Why We'll Never Get a Full Account of the War in Iraq

It will take decades to break the vault of Dick Cheney's secrets.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Hubris, an MSNBC documentary aired Monday night and hosted by Rachel Maddow, reexamines the war in Iraq and the salesmanship that went into the invasion. The film is based on a provocative account of the war by David Corn and Michael Isikoff, and features interviews with policymakers who were in power at the time. Ten years after "shock and awe," it still seems like we know very little about the decision to invade.

What we do know is that former Vice President Dick Cheney would like to keep it that way.

While writing our upcoming book Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, Marc Ambinder and I spoke with J. William Leonard, former director of the Information Security Oversight Office, an agency charged with overseeing the security classification system of the United States. The ISOO, which is part of the National Archives, advises the president on secrecy policy. It works to ensure that information is classified only when necessary for national security, and declassified the moment circumstances allow.

Cheney's office, according to Leonard, took secrecy to excessive lengths -- attempting to classify as much as possible, and often bypassing the system altogether by inventing classification markings. Even documents as ordinary as Cheney's talking points were marked Treated as Top Secret/SCI or Treated as Top Secret/Codeword.

"That's not a recognized marking," said Leonard. "I have no idea if it was the intent, but I can guarantee you what the consequences of those markings are. When any of this material eventually does end up at a presidential library and access demands are being made, or it's being processed for release, when some poor archivist sees material marked Handle as SCI, it's going into the bottom of the pile, and it is going to get much more conservative review. Whether it was the intent to retard the eventual release of the information, I know that's going to be a consequence of it."

In one instance, the marking appeared on notes from a 2003 meeting of Cheney and his staff. They were discussing Joseph Wilson, a former U.S. diplomat, who had just written an editorial in the New York Times. In the piece, Wilson argued that there was no evidence that Iraq had attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium from Niger. That same year, Cheney's office stopped filing annual reports on its classification activities. When the ISOO moved to inspect his office -- as it was authorized and compelled to do by executive order -- Cheney's people argued that because the Office of the Vice President has duties with both the executive and legislative branches, the executive order on classified material doesn't apply. (The White House counsel, unsurprisingly, concurred.)

As Leonard told us, "Putting aside the constitutional position of the vice president, the very concept that non-elected government officials working in the White House, accessing the most highly sensitive information, and weren't obligated to follow the rules set forth by the president, I found chilling, to tell you the truth."

Cheney's adroit manipulation of classification policy kept his vault-like office sealed through both terms of the Bush presidency. The ISOO never regained oversight. This is unfortunate when one reconsiders the war in Iraq, but even more discouraging in light of the Obama Administration's concurrence and extension of the entirety of President Bush's foreign policy. It will be a very long time before otherwise reasonably declassified material sees daylight. Such phrases as "Handle as SCI" will haunt researchers, journalists, and the general public for decades to come.