Cover Story

History speaks

Must it also be repeated? Newfound documents confirm old ties linking terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam

Issue: "History speaks," April 1, 2006

There they sit. Forty-eight thousand boxes containing thousands upon thousands of documents from the Saddam Hussein regime stacked variously to the heavens, entirely filling a desert warehouse where Central Command has its headquarters in Qatar-a message in a bottle writ as large as Wal-Mart. Three years since U.S. soldiers swept into Baghdad and began collecting pages out of Saddam's playbook on a regime allegedly involved in terrorism, in propagating weapons of mass destruction, and in plotting deadly war against the United States, that regime's written and audiotaped record remains largely unexamined, barely translated, and-until this month-grossly underestimated.

Faced with mounting pressure from Congress and the media to allow public access to some of the estimated millions of printed records and over 500 hours of audiotape, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte agreed March 16 to release select documents. Within days the directorate posted 125 separate items at its Foreign Military Studies Office website (fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/products-docex.htm) and added to a roster of terrorism-related documents already available in a West Point database (www.ctc.usma.edu/harmony_docs.asp).

The documents are a hodgepodge, the detritus of ponderous recordkeeping from a dictatorship obsessed with management and control. (And these are the papers that didn't face the shredder as the 3rd Infantry Division moved toward Baghdad.) There are land surveys and high-level discussions of transferring property to tribal heads friendly to Saddam so that they, in turn, could transfer land to their cronies; audiotapes of Saddam discussing military strategy in the Iran-Iraq War; videotape of Saddam greeting various heads of state; a memo on cooperative exchange of military officers with Vietnam; Saddam talking about Iraqi folk songs; Saddam giving an interview to ABC; Saddam at a military air show, and so on.

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Sorting wheat from chaff is "long, slow, and tedious, but this is what intel is," said Bill Tierney, an Army linguist who helped jumpstart the document dumping in February by publicizing 12 hours of Saddam on tape he had translated from Arabic to English. The recordings, released at the national Intelligence Summit in Washington last month, include Saddam discussing a previously undisclosed nuclear weapons program and promising in the mid-1990s that the United States would be visited in the future by "terrorism with weapons of mass destruction." This latest set of disclosures, Mr. Tierney told WORLD, "is a haystack. And there are definitely jewels hiding in it, but it is difficult to find them."

Many analysts blame the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency for stashing the documents in the desert while the president battles feverishly to close a credibility gap over his reasons for going to war. At the same time, House Intelligence Committee chair Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had to introduce legislationcompelling the intelligence community to release documents before Mr. Negroponte would agree to it. But if the intelligence community is launching the public on a paper chase just to satisfy key lawmakers and a smattering of noisy experts like Mr. Tierney, important discoveries already are surfacing, anyway.

Exhibit A

One file from 1987 consists of extensive letters between Iraq's military intelligence (or Mukhabarat) and Saddam Hussein, confirming for the first time that Saddam himself ordered chemical weapons attacks against villages in northern Iraq. Those attacks began on a few dozen villages in April 1987 but culminated in the worst attack, in March 1988, on Halabja, a town of 70,000 where 5,000 reportedly died from poison gas over three days. Overall, approximately 12,000 are believed to have died from the attacks, commonly attributed to orders from Ali Hassan al-Majid, or "Chemical Ali."

One memo in the file informs the president that plans for chemical attack "have been readied. Weapons in Kurdish villages in the north and northeast are ready." It describes specific loads of sarin and mustard gas and prescribes targeted villages. It warns that "explosion of these chemicals will create clouds and the troops should not move before the clouds have settled." According to Walid Phares, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, whom WORLD asked to translate the file, after the president gives the OK, the Mukhabarat chief promises Saddam the attacks "will not only reach target but will reach another objective."

Mr. Phares, a Middle East scholar who teaches at Florida Atlantic University, is fluent in Arabic and three other languages and is familiar with Iraqi documents (see "Unmasked men," Oct. 16, 2004). He told WORLD: "This is a direct order of chemical attacks." Statements in one memo from Saddam state that "special equipment is in full production" and "our production is increasing." The assurances suggest that the chemical program was an integral part of Iraq's military apparatus, not a scientific/civilian offshoot as it would later be portrayed during UN weapons inspections in the 1990s.

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