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The thrill of secrecy

September 28, 2006

THE JUDGMENT OF THE National Intelligence Estimate partly made public this week -- that "the Iraq conflict has become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists" -- did not unveil an especially novel viewpoint or theory. So why has the report, assembled by U.S. intelligence agencies in April, caused such a sensation?

Partly it's the official pedigree of the document; partly it's the unconvincing attempt by President Bush to explain it away. In announcing Tuesday that he would declassify parts of the report, he testily suggested that the actual language would discredit "speculation" that it had linked the war in Iraq to a heightened terrorist threat. But the material released to the public came to essentially that conclusion (though it also backed Bush's contention that if jihadists failed in Iraq, they would recruit "fewer fighters" in the future).

Yet even before Bush declassified parts of the report, the document exerted a fascination that cannot be explained solely by its conclusions. Some of the report's mystique stems from the fact that, until Tuesday, it had been a secret.

Several of its observations -- not just about the relationship between the U.S. presence in Iraq and the growth of "a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world" -- are by now conventional wisdom: Jihadism is fostered not only by the Iraq war but also by corruption and repression in Muslim societies; countering the movement will require more than a military response; greater political participation in Muslim societies could drive a wedge between jihadists and political reformers, though it might also cause "destabilizing transitions." Yet because these conclusions were pried from a classified document, there is a frisson that would have been missing if the administration had made them public last spring.

Remember the "Downing Street memo," a once-secret document from 2002 recording a British intelligence official's view that "intelligence and facts were being fixed" by the Bush administration to support its long-standing intention to topple Saddam Hussein? The publication of the memo in 2005 created a sensation in Britain and the United States, even though it reflected one man's view (albeit one long held by critics of the war in both countries) and was far from a smoking gun.

Government officials often are accused of belonging to a cult of classification, and officials in the Bush administration have a particular fetish about secrecy. But they aren't the only ones to ascribe special importance to a secret, whether it's "The Da Vinci Code" or the Downing Street memo. Forbidden fruits of intelligence analysis always will be more tantalizing than the ones put on public view.

The argument that the U.S. presence in Iraq has exacerbated the international terrorist threat is an important one fully deserving of discussion. So is the NIE's conclusion, more congenial to the Bush administration, that defeating insurgents in Iraq would demoralize other potential jihadists. That debate was going on before the NIE was publicized. And it should continue after the thrill of declassification is gone.

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