IT'S INTERESTING that the New York Times--the apparent arbiter of what is truly secret and what ought to be published--is suddenly so concerned about the possible release of classified material captured in Iraq--material they claim has helped Iran with its own nuclear weapons development program. The perpetrators of this dastardly deed? The vast right-wing conspiracy of course.
Per the Times story, conservatives in the House and Senate, along with the president, pressured the director of national intelligence to release the unclassified documents captured by U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom in an attempt to--paraphrasing the Times and assorted skeptics--find WMD needles in a massive paper haystack. As the intelligence community was overwhelmed with the scale of the effort required to make full use of this data, those in the public with the requisite skills and interest would be turned loose like an army of analysts.
Not content to point out that the streets of Baghdad weren't paved with nerve-gas-filled artillery shells, major news weeklies dug out quotes from anonymous intelligence officials who dismissed out of hand the idea that amateurs could outdo the work of experts with security clearances, or that anything of value could be found in the detritus of post-war Iraq. The Senate intelligence committee's own Phase II intelligence report pointed out that the intelligence community had essentially given up on further work associated with captured media. If the professionals did not see any point in continuing, why bother?
As I used to be an intelligence official associated with this mission, I don't mind telling you that there were some very good reasons to bother.
First and foremost were the nearly 3,000 troops who died either liberating the Iraqi people from a dictatorship or defending them against an Iranian fueled insurgency that targets civilians and hides behind children. Intelligence guides military operations and, if the latter is ever going to trust the former again, intelligence practitioners and those who lead them are obliged to do everything they can to confirm the military's successes and demonstrate that it has learned from its mistakes.
Second, there are significant problems with the exploitation process. I have explained the general concept and its shortcomings in the pages of this magazine previously. This is a mission that could be doing great things, but when offered the chance to make dramatic improvements in their capabilities--capabilities that could have more rapidly put meaningful, actionable intelligence in the hands of people who could use it to greatest effect--the lead agency for DOCEX responded by downsizing and downgrading its exploitation office.
Finally, a dedicated captured media analysis effort was made available to the very analysts who were earlier called upon to assess the threat posed by Saddam's regime. They could have cared less. The primary post-war attempt to justify the case for action focused on physical inspection of a limited number of suspected WMD sites, all while the notes, memos, and other documentation from those responsible for any such programs were mostly ignored. The unspoken message was clear: the war is over; everyone thinks we screwed up, so we are moving on. Up until this point I had never heard of anyone opting to give up on an intelligence problem because there was too much information to be addressed.
Overwhelmed with mountains of mostly unclassified data and with the world outside the intelligence community making great strides with distributed, information-age methodologies, it was to be expected that those who were advocating for a full accounting of the state of pre-war Iraq would suggest turning the grunt work over to the public. It was a radical but intelligent course of action, yet it still took the threat of legislation and presidential intervention to get the director of national intelligence to cooperate. This is the same DNI that is now touting the use of classified blogs--a secret version of Wikipedia--and the army of analysts approach that has been applied to the National Intelligence Estimate on Nigeria. While the "public intelligence agency" effort for captured Iraqi media did not initiate these advancements in intelligence methodology, it is encouraging to think that it served as an impetus to advance them.
When the Times finally did take notice, the paper knowingly and willingly allowed an alleged atomic bomb "cookbook" to remain available to rogue regimes and terrorists. One wonders what cost-benefit analysis algorithm was used in their decision-making process, and if it was the same one used to assess the righteousness of publishing the NSA terrorist surveillance program? The story implies that conservative activism has helped Iran become a greater threat to the world, but this point could not have been made without contradicting earlier reporting that said Iraq was not a threat to the world. The angst felt in the newsroom must have been terrible.
* Iraq was not a threat to the world until the army of analysts started highlighting points to the contrary.
* The findings of this amateur analytic army were suspect because they were using questionable documents; until those same documents needed to be valid to support a hit job on conservatives.
* Believing that conservative activism made the world a more dangerous place, the Times opted to leave the evidence they needed to support their story online, thereby making the world a more dangerous place.
In response to the Times story the documents in question were not pulled--the entire site was closed down. Ending the collective analysis effort even temporarily does not reduce the threat posed by our adversaries. In fact, it puts threat analysis back into the same closed system that failed us in New York in 1993, Yemen in 2000, and New York and Washington in 2001. Of course the necessity of a security review for any inadvertent disclosures would have been negated had internal experts bothered to do a proper evaluation of the materials in the first place--classification review officers have to base their decisions on something.
The Times story is meant to point out the reckless nature of conservatives, neoconservatives, and anyone who questions the oft-repeated but now apparently retracted meme that the war in Iraq was a mistake. Those who have advocated for more openness and a greater level of effort never supported abrogation of responsible practices. As Senator Santorum pointed out in memos to the president and the secretary of defense this past January, document release efforts should be undertaken "within national security restrictions and boundaries." The question a truly objective press should be asking is, in light of all these developments, why isn't getting to the bottom of what was and was not going on in Iraq a bipartisan issue?
The implications of the Times story for the future of our intelligence community are significant. Consider that while the Iraqi document website is closed temporarily, in the intelligence community's lexicon "temporary" can mean something entirely different than it does in the real world. While many forward-leaning intelligence practitioners rejoiced at the news that "Intellipedia" was up and running, the choice of Nigeria as the test case for developing a National Intelligence Estimate--as opposed to a regime that poses a ballistic missile or nuclear threat to the United States and her allies--suggests that there is not a lot of enthusiasm or confidence in adopting information-age reforms. Shutting down one collective analytical effort just makes it that much easier for the recycled leadership of the "reformed" intelligence community to shut down another.
Finally, I mentioned that intelligence drives military operations, but it is also a factor in the decision-making process of our elected leaders. The findings surrounding both pre- and post-war intelligence associated with Iraq highlight serious shortcomings that have yet to be fully addressed. Ignoring the past while attempting to re-tool for the future does not bode well for intelligence reform efforts. True reform requires intense and honest introspection and the intestinal fortitude to make hard decisions that have a deep impact across the community. To the hidebound, such an approach has the appearance of "betting the farm." To view reform as gambling with one of our most precious national resources misses the point: We have been dragged into the game and the farm has been bet for us.
Michael Tanji is a former senior intelligence officer and an associate of the Terrorism Research Center. He opines on intelligence and security issues at Haft of the Spear.