The Ghosts of Past Wars Live on in a Critical Archive
The United States will soon deploy soldiers to Afghanistan born after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Next August will mark the 30th anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, along with the subsequent American-led military buildup leading to Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. The American military has been directly engaged in the “greater Middle East” since. For the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, the experience of war has extended longer, with this December marking the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and next September the same for Iraq’s invasion of Iran. These events and their ongoing consequences highlight the presence of an interconnected history that is “not even past” yet for Americans and the people of the Middle East alike.
Despite the immense costs in lives and treasure of this wider “forever war,” the U.S. government has allocated insufficient resources for its historical study, particularly records captured in the various phases and theaters of armed conflict. Congress and the Pentagon should revive and expand such efforts. The cost of doing so would amount to “a mere rounding error” on the annual defense budget, as the Wall Street Journal’s Michael R. Gordon summarized. The best course of action is a partnership with a civilian academic institution where captured enemy records from the Department of Defense’s Harmony database can be declassified and made available to researchers. In addition to learning from the past, enhancing national security in the present, and avoiding unnecessary wars in the future, study of captured records helps in understanding the wider conflagration of war and terrorism that has swept across the region for the past four decades.
This was the original aim of the Conflict Records Research Center in Washington, D.C., which provided research access to captured Iraqi state records from the 2003 war, before the center’s funding was withdrawn in 2015. The center’s work was facilitated by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ Minerva Initiative, which supported social scientific research on topics related to national security. Opened in 2010 at Fort McNair’s National Defense University, the center featured digitized copies of original records. Researchers at the Institute for Defense Analyses made extensive use of the collection. Led by Kevin M. Woods, this project resulted in interviews with Iraqi generals, along with works on the perceptions of Saddam Hussein’s regime, plan of battle in 2003, links to international terrorism, and audio recordings of Saddam speaking with his inner circle.
Modeled on the efforts of U.S. Army historians and intelligence officers who interviewed German generals and studied captured Nazi records after World War II, Project 1946 was “another rare chance to examine doctrine, intelligence, operations, and strategy through the lens of a recent military opponent” in the form of Saddam’s Iraq. Hardly an attempted U.S. government whitewash as skeptics might expect, U.S. government-sponsored study of the captured Iraqi records did not find evidence of a reconstituted weapons of mass destruction program, nor active ties to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda — the George W. Bush administration’s stated reasons for invading Iraq in 2003.
Eyes Wide Shut
The Conflict Records Research Center also included a collection of captured records from al-Qaeda and affiliated movements, yielding valuable insights on Jihadi-Salafi terrorist organizations. The records’ relevance to al-Qaeda affiliated insurgencies in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen did not prevent the center from losing funding to the 2013 budget sequester and closing completely in 2015. The center’s subsequent termination in June 2015 came as the collection was in the process of being expanded to include records captured by the U.S. military from al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State in Iraq — organizational predecessors of ISIL, the same adversary Operation Inherent Resolve was then striving to “degrade and destroy.” At the time, David Palkki, a former deputy director of the Conflict Records Research Center and scholar of Baʿathist Iraq, noted the irony that the center lost its funding as U.S. forces were fighting a “mélange of Islamist extremists and former Baʿthists in Iraq.” The center’s former director, Lorry M. Fenner, said that its demise would prove to be a “huge loss to the nation in policy, operations, and research if the massive parent database can no longer be processed to grow the collection.”
Study of the Islamic State in its previous incarnation is timely given the recent Pentagon report warning that the group is regaining strength in Syria. The last batch of records added before the Conflict Records Research Center’s closing in 2015 firmly situated the collection within the trajectory of the 2003 Iraq War, documenting Islamic State in Iraq efforts to roll back the gains of the Anbar Awakening in 2008 and 2009. The center’s records on the topic offer valuable supplements to record-based studies on the rise of the Islamic State produced by researchers at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and the Rand Corporation. And as much as American political leaders and strategic thinkers have been trying to “pivot” away from the Middle East to Asia for the past decade, the conditions that led to previous American military engagements in the region remain. Thwarted democratic aspirations, the world’s highest level of income inequality, resurgent authoritarianism, foreign intervention, state collapse, civil war, and Jihadi-Salafi terrorism sadly continue to threaten the Middle East. Despite the United States again becoming the world’s leading producer of oil, the Middle East still possesses the majority of proven oil reserves with Saudi Arabia as the world’s swing producer. These circumstances spell continued U.S. regional involvement as the leader of the global economy centered on hydrocarbons.
The Repatriation of the Iraqi State Records
Controversy has surrounded the study of the more than 100 million pages of Iraqi state records seized by the U.S. military during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, along with the nearly 8 million pages of Baʿath Party records held at the Hoover Institution. Nevertheless, the U.S. military seized and preserved the records of Saddam’s regime in accord with longstanding customary international law, already recognized by the Lieber Code and Brussels Declaration and codified in the Hague Convention and Protocols. The many archivists and academics charging the U.S. government with continuing to hold the records of Saddam’s regime have been apparently unaware that they are no longer in U.S. possession. Almost all of the over 100 million pages of original Iraqi state documents were returned to the government of Iraq by President Barack Obama’s administration on May 16, 2013. The repatriated documents comprised 35,504 boxes on 634 pallets, accounting for no less than 90 percent of the Saddam-era records seized as a result of the 2003 Iraq War.
In September 2012, a meeting of the U.S.-Iraq Political and Diplomatic Joint Coordinating Committee, reaffirming the partnership between Washington and Baghdad, noted, “The United States and Iraq discussed the ongoing process of repatriating archives and documents which are part of the patrimony of the Iraqi people.” According to sources informed of the subsequent repatriation process, negotiations were conducted by the U.S. Department of State while the return of the records from the storage facility in Qatar was handled by the Defense Intelligence Agency. Devoid of the digitized indexing as studied by American researchers, the original records were returned to Iraq without a digitized copy. Their organization reflected the way in which the U.S. military captured them following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert S. Beecroft and Falih al-Fayyad, at the time Iraqi Advisor of the National Security Council, signed the receipt of shipment for sending the records back to Iraq. Although concerns were raised about the potential sectarian exploitation of the records by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who had a proven track record of generally viewing Sunnis as Baʿathists, the Obama administration decided that since Iraq was “a sovereign country,” the records from Saddam’s regime should be returned. This decision was consistent with the overall Obama administration policy of normalizing bilateral relations with Iraq from the final withdrawal of American troops at the end of 2011 until the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in June 2014.
Whatever ethical concerns scholars may have with the study of the digitized Saddam-era Iraqi state records in the United States, the physical location of the originals can no longer be cited as a central issue. It has not been for more than six years. Whether or not the Iraqi government will make the original records available to Iraqi citizens to study in the future will likely hinge on the political and security situations in the country. A similar dynamic is at work with the original Baʿath Party records held at the Hoover Institution, where no party has yet come forward to bear the cost of shipping the 8 million pages of documents from California to Iraq by air. However, in the meantime, action should be taken to renew and expand efforts to study the digitized records in the United States today.
Through the Looking Glass
The U.S. federal government has traditionally made captured adversary records available for study to foster public understanding of the United States’ major wars, although this custom has been unevenly followed. The practice dates to the Civil War, when on May 19, 1864, Congress resolved to collect missing records and produce copies of battlefield reports for public use. Not until 1874, however, was the project fully funded “to enable the Secretary of War to begin publication of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, both of the Union and Confederate Armies.”
The largest such effort occurred after the swift collapse of the Third Reich in the spring of 1945 when the Allies captured the archives of the German government, including the records of the Foreign Office, Nazi Party, military, and secret police. Never before had “such a vast treasure fallen into the hands of contemporary historians,” wrote war correspondent William Shirer. The bulk of the records were eventually declassified and microfilmed for public use before their negotiated return to the Federal Republic of Germany. American, British, and French editors also were enlisted to publish a multivolume selection of German foreign policy documents, which captured the attention of diplomats and historians for years. The publishing venture aimed to prevent the rise of Nazi mythology or another “stab-in-the-back legend” by exposing the criminal nature of the Nazi regime in its own words.
The fall of Baghdad in April 2003 offered another opportunity to open one of the world’s most secretive and ruthless dictatorships to outside examination. Gates argued that research using captured Iraqi documents “could yield unprecedented insight into the workings of dictatorial regimes.” He compared the importance of the documents to the Smolensk Archive, a trove of records seized by Nazi troops during the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. The archive was seized again by American occupying troops in Bavaria in 1945, providing early Cold War historians and policy analysts the ability to study the tensions and conflicts within the Soviet one-party state. The Conflict Records Research Center was envisioned and came into being in keeping with this tradition.
Penny Wise, Pound Foolish
The operating budget of the Conflict Records Research Center in the year preceding its June 2015 closure was just under $1 million. Moreover, as valuable as the records were to journalists, researchers, and academics alike, the approximately 143,000 pages of available documents constituted less than 1 percent of the estimated more than 100 million captured by the U.S. military in 2003. The available audio files of meetings between Saddam and his officials amounted to 200 hours, with more than 1,800 hours awaiting release (there are only 11 minutes of private recordings of Adolf Hitler and none of Josef Stalin). The remaining vast majority of digitized pages of documents and audio files remains in limbo, having been beyond the scope of previous studies focused on the political and military dynamics of Saddam’s regime, yet inaccessible to researchers interested in diving deeper into those studies or countless other aspects of Ba’athist rule in Iraq.
The scholarly output from research at the Conflict Records Research Center was nevertheless considerable. By mid-2015, more than 200 nongovernment researchers authored some 39 academic journal articles, 15 books, and eight master’s and doctoral theses based at least in part on the center’s records. Despite the lack of access to the records over the past four years, the number of publications has continued to grow thanks to earlier research. These figures are even more impressive given that the overwhelming majority of the digitized records never saw the light of day and remain classified in the shared government Harmony record database, along with those records that were available from 2010 to 2015. Right now, researchers with a security clearance can in theory access the center’s records and the 99 percent of unprocessed Saddam-era Iraqi state records through the Harmony database. However, the U.S. government is no longer sponsoring research based on the records and researchers with a security clearance cannot use the records for independent research. The situation is even grimmer for civilian researchers, who have not had access to any of the records since summer 2015. Collectively, the records constitute an immense and largely untapped source that could further official and public understanding of the political, diplomatic, and economic history of Iraq and the wider Middle East, a region the United States has been unable to extract itself from militarily for nearly three decades.
Transfer, Declassify, and Release
For a small investment in Department of Defense terms, officials should transfer this archive to a civilian academic institution, as was intended before Pentagon lawyers put the brakes on negotiations in autumn 2015. This move would save money and still allow Pentagon oversight for the expansion of the collection through the declassification and processing of Harmony records. The arrangement would be in accordance with the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, supporting the mission of the center. The National Defense University Annual Report for 2014–2015 noted, “During the previous academic year, the Conflict Records Research Center was maintained in caretaker status while awaiting a determination on its future. The center was subsequently shuttered this academic year, with the collection of records and research database pending transfer to another institution.”
The ideal destination for the transfer was and remains the Hoover Institution. Along with the nearly 8 million digitized pages of Baʿath Party records from 2003 made available to researchers in Palo Alto, the archive hosts digitized collections of records captured by the Kurdish peshmerga in 1991, plus the records of Iraq’s 1990–1991 occupation of Kuwait captured by the U.S. military during its liberation. The timing of this move is opportune in light of the recent availability of the digitized Iraqi Baʿath records from all of these collections at the Hoover Institution’s Washington, D.C. office. With respect to the terrorism dimension of the Conflict Records Research Center, the project could also be expanded to eventually include declassified Islamic State records captured during Operation Inherent Resolve. Potential further additions are the recently declassified al-Qaeda records from the 2011 Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden, along with other collections of al-Qaeda and Islamic State documents and online materials gathered by journalists and scholars.
In addition to reviving and continuing to expand the al-Qaeda and Iraqi Baʿath records collections of the Conflict Records Research Center for their own historical value, insights could be applicable to current policy issues and the continued threat of terrorism, along with understanding the actual dynamic between authoritarianism and religious extremism in Iraq and the Middle East. Potential topics of interest include the responses of European countries to sanctions on Iran and Iraq, the involvement of reemerging powers such as China and Russia in the Middle East, along with the history of Iranian efforts to disrupt the flow of oil during the 1980s “tanker war.” Prior study of captured records expanded as well as challenged the U.S. government’s understanding of the “greater Middle East” and its role in it.
With the first Americans born after the 9/11 attacks soon headed to Afghanistan or Iraq, increased efforts to study the previous decades of conflict from the perspective of regional actors and American adversaries is the kind of work the U.S. government should encourage and taxpayers should appreciate.
Bruce P. Montgomery is the author of the forthcoming The Seizure of Saddam Hussein’s Archive of Atrocity (Lexington Books, 2019). He is the former Head Archivist at the University of Colorado Boulder Library and Archives, and has published extensively on the various collections of Saddam-era records. Michael P. Brill is a Ph.D. student in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, where his research focuses on Baʿathist Iraq.
Image: Defense Department (Photo by Sgt. Christopher Bigelow)