WASHINGTON --- Under pressure from some members of Congress, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte ordered the public release of thousands of documents and other files captured in Iraq. But, experts are puzzled as to why the documents were apparently released with little or no screening.
The initial release of some 600 items from an estimated 50,000 boxes of files is posted on a website of the U.S. Army's Foreign Military Studies Office. Accompanying the release is an official disclaimer that says the U.S. government cannot vouch for the authenticity, truthfulness, or accuracy of any of the released files.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says many of the documents and tapes have not been thoroughly reviewed prior to release. "These things are mostly in Arabic and they're going to be put out by the government of the United States without, in many cases, having been read or translated or analyzed or checked, simply because the decision has been made that with a quick review a great amount of it is - it is appropriate to put out a large amount of it," he said.
Former CIA officer Michael Scheuer, who once headed the unit tracking Osama bin Laden, says it is unprecedented to release thousands of captured files without any preliminary screening. He points out that captured files from Nazi Germany were not declassified and released until many years after the end of World War II.
"To give away that amount of documents without first having examined them thoroughly to see if there was any information that was either operationally useful or incriminating or damning to some of America's allies or embarrassing to the U.S. government itself is really an irresponsible act," he said.
But another former CIA officer sees no security problem. Reuel Marc Gerecht, now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says the Saddam Hussein regime is gone and there is no reason to classify the material.
"I applaud the decision to release it," he said. "It should have been released sooner. And they should not allow the [Central Intelligence] Agency to classify any of that Iraqi documentation."
Ironically, the release comes at the same time that officials have removed previously declassified historical documents from public archives and repositories to make them secret again.
Michael Scheuer believes the government hopes somebody will uncover a key piece of evidence that will bolster the Bush administration's rationale for going to war with Iraq. But Reuel Gerecht plays down any political motivation for the documents' release. He says the government simply does not have enough competent Arabic linguists to sift through and screen all the material.
"Well, they won't be able to screen them," he said. "If we have to wait for them to screen them, we'll all be dead. You cannot overestimate the fatigue the American government has in handling Arabic documentation. There's no way in god's earth the American government could competently review that material. The only chance you have for a thorough review of that material is by outsiders."
One document from the Iraqi archive says Russia gave away U.S. troop movements to the Saddam Hussein regime on the eve of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Russia has denied the charge.
But official U.S. reaction to the charge that Russia put American troops in danger has been muted. Michael Scheuer says he is not surprised that Russia might have given information to Saddam Hussein. But he is puzzled that it had not produced any howls of outrage from the administration or Congress.
"I really do not know what to make of it," he said. "It does not surprise me, if it is true, that the Russians would supply information to Saddam. They had a very close relationship. And the Russians are more our friends in our own imagination than they are in fact. But to release it just publicly and then just be silent about it - it is very difficult to understand what they are doing.
Reuel Gerecht offers possible explanations, including one that the Russians may have been duped by American intelligence to pass misleading information to Baghdad.
"One would not be shocked if the Russians gave away U.S. troop movements," he said. "You would be shocked if they did not. It is not clear that any of the information relayed was actually accurate, which could mean that the information that was relayed was just simply bad. It could mean that the information that was relayed by the Russians was actually planted. So it is very, very difficult to assess this properly yet."
Officials say it will take about one year to release all the captured material.