The Bush administration took the unusual step Thursday of releasing documents seized from Saddam Hussein’s government during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, giving the public access to previously secret files that Republicans hope will shore up support for the war.
The documents, posted on a U.S. military website accessible to the public, included photos of Al Qaeda operatives suspected of hiding in northern Iraq, examples of instructions for assembling explosives and other files seized from the vaults of Iraq’s notorious intelligence service.
Nevertheless, the documents do not appear to offer any new evidence of illicit activity by Hussein, or hint at preparations for the insurgency that followed the invasion.
The nine files posted Thursday are among hundreds that could be released in the coming months as part of a program being supervised by Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte.
A spokeswoman for Negroponte said the government would be releasing new sets of files on a regular basis, after they had been reviewed to make sure their release posed no risk to national security or to individuals identified in the materials.
Experts described the document release as a novel approach to handling intelligence materials, but voiced skepticism that it would lead to broader efforts to use the Internet to tap the expertise of scholars outside the government.
“It has the potential to be a kind of experiment in intelligence policy,” said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists who is an advocate for greater declassification of U.S. intelligence records. But Aftergood said there was political pressure in this case and an incentive for the Bush administration to cooperate.
“It looks like an effort to discover a retrospective justification for the war in Iraq,” Aftergood said.
“If they can find a document linking Saddam and [weapons of mass destruction] or acts of terrorism, they will then be able to say, ‘You see, it was not a big mistake.’ ”
Aftergood’s organization appears in one of the Iraqi documents, apparently because the federation published a chart of Iraq’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, on its website.
The documents were released in response to pressure from congressional Republicans, including Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The two lawmakers issued a statement Thursday saying that the government should continue to release files captured in Iraq and Afghanistan “so the world can see for itself what those regimes stood for.”
The documents released Thursday are mainly in Arabic with no English translations. U.S. summaries of the documents’ contents suggest they fall short of “smoking gun” material.
One file is described as “Iraqi intelligence correspondence concerning the presence of Al Qaeda members in Iraq.” The file contains photos of Al Qaeda operative Abu Musab Zarqawi and others who were known to be hiding in Iraq before the war, but who have never been linked to Hussein’s regime.
Other files include an Iraqi intelligence report on “a rumor” that thousands of Saudis and Iraqis were traveling to Afghanistan to fight the United States, a list of “pieces of equipment needed for detonation of explosive materials,” and correspondence among Iraqi officials discussing French election laws.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., said the files might be of interest “from a historical perspective.” But he said it was unlikely they would contain revelations.
The files are at https://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/products-docex.htm.