to expedite the exploitation of the documents. And he continues to block the growing congressional effort, led by Hoekstra, to have the documents released.
For months, Negroponte has argued privately that while the documents may be of historical interest, they are not particularly valuable as intelligence product. A statement by his office in response to the recordings aired by ABC said, "Analysts from the CIA and the DIA reviewed the translations and found that, while fascinating from a historical perspective, the tapes do not reveal anything that changes their postwar analysis of Iraq's weapons programs."
Left unanswered was what the analysts made of the Iraqi official who reported to Saddam that components of the regime's nuclear program had been "transported out of Iraq." Who gave this report to Saddam and when did he give it? How were the materials "transported out of Iraq"? Where did they go? Where are they now? And what, if anything, does this tell us about Saddam's nuclear program? It may be that the intelligence community has answers to these questions. If so, they have not shared them. If not, the tapes are far more than "fascinating from a historical perspective."
Officials involved with DOCEX--as the U.S. government's document exploitation project is known to insiders--tell The Weekly Standard that only some 3 percent of the 2 million captured documents have been fully translated and analyzed. No one familiar with the project argues that exploiting these documents has been a priority of the U.S. intelligence community.
Negroponte's argument rests on the assumption that the history captured in these documents would not be important to those officials--elected and unelected, executive branch and legislative--whose job it is to craft U.S. foreign and national security policy. He's mistaken.
An example: On April 13, 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle published an exhaustive article based on documents reporter Robert Collier unearthed in an Iraqi Intelligence safehouse in Baghdad. The claims were stunning.
The documents found Thursday and Friday in a Baghdad office of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police, indicate that at least five agents graduated Sept. 15 from a two--week course in surveillance and eavesdropping techniques, according to certificates issued to the Iraqi agents by the "Special Training Center" in Moscow . . .
Details about the Mukhabarat's Russian spy training emerged from some Iraqi agents' personnel folders, hidden in a back closet in a center for electronic surveillance located in a four-story mansion in the Mesbah district, Baghdad's wealthiest neighborhood. . . .
Three of the five Iraqi agents graduated late last year from a two-week course in "Phototechnical and Optical Means," given by the Special Training Center in Moscow, while two graduated from the center's two-week course in "Acoustic Surveillance Means."
One of the graduating officers, identified in his personnel file as Sami Rakhi Mohammad Jasim al-Mansouri, 46, is described as being connected to "the general management of counterintelligence" in the south of the country. . . .
His certificate, which bears the double-eagle symbol of the Russian Federation and a stylized star symbol that resembles the seal of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, uses a shortened version of al-Mansouri's name.
It says he entered the Moscow-based Special Training Center's "advanced" course in "acoustic surveillance means" on Sept. 2, 2002, and graduated on Sept. 15.
Four days later, the Chronicle reported that the "Moscow-based Special Training Center," was the Russian foreign intelligence service, known as SVR, and the SVR confirmed the training:
A spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Boris Labusov, acknowledged that Iraqi secret police agents had been trained by his agency but said the training was for nonmilitary purposes, such as fighting crime and terrorism.
Yet documents discovered in Baghdad by The Chronicle last week suggest that the spying techniques the Iraqi agents learned in Russia may have been used against foreign diplomats and civilians, raising doubt about the accuracy of Labusov's characterization.
Labusov, the press officer for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, confirmed that the certificates discovered by The Chronicle were genuine and that the Iraqis had received the training the documents described.
The Russians declared early in the U.N. process that they preferred inspections to war. Perhaps we now know why. Still, it is notable that at precisely the same time Russian intelligence was training Iraqi operatives, senior Russian government officials were touting their alliance with the United States. Russian foreign minister Boris Malakhov proclaimed that the two countries were "partners in the anti-terror coalition" and Putin spokesman Sergei Prikhodko declared, "Russia and the United States have a common goal regarding the Iraqi issue." (Of course, these men may have been in the dark on what their intelligence service was up to.) On November 8, 2002, six weeks after the Iraqis completed their Russian training, Russia voted in favor of U.N. Resolution 1441, which threatened "serious consequences" for continued Iraqi defiance on its weapons programs.
Maybe this is mere history to Negroponte. But it has practical implications for policymakers assessing Russia's role as go-between in the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Perhaps anticipating the weakness of his "mere history" argument, Negroponte abruptly shifted his position last week. He still opposes releasing the documents, only now he claims that the information in these documents is so valuable that it cannot be made public. Negroponte gave a statement to Fox News responding to Hoekstra's call to release the captured documents. "These documents have provided, and continue to provide, actionable intelligence to ongoing operations. . . . It would be ill-advised to release these materials without careful screening because the material includes sensitive and potentially harmful information."
This new position raises two obvious questions: If the documents have provided actionable intelligence, why has the intelligence community exploited so few of them? And why hasn't Negroponte demanded more money and manpower for the DOCEX program?
Sadly, these obvious questions have an obvious answer. The intelligence community is not interested in releasing documents captured in postwar Afghanistan and Iraq. Why this is we can't be sure. But Pete Hoekstra offers one distinct possibility.
"They are State Department people who want to make no waves and don't want to do anything that would upset anyone," he says.
This is not idle speculation. In meetings with Hoekstra, Negroponte and his staff have repeatedly expressed concern that releasing this information might embarrass our allies. Who does Negroponte have in mind?
Allies like Russia?
Hoekstra says Negroponte's intransigence is forcing him to get the documents out "the hard way." The House Intelligence chairman has introduced a bill (H.R. 4869) that would require the DNI to begin releasing the captured documents. Although Negroponte continues to argue against releasing the documents in internal discussions, on March 9, he approached Hoekstra with a counterproposal. Negroponte offered to release some documents labeled "No Intelligence Value," and indicated his willingness to review other documents for potential release, subject to a scrub for sensitive material.
And there, of course, is the potential problem. Negroponte could have been releasing this information all along, but chose not to. So, in a way, nothing really changes. Still, for Hoekstra, this is the first sign of any willingness to release the documents.
"I'm encouraged that John is taking another look at it," Hoekstra said last Thursday. "But I want a system that is biased in favor of declassification. I want some assurance that they aren't just picking the stuff that's garbage and releasing that. If we're only declassifying maps of Baghdad, I'm not going to be happy."
He continued: "There may be many documents that relate to Iraqi WMD programs. Those should be released. Same thing with documents that show links to terrorism. They have to release documents on topics of interest to the American people and they have to give me some kind of schedule. What's the time frame? I don't have any idea."
Hoekstra is not going away. "We're going to ride herd on this. This is a step in the right direction, but I am in no way claiming victory. I want these documents out."
So does President Bush. You'd think that would settle it.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.