Open the Iraq Files
American spooks don't want to release Saddam's secrets.

Friday, March 3, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

When the 9/11 Commission bullied Congress into creating the Directorate of National Intelligence, we doubted that another layer of bureaucracy on top of the CIA would fix much of anything. Our skepticism has since been largely reinforced--most recently by the DNI's reluctance to release what's contained in the millions of "exploitable" documents and other items captured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These items--collected and examined in Qatar as part of what's known as the Harmony program--appear to contain information highly relevant to the ongoing debate over the war on terror. But nearly three years after Baghdad fell, we see no evidence that much of what deserves to be public will be anytime soon.

For example, if it hadn't been for the initiative of one Bill Tierney, we wouldn't know that Saddam Hussein had a habit of tape-recording meetings with top aides. The former U.N. weapons inspector and experienced Arabic translator recently went public with 12 hours (out of a reported total of 3,000) of recordings in which we hear Saddam discuss with the likes of Tariq Aziz the process of deceiving U.N. weapons inspectors and his view that Iraq's conflict with the U.S. didn't end with the first Gulf War.

In one particularly chilling passage, the dictator discusses the threat of WMD terrorism to the United States and the difficulty anyone would have tracing it back to a state. With the 2001 anthrax attacks still unsolved, that strikes us as bigger news than the DNI or most editors apparently considered it.

In another disclosure, The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes was told by about a dozen officials that Harmony documents describe in detail how Saddam trained thousands of Islamic radicals in the waning years of his regime. So much for the judgments of many in the intelligence community--including Paul Pillar, the latest ex-spook to go public with his antiwar message--that the secular Saddam would never consort with such religious types.

To its credit, the DNI did bless the recent release of about two dozen documents from Afghanistan as part of a West Point study painting a portrait of al Qaeda's organizational structure. They show that al Qaeda functioned like a corporation in some ways, with fixed terms for employee benefits such as family leave, and seem to vindicate the once-controversial decision to move quickly to destroy al Qaeda's base of operations in Afghanistan.

But these tantalizing tidbits represent only a fraction of what's in U.S. possession. We hear still other documents expand significantly on our knowledge of Saddam's WMD ambitions (including more on the Niger-uranium connection) and his support for terrorism, right down to lists of potential targets in the U.S. and Europe. Former Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle accuses the DNI of "foolish restraint" on releasing information that could broaden understanding and bolster support for a war that is far from won. Representative Pete Hoekstra (R., Mich.) echoes that criticism. And after chatting with the Congressman and with someone we agreed to describe as a "senior intelligence official familiar with the program," we largely agree.

The intelligence community has a point that some caution must be exercised. For example, the senior intelligence official pointed out, some documents describe in detail rapes and other abuses committed by Saddam's regime--details that could still haunt living victims in such an honor-bound society as Iraq. But while it would seem to make sense to screen the documents for such items--and perhaps terrorist recipes such as ricin--we still can't understand how that justifies the current pace and method of making information public.

And our alarm bells really rang when the intelligence official added another category of information that's never slated to see the light of day: "We cannot release wholesale material that we can reasonably foresee will damage the national interest." Well, what exactly does that mean and who makes the call? The answer, apparently, is unaccountable analysts following State Department guidelines.

But consider just one hypothetical: Is it in the "national interest" to reveal documents if they show that Jacques Chirac played a more substantial role in encouraging Saddam's intransigence than is already known? No doubt some Foggy Bottom types would say no. But we'd strongly disagree. The "national interest" exception is so broad and vague that it would end up being used to justify keeping secret the merely embarrassing.

What's more, according to Mr. Hoekstra, the DNI release plans don't call for making any documents publicly available per se, but only through scholars in the manner of the West Point study. As he puts it, the decision to move everything through analysts and carefully chosen outsiders is an "analog" method in a "digital" age, when we could be calling on the interpretive wisdom of so many by putting much of it on the Internet.

Yesterday Mr. Hoekstra introduced a bill to require the intelligence community to be more forthcoming with the Iraq and Afghanistan documents. "I'm beginning to believe the postwar intelligence may be as bad as the prewar intelligence," he says. Another person who sees vast room for improvement is Iraqi scholar Kanan Makiya, who founded the Iraq Memory Foundation. While he shares the DNI's concerns about potential damage to some people mentioned therein, he also says the U.S. government has gone too far and needs to find better ways to grant access to this information.

America went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan because we believed that the truth about the regimes in those countries justified it. Why should so much of that truth now be deemed so sensitive?