The federal government is making public a huge trove of documents seized during the invasion of Iraq, posting them on the Internet in a step that is at once a nod to the Web's power and an admission that U.S. intelligence resources are overloaded.
Republican leaders in Congress pushed for the release, which was first proposed by conservative commentators and bloggers hoping to find evidence about the fate of Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, or possible links to terror groups.
The Web surfers have begun posting translations and comments, digging through the documents with gusto. The idea of the government turning over a massive database to volunteers is revolutionary -- and not only to them.
"Let's unleash the power of the Internet on these documents," said House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich. "I don't know if there's a smoking gun on WMD or not. But it will give us a better understanding of what was going on in Iraq before the war."
The documents' value is uncertain -- intelligence officials say that they are giving each one a quick review to remove anything sensitive. Skeptics of the war, suspicious of the Bush administration, believe that means the postings are either useless or cherry-picked to bolster arguments for the war.
The documents -- Iraqi memos, training guides, reports, transcripts of conversations, audiotapes and videotapes -- have spurred a flurry of news reports. The Associated Press, for instance, reported on memos from Saddam Hussein in 1987 ordering plans for a chemical attack on Kurds and comments from Hussein and his aides in the 1990s, searching for ways to prove they didn't have weapons.
Hoekstra said it took months of arguing with intelligence officials before he and John Negroponte, the new Director of National Intelligence, agreed to make the documents public.
None contain current information about the Iraqi insurgency, and U.S. intelligence officials say they are focusing their limited resources on learning about what's happening on the ground now.
There are up to 55,000 boxes, with possibly millions of pages. The documents are being posted a few at a time -- so far, about 600 -- on a Pentagon Web site, often in Arabic with an English summary.
Regardless of what they reveal, open-government advocates like the decision to make them available.
It's a "radical notion," said Steve Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists government secrecy project, which tracks work by U.S. intelligence agencies. That "members of the public could contribute to the intelligence analysis process. ... That is a bold innovation."
Champions of the Internet as a "citizen's media" embraced the step, too.
"The secret of the 21st century is attract a lot of smart people to focus on problems that you think are important," said Glenn Reynolds, the conservative blogger at Instapundit.com and author of "An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths."
"It's kind of like a swarm. It's a lot of individual minds looking at it from different angles. The stuff that's most interesting tends to bubble to the top," he said.
A self-described Iraqi blogger translated one of the documents for the American blog pajamasmedia.com -- a Sept. 15, 2001, memo from the Iraqi intelligence service that reported about an Afghan source who had been told that a group from Osama bin Laden and the Taliban had visited Iraq.
Some remain doubtful, suspecting that the administration only releases information that puts President Bush and his arguments for war in a good light. The Iraq Survey Group found no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction after the war, and the Sept. 11 commission reported it found no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaida.
"I would bet that the materials that they chose to post were the ones that were suggestive of a threat," said John Prados, author of the book, "Hoodwinked: The Documents That Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War."
Prados, an analyst with the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research institute, dismissed the documents: "The collection is good material for somebody who wants to do a biography of Saddam Hussein, but in terms of saying one thing or the other about weapons of mass destruction, it's not there."
One of several conservative blogs devoting attention to the release, Powerline.com, set up a separate page to catalog its findings and news reports on what the documents reveal.
"These documents are going to shed a lot of light on a regime that was quite successful in maintaining secrecy," said John Hinderaker, one of three men who run the site. "Before the first Gulf War, Saddam was perilously close to getting nuclear weapons and people didn't know it. The evils of the regime will be reflected."
But he also cautioned the optimistic. "When you're dealing with millions of pages of documents," he said, "it's a big mistake to think you can pull out one page or sentence out of a document and say 'Eureka, this is it."'
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