The Bush administration has decided to release most of the documents captured in post-war Afghanistan and Iraq. The details of the document release are still being worked out, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions. Those details are critical. At issue are things like the timeframe for releasing the documents, the mechanism for scrubbing documents for sensitive information, and most important, the criteria for withholding documents from the public. But some of the captured files should be available to the public and journalists within weeks if not days.
President George W. Bush has made clear in recent weeks his displeasure with the delays in getting the information out to the American public. On February 16, one day after ABC News broadcast excerpts of recordings featuring Saddam Hussein and his war cabinet, Bush met with congressional Republicans and several senior national security officials and said three times that the documents should be released. "This stuff ought to be out," he told National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley. "Put this stuff out." It seems Bush will soon get his wish.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who has been steadfast in his resolve to see these documents released, said today that "this is a bold decision in favor of openness that will go a long way towards improving our understanding of prewar Iraq . . . By placing these documents online and allowing the public the opportunity to review them, we can cut years off the time it will take to gain knowledge from this potential treasure trove of information."
Hadley and John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), informed House Intelligence Committee chairman Pete Hoekstra on Saturday. The three men all attended the white-tie Gridiron Club dinner, a mainstay of the Washington establishment in which journalists and politicians poke fun at one another and themselves in a series of songs and skits.
For months, Negroponte has fought any large-scale release of captured documents, arguing alternately that the documents were only of historical interest and that they contained too much sensitive, "actionable" intelligence to be released publicly. Late last week, after Hoekstra appeared on "Fox & Friends" to renew his call for the release of the documents, Negroponte began to soften his opposition. The two men spoke Wednesday morning, and the DNI told Hoekstra he was open to releasing some of the documents labeled "no intelligence value" as a way to begin the release process. Hoekstra took the offer as a good first step, but in a letter to Negroponte that same day insisted that documents relevant to the war be included in any release. The House Intelligence chairman spoke with White House officials, including Negroponte and Hadley, throughout the day Thursday and Friday, with the hope of securing a deal that would permit the documents to be made public. He left for the weekend without any assurances.
On Saturday night, according to Hoekstra, Negroponte left the head table to deliver the news. "We're going to do it," the DNI told Hoekstra. Hadley told Hoekstra the same thing in a separate conversation.
"This is very, very helpful," said Hoekstra on Sunday. He said that Negroponte proposed first releasing documents labeled by the intelligence community as "NIVs," those documents thought to have "no intelligence value." Hoekstra says that he made clear that he wants to release all the documents, particularly those concerning weapons of mass destruction, links to terrorism, and Saddam's violence against his own people. And he wants those documents released soon.
"I love John Negroponte most of the time, but he's still a bureaucrat," says Hoekstra. "What's fast to him may not be fast to you and me."
Among the items Hoekstra wants released quickly are 68 Iraqi documents that his office requested last fall and recently obtained. Hoekstra says there is "no silver bullet, no smoking gun" in those documents, but that their contents are nonetheless very interesting.
"Saddam Hussein and his henchmen systematically destroyed much of the good stuff," says Hoekstra. "We want to see what he missed." Indeed, in one memo found in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), the director of Iraqi Intelligence commands recipients to burn their offices. Paul Bremer, in his book My Year in Iraq, describes reading a similar memo. He writes: "Operatives were to engage in sabotage and looting."
Michael Tanji worked for four years on media exploitation for the DIA, rising to division chief. He believes that with proper resources devoted to digital media exploitation, even some of the information the Iraqis intended to destroy can be recovered.
"It is the release of captured digital media, more than paper documents, that will likely provide the most comprehensive view on what was going on in Iraq; the state of any WMD programs as well as the true nature of what was on the mind of Saddam's trusted class," says Tanji.
"Even if an order had come down to delete any sensitive data, only the most security conscious bother to go through the time and trouble of erasing digital data in a fashion that would defeat forensic recovery. With the U.S. Army rapidly approaching, the probability that scientists and officers took the appropriate steps to destroy incriminating data drops precipitously. That U.S. military and intelligence forces were able to obtain so much digital media from Iraqi citizens or the few government facilities that were not looted further supports this theory."
Tanji adds: "Interviews and interrogations of former regime leaders can produce meaningful results, but even under the best circumstances, long after the fact, human memory is fallible. A more accurate depiction of pre-war Iraq was put down on paper and in computer files at the time."
No one can say with any certainty what will come from the document release. Intelligence officials with knowledge of the exploitation process estimate that less than 4 percent of the overall document collection has been fully exploited. It's reasonable to assume that documents in the collection will provide support to both supporters of the war in Iraq and critics. Summaries of the exploited materials, listed in a U.S. government database known as HARMONY, suggest that the new material will at least complicate the overly simplified conventional wisdom that the former Iraqi regime posed no real threat.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard