Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Iraqi Documents Are Put on Web, and Search Is On

The New York Times
Iraqi Documents Are Put on Web, and Search Is On

WASHINGTON, March 27 — American intelligence agencies and presidential commissions long ago concluded that Saddam Hussein had no unconventional weapons and no substantive ties to Al Qaeda before the 2003 invasion.

But now, an unusual experiment in public access is giving anyone with a computer a chance to play intelligence analyst and second-guess the government.

Under pressure from Congressional Republicans, the director of national intelligence has begun a yearlong process of posting on the Web 48,000 boxes of Arabic-language Iraqi documents captured by American troops.

Less than two weeks into the project, and with only 600 out of possibly a million documents and video and audio files posted, some conservative bloggers are already asserting that the material undermines the official view.

On his blog last week, Ray Robison, a former Army officer from Alabama, quoted a document reporting a supposed scheme to put anthrax into American leaflets dropped in Iraq and declared: "Saddam's W.M.D. and terrorist connections all proven in one document!!!"

Not so, American intelligence officials say. "Our view is there's nothing in here that changes what we know today," said a senior intelligence official, who would discuss the program only on condition of anonymity because the director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte, directed his staff to avoid public debates over the documents. "There is no smoking gun on W.M.D., Al Qaeda, those kinds of issues."

All the documents, which are available on fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/products-docex.htm, have received at least a quick review by Arabic linguists and do not alter the government's official stance, officials say. On some tapes already released, in fact, Mr. Hussein expressed frustration that he did not have unconventional weapons.

Intelligence officials had serious concerns about turning loose an army of amateurs on a warehouse full of raw documents that include hearsay, disinformation and forgery. Mr. Negroponte's office attached a disclaimer to the documents, only a few of which have been translated into English, saying the government did not vouch for their authenticity.

Another administration official described the political logic: "If anyone in the intelligence community thought there was valid information in those documents that supported either of those questions — W.M.D. or Al Qaeda — they would have shouted them from the rooftops."

But Representative Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and who led the campaign to get the documents released, does not believe they have received adequate scrutiny. Mr. Hoekstra said he wanted to "unleash the power of the Net" to do translation and analysis that might take the government decades.

"People today ought to be able to have a closer look inside Saddam's regime," he said.

Mr. Hoekstra said intelligence officials had resisted posting the documents, which he overcame by appealing to President Bush and by proposing legislation to force the release.

The timing gives the documents a potent political charge. Public doubts about the war have driven Mr. Bush's approval rating to new lows. A renewed debate over Saddam Hussein's weapons and terrorist ties could raise the president's standing.

"As an historian, I'm glad to have the material out there," said John Prados, who has written books on national security, including one that accuses the administration of distorting prewar intelligence. He said the records were likely to shed new light on the Iraqi dictatorship. Some of the documents, also included in a new study by the United States military, already have caused a stir by suggesting that Russian officials passed American war plans to Mr. Hussein's government as the invasion began.

But Mr. Prados said the document release "can't be divorced from the political context."

"The administration is under fire for going to war when there was no threat — so the idea here must be to say there was a threat," he said.

That is already the assertion of a growing crowd of bloggers and translators, almost exclusively on the right. So far they have highlighted documents that refer to a meeting between Osama bin Laden and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Sudan in 1995; a plan to train Arab militants as suicide bombers; and a 1997 document discussing the use of "special ammunition," chemical weapons, against the Kurds.

But the anthrax document that intrigued Mr. Robison, the Alabama blogger, does not seem to prove much. It is a message from the Quds Army, a regional militia created by Mr. Hussein, to Iraqi military intelligence that passes on reports picked up by troops, possibly from the radio, since the information is labeled "open source" and "impaired broadcast." No anthrax was found in Iraq by American search teams.

"No offense, but the mainstream media tells people what they want them to know," said Mr. Robison, who worked in Qatar for the Iraq Survey Group, which did an exhaustive search for weapons in Iraq.

The document release may help the president, he said, but that is not the point. "It's not about politics," Mr. Robison said. "It's about the truth."

The truth about prewar Iraq has proven elusive. The February 2003 presentation Colin L. Powell, the secretary of state at the time, to the United Nations appeared to provide incontrovertible proof of Iraqi weapons, but the claims in the speech have since been discredited.

Given that track record, some intelligence analysts are horrified at exactly the idea that excites Mr. Hoekstra and the bloggers: that anyone will now be able to interpret the documents.

"There's no quality control," said Michael Scheuer, a former Central Intelligence Agency specialist on terrorism. "You'll have guys out there with a smattering of Arabic drawing all kinds of crazy conclusions. Rush Limbaugh will cherry-pick from the right, and Al Franken will cherry-pick from the left."

Conservative publications have pushed for months to have the documents made public. In November, Mr. Hoekstra and Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Mr. Negroponte to post the material.

When that request stalled, Mr. Hoekstra introduced a bill on March 3 that would have forced the posting. Mr. Negroponte began the release two weeks later.

Under the program, documents are withheld only if they include information like the names of Iraqis raped by the secret police, instructions for using explosives, intelligence sources or "diplomatically sensitive" material.

In addition, the intelligence official said, known forgeries are not posted. He said the database included "a fair amount of forgeries," sold by Iraqi hustlers or concocted by Iraqis opposed to Mr. Hussein.

In previous Internet projects, volunteers have tested software, scanned chemical compounds for useful drugs and even searched radiotelescope data for signals from extraterrestrial life.

The same volunteer spirit, though with a distinct political twist, motivates the Arabic speakers who are posting English versions of the Iraqi documents.

"I'm trying to pick up documents that shed light on the political debate," said Joseph G. Shahda, 34, a Lebanese-born engineer who lives in a Boston suburb and is spending hours every evening on translations for the conservative Free Republic site. "I think we prematurely concluded there was no W.M.D. and no ties to Al Qaeda."

Mr. Shahda said he was proud he could help make the documents public. "I live in this great country, and it's a time of war," he said. "This is the least I can do."