I've said before that the release of Iraqi documents for which Steve Hayes has long been agitating is a good idea. For all the fun I've had with Hayes in the past, it's hard to disagree with making information available - as long as it doesn't compromise current intelligence or endanger Iraqis in Iraq today (informer files, reports of blackmail material, that sort of thing). Their value depends entirely on their comprehensiveness, and that they are vetted on a nonpartisan and scholarly basis. If all the released documents support the administration's case for war (like the infamous Feith memo of cherry-picked intelligence about Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda leaked to Steve Hayes), then the release becomes worse than useless. Of course, the more comprehensive the release, the more patience will be required in wading through mountains of dreck. There will also be all kinds of questions about authenticity and context and so forth - all the things which make interpreting intelligence an art. To his credit, Hayes himself raises most of these issues today and sounds some appropriately cautious notes.
I found the time to look over a few documents in the first released batch today - four documents looked like they might be of interest. They also show that you shouldn't necessarily go by the short descriptions offered on the web site.
The first is desribed like this: "This document contains a flyer addressed to all Arab immigrants. The flyer lists the Islamic Emirate officials' names that would assist the Arab immigrants in entering the Emirate." What the description doesn't say is what actually makes the [untranslated] document interesting - the name of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, listed as one of the six committee members whose signatures are required. There's no date or indication of the document's provenance, though.
The second is described [but not translated]: "2002 Iraqi Intelligence Correspondence concerning the presence of al-Qaida Members in Iraq. Correspondence between IRS members on a suspicion, later confirmed, of the presence of an Al-Qaeda terrorist group. Moreover, it includes photos and names." The reproduction (and handwriting) was bad enough that I couldn't make it out very well. It did have photos - including one of Zarqawi. This document is being touted as evidence that al-Qaeda was in Iraq in 2002, but from what I can make out of the chicken-scratchings it looks more like Iraqi intelligence was trying to find out if Zarqawi was there (hence the mug shots), and not finding anything. I'm not sure where the "later confirmed" came from.
The third is described: "Fedayeen Saddam received news of a rumor that 3,000 volunteers from Iraq and Saudi Arabia had traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the Mujahideen against the US. This letter is a request to investigate the rumor to determine whether it is true." Nothing in the document indicates whether this rumor was determined to be true.
The fourth is the most interesting, though it is neither described on the website nor translated. It's a handwritten document about a visit from "our Afghan source", dated September 15, 2001. According to the document, Osama bin Laden and the Talaban were in contact with Iraq about a delegation from bin Laden and the Taleban visting Iraq. The subject of the visit was that America had evidence of cooperation betweeen the Iraqi government and bin Laden's group on striking inside of America. If such strikes were executed, it was possible that America would retaliate with strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan. Hard to know what to make of it, given the source and the ambiguity. The document says that the Afghan consul heard about the relations between Iraq and bin Laden second hand - which suggests that the Afghan might have been probing to find out if there was anything to it, rather than passing on reliable information.
Of the rest, four seem to be of marginal interest (one on the structure of the IIS, one on protocols for dealing with UN visits, and two on explosives). One offers "Correspondence among various governmental offices regarding the French law for funding and financing election campaigns" (an odd choice for the first batch, no?). All told this first batch isn't very exciting, but presumably there will be a lot more soon.
Then there's the first of what promises to be a huge batch of transcripts. Glancing over them quickly, they look fascinating, and historians will have a field day eventually (most are in English translation only, a handful have the Arabic also). They don't seem to have dates on them, which which may be my obtuseness. The most interesting one that I've so far read (ISGQ-2003-M0003922) has Saddam's men dishing dirt on Jordan's King Hussein. But a lot of them that I skimmed through read like transcripts of the kinds of meetings you wish you had an excuse to miss...
I'm happy to see these documents released - as an academic, I'm just really excited to see them, and it's far better that they be made avaiable widely rather than selectively leaked to friendly journalists. I don't think that they are going to prove what Hayes and many others have long claimed that they will - but we'll see.
The only prediction I'm confident making: a lot of people are going to dive into these things, and find what they're looking for. Here's a line in a transcript which proves, proves, that Saddam ordered 9/11! Here's a document which proves, proves, that Saddam and Zarqawi never had anything to do with each other! Here's one that proves, proves, that Saddam had nukes! Here's one that proves, proves, that Saddam didn't have nukes! I'd advise people on both sides of the issue not to get too excited over individual documents... cherry-picking seeming smoking guns to prove your pet issue might be irresistably tempting, but isn't likely to be edifying in the longer term. I don't expect anyone to take the advice, but there it is.