Understand our wars and enemies? Nah…


The always worthwhile Docex Blog has brought to my attention an impending missed opportunity for historians, and members of the strategic studies and national security fields.  I refer to the imminent fate of the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC).  This organization, housed at the National Defense University in Washington, will soon go out of business unless Congress acts—and that hasn’t been happening much recently.  With the demise of the CRRC, we will all lose important opportunities to understand Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and to probe ever more deeply into al Qaeda and its brethren.

I know the value of the CRRC.  While I was at the Institute for Defense Analysis, I was involved in the center’s creation.  I also helped plan a joint conference on behalf of my MA program at Johns Hopkins University and the CRRC in 2011 entitled “Ten Years Later: Insights on al Qaeda’s Past & Future through Captured Records.”

The CRRC was originally intended to become a major archive of digital copies and translations of records captured from the Saddam Regime and from al Qaeda and its affiliates.  Because it is an unnatural act for today’s intelligence community to release information, the number of records available to the world’s scholars at the CRRC never grew to anything more than a tiny fraction of the size of captured Nazi archives.  In fact, according to the acting director of CRRC, David Palkki, it holds less than 1% of the records that it hoped ultimately to make available.  Still, these holdings are significant and they were growing.

The CRRC’s establishment demonstrated that the national security community could learn from historical experience.  The main thing that the CRRC sought to avoid was a repetition of the aftermath of the Philippine War—captured records from that embarrassing conflict remained locked up for some seventy years.

The most important positive example of learning from records was that of the captured Nazi records.  These records were of obvious importance to understanding the Nazi regime and World War II. Accordingly, the U.S. and British governments, soon joined by the French government, started publishing substantial volumes of captured records from the German Foreign Office and Reich Chancery.  The United States also quickly opened the bulk of the German records to scholars.  In 1952, the American Committee for the Study of War Documents published Gerhard Weinberg’s Guide to Captured German Documents.  The Committee soon became part of the American Historical Association and eventually morphed into the Conference Group for Central European History, which still exists.  As for Weinberg, in 1958 he found in these German records Hitler’s Zweites Buch (“Second Book”), an unpublished follow-on to Mein Kampf.   Weinberg went on to become one of the leading scholars on Nazi Germany and World War II and is professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

While these kinds of success stories are unusual, we are now finding out how unrealistic they really are.  Palkki wrote this month that if the National Defense Authorization Act does not become law by September 30, the CRRC will run out of funds and go out of business.  At which time, its holdings will be transferred to the National Archives where they will remain closed for twenty-five years.  The only way of getting the records out during that time will be through the slow and cumbersome Freedom of Information Act.  Worse yet, according to Palkki, the National Archives has “announced that it would release only the…translations, not copies of the Arabic originals, and would redact most of the names” in them.

The rich materials that are about to vanish into the National Archives include some 52,600 pages of material from Saddam’s regime and approximately 200 hours of “Saddam Tapes,” audio tapes of Saddam meeting privately with his inner circle.  Think of the Nixon tapes, except it’s Saddam.  (By way of contrast, there are eleven minutes of recordings of Hitler meeting in private, and zero minutes of Stalin or Mao or, as far as I know, any of the other great dictators of the twentieth century.)  The collection also includes some 15,000 pages of Iraqi intelligence documents; 2,200 pages of Baath Party correspondence; 5,000 pages from the Iraqi Army; 7,000 pages from Saddam’s staff; 800 pages from the Military Industrialization Commission; and list goes on.  Then, there are the 10,000 plus pages of materials captured from al Qaeda.

In addition to collecting this material, the CRRC staff was exemplary in working with scholars to get materials of interest released to them. A lot of great scholarship has come out of the records held at the CRRC or out of records that later made it to the center. (On the latter, see, for example, the work of Kevin Woods, et. al., here and here).  The two most well known works that drew from the center’s resources are probably Peter Bergen’s Manhunt:  The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad and Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor’s The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. Some of the findings of this new scholarship were subversive of the received wisdom., For instance, many Americans believe that Saddam was the United States’ puppet or at least ally during the 1980s.  It turns out that Saddam most decidedly did not see it that way.  In fact, he referred to the United States government as “conspiring bastards” and constantly suspected us of trying to undermine him.

However, there is more work to be done, not only with the records that are there, but on the records that could be forthcoming.  For instance, Hans Rühle, once head of the Planning Staff at the German Ministry of Defense, used the records to argue against assuming that nuclear deterrence can always work.  On the other hand, Palkki discovered that Saddam was deterred from using WMD even before Secretary of State James Baker issued his famous threat to Tariq Aziz in 1991.  Obviously, research has not reached a natural stopping point on this issue.

And what about the efficacy of sanctions, one of the favorite policy tools of the United States and the United Nations in recent decades?  Palkki and Shane Smith used the CRRC records to conduct some “exploratory” work on the influence of sanctions on the actions of the Saddam regime, but much more research could be done on this at the CRRC.

And then there is intelligence.  Most of what we think we know about the intelligence systems of non-democratic states comes from Nazi Germany and the largely involuntary releases from the Soviet intelligence services.  Do these findings hold in other contexts?  The records in the CRRC might allow someone to begin to answer that question.  And despite the great work of Lawrence Wright, Camille Tawil, and others, surely we don’t know all that’s worth knowing about the early days of al Qaeda.

In the long-run—and sometimes in the short-run—scholarship enhances national security.  There are bigger issues at play in the National Defense Authorization Act, I’m sure.  But barring a miracle, I suspect that future scholars will look back on this period and wonder what the heck we were thinking when we gave up this valuable historical data.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.


Photo Credit: Wardolina, Flickr