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03-10-06, 12:50 PM
The Saddam Files: National Security and Enemy Documents
March 10th, 2006
J.R. Dunn

Two million captured documents from the files of Saddam Hussein’s government remain mostly un-translated, their contents unavailable to the national conversation on Middle East policy. History has some lessons for us in the treatment of treasure troves of enemy files. We can – and must – do better.

The Venona decrypts, the crown jewels of Cold War intelligence, were the product of a program carried out by the U.S. Army Signal Security Agency. Beginning in 1943, the agency’s codebreaking force at Arlington Hall set to work on several hundred thousand Soviet cables intercepted from embassies and other sources. At first progress was hit and miss, but at last in 1946 a breakthrough was made by the legendary codebreaker Meredith Gardner. A widely-repeated story holds that the key element was a partially-burned codebook provided by the Finns. (Learning of the codebook’s existence, FDR’s strange secretary of state Edward Stettinius returned it to the Soviets with apologies, undoubtedly tipping them that something was in the works.) But the major break came from Soviet misuse of one-time pads, a kindergartenblunder where cyphering is concerned.

The Venona decrypts proved invaluable. One of the first alerted authorities to the fact that security at the Manhattan Project was less than airtight, leading to the breaking of the Rosenberg spy ring. Other Soviet agents exposed by the decrypts included Alger Hiss, Maurice Halperin of the OSS, treasury official Harry Dexter White, and government economist Lauchlin Currie.

Venona was at first a cooperative Army-FBI project, reporting directly to chief of staff Omar Bradley. For reasons of his own, and fitting quite well with his personality and history (Bradley was in many ways the George McClellan of the 20th century), Bradley decided not to inform President Harry Truman about the decrypts.

The program remained on that level of secrecy for the next fifty years.

Throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Venona went unmentioned. Even after the program was closed down in 1980, the secrecy lasted another fifteen years, until at last the veil was lifted by a bipartisan Commission on Government Secrecy chaired by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan.

At the same time, the Red Scare legend was in the process of being constructed. It was a fantasy history claiming that Hiss, the Rosenbergs, White and all the rest were innocent victims of crazed paranoids, that the entire postwar campaign against subversion was based on a lie, that the U.S. government was a nest of fraud and terror.

Instead of a justified series of actions against an undeniable threat, at times undercut by the excesses of people like J. Parnell Thomas and Joe McCarthy, we got the legend of the “Witch Hunt,” where tens of thousands of innocents were harassed, denied work, forced into exile, and even (in the case of the Rosenbergs) executed, all in pursuit of illusory Reds. (McCarthy fans will be dismayed to learn that not a single individual targeted by him is mentioned in the intercepts.)

The Witch Hunt legend was used to blacken the honorable struggle against communism, to degrade honest conservatives, to undermine classic liberalism in favor of a debased New Left model, and to rehabilitate many figures of the era who deserve nothing but contempt. By the ‘60s, anyone who spoke against communism was libeled as an “extremist,” as in the case of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Ensuing years saw a Left-wing rebirth growing out of opposition to the Vietnam War with an impact beyond the wildest dreams of old Bolshies like Earl Browder or Gus Hall.

We’re still living with the results today, with the academy, the media and entertainment industries, many unions, and the Democratic Party still enmeshed in a thoroughly discredited ideology, based on a fraudulent historical narrative.

All of this could have been restrained, and perhaps curtailed, by a timely release of the Venona files. Such an action would have proved that the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, that there was solid reason to believe the same of Alger Hiss, that the Manhattan Project was as packed with communists as a Soviet party congress, that Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley told nothing but the truth.

Why the documents were held so long is uncertain. The National Security Agency’s own explanation, that “there was hope that unidentified cover names could be identified” is nonsense. There’s no rational reason why such work could not have continued after the information had gone public. And in fact, publication might well have helped expose a few more turncoats, on the “shaking the tree” principle.

The truth is very likely, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued in his book, Secrecy: the American Experience that the culture of secrecy is simply self-perpetuating. Such-and-such documents are secret because they were secret and always will be secret. The same phenomenon can be seen in the British Ultra program, the incredibly successful decryption of German signals during WW II. Ultra did not see the light of day until 1972, long after the lastNazi was pried from his bunker. (At that, the British were precipitate under their own rules – typically, fifty years must pass before a state secret is declassified in the UK. Someone evidently thought better where Ultra was concerned.

The same should have happened with Venona.

Venona has attained new relevance thanks to an analogous situation rising out of the Iraq War. The Harmony files are a cache of 2 million documents recovered from various offices of Saddam Hussein’s government. They have been in the possession of the National Security Agency (the direct descendant of Arlington Hall) since shortly after conventional combat ended in April 2003.

Yet in that time, only 50,000 documents – a mere 2% of the total – have been translated.

According to Stephen F. Hayes, who has done yeoman work on this story in a series of articles for the Weekly Standard, there is no firm commitment, or even much in the way of comment, from the NSA on the balance of the documents.

Many of the circumstances surrounding the war remain matters of debate, matters that could quite possibly be settled by what’s contained in these documents. Several of those already translated offered some surprising – and not completely conclusive – information on one of the basic mysteries of the war, Saddam Hussein’s relations with Al-Queda. Is there more? Nobody yet knows, and the NSA, for its part, does not seem to care. A request for fifty specific documents made to the NSA by Rep. Peter Hoekstra late last year was delayed repeatedly for no known reason. Hoekstra finally received the documents several weeks ago. Further queries about the fate of the remainder have gone unanswered.

Since their debut under the Byzantines, intelligence agencies have held the same two loyalties: to their own organization and to the government, in that order. No others are honored, not to the larger society, or the people who comprise it. There is something deeply wrong with this, something so inherent in the twisted nature of espionage as to perhaps be uncorrectable. But there are cases where the needs of the larger society must take precedence, and this is one of them.

Something has to be done to assure that the fate of Venona doesn’t befall the Harmony documents.

One giant step in the right direction is that they are already publicly known and not classified. But there are ways of playing the game to assure that things will progress slow, slower and slowest, and that, under the direction of overall intelligence director John D. Negroponte, appears to be the way the Intelligence Community is playing it.

There are several possible solutions. Since the information in the Harmony documents pertains to a government that no longer exists, there can’t be any harm in releasing them in toto. There may possibly be something really embarrassing about earlier U.S.-Iraq relations, but I doubt it. If there were, the vast international horde of America-haters would have already ferreted out the story.

That being the likely case, the sole remaining obstacle is translation.

One possibility would be to form a commission made up of individuals with expertise in defense, intelligence, the Middle East, and not to mention Arabic, to go over the documents, get them translated, and oversee their release. Large numbers of Arabic speakers would have to be recruited for the task, and vetting procedures alone could be time-consuming and constrain an already limited candidate pool.

Another possibility, one that would take considerably less time, is open sourcing—that is, scanning and releasing the entire batch over the Net, to be translated and examined by the mammoth and underutilized army of Net-savvy citizens. (Hats off to the editor maximus of the American Thinker for this idea.)

Such an effort would be similar to the arrangement that NASA made some time ago for the return of the Stardust cometary probe. The probe’s return package consisted of tens of thousands of microscopic gel-coated cells, any one of which might have caught a cometary particle. Lacking the manpower to adequately inspect every last cell, NASA asked for volunteers, all of whom were sent the magnified image of a single cell to examine on their computer screen. When they discovered a particle, they e-mailed NASA.

Something similar could work here. Arab speakers could access the papers, read through them, and notify the government when they found something of interest. This approach would solve several problems – break the translation logjam, put the information in the public domain, and stop the files from acting as a political football. Disputes over the appropriate meaning of certain phrases, or the implications of certain words, would take place online in public. It would also, no less importantly, serve to increase citizen involvement in the war effort.

This may well be too utopian an idea. But anything would be superior to the situation as it stands. In a recent column, Byron York reported that various cranks have already begun taking advantage of new intelligence findings. Is there any doubt where this will eventually lead?

Every war produces evil byproducts, prolonged wars more than most. A timely release of the Venona files could have greatly reduced the lingering evils of our last long war. Quick action on the Harmony files could cut off a possible replay before it has a chance to start.

Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.