The New York Times review of the Iraqi document release does a decent job of presenting the situation two weeks in. It quotes Michael Scheuer and someone from Negroponte's office on the absence of anything really new in the released documents - something that I would agree with after spending a lot of time the last two weeks with them.
The piece notes some of the obvious concerns surrounding the release, beyond its partisan politics implications. As the reporter dryly notes, "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." That shows wisdom. It also points out that "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." That responds to one of my original concerns when the idea of a document release was first floated.
Finally, "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." It's nice that they aren't including "known" forgeries. What's less clear, and most troubling, is the "unknown" forgeries, documents produced in some Chalabi-mill - which are precisely the sort of thing which partisan bloggers are most likely to jump all over and least likely to be skeptical about.
I've written many times about my support for the document release, and my enthusiasm for getting my hands on these primary documents. And, contrary to the NYT's suggestion that the documents have been explored by "a growing crowd of bloggers and translators, almost exclusively on the right", I've spent much of the last two weeks reading through hundreds of them in both Arabic and English.
To be honest, though, I'm starting to wonder if I've been wasting my
time. I've been increasingly exasperated at how the
documents are being presented - four different formats in a week,
finally settling on one which makes it almost impossible to see which
documents are newly posted. Half the time, I can't get on to the site at all (like right now).
More importantly, there's the contents. What has showed up so far has been a bizarre grab bag, with documents post-dating the fall of Saddam's regime (including accounts of the insurgency and jihadist websites, which obviously could not have come from the Iraqi regime's captured files); some documents which had already been leaked previously (the Sanussi document being the most obvious example); and above all documents used by the JFCOM Iraqi Perspectives Project (see the full text at Foreign Affairs).
I'm starting to think (though still can't confirm) that almost all
of the "real" Iraqi documents in this dump are really from
that project. Of the documents I've particularly blogged about, most have turned up
in the JFCOM report: the one about sealing the border (pp.95-96), the one about the internet and the one about Ken Pollack (both on p.11), and so on.
If the documents are mostly from that source, then it changes things. The premise of the document release had supposedly been that these were masses of unwashed and unwanted files, languishing in a military storage facility for lack of interest. Posting them online would allow an army of pajama clad volunteers (and the occasional aardvark) to scrutinize them for important but missed information and give a superior picture of Saddam's Iraq. The prospect of finding these golden nuggets would make it worthwhile for someone like me to put in hours of my time to search.
But if instead they are
releasing a bunch of documents already used by others, then rather than diving into an unmined treasure trove we're actually just checking the
footnotes of the JFCOM. Checking footnotes can be good - I was glad to have the chance to look at the Sanussi / Sudan document which is being widely cited, for instance, to know about its limitations. And it's certainly worth it to be able to respond to the misuse or misreading of documents by others. But at this point, having done a bit of the work, I'd say that it is
turning out that the JFCOM team did a really good job in prudently and
effectively synthesizing and presenting that information - far better than the job
being done by the army of amateurs, from what I can see. The more credible that their work seems, the less value there seems to be in going back to their sources... unless they start releasing more documents that are genuinely new and worth the time.