On the Record with Saddam


Did the views Iraqi President Saddam Hussein espoused regarding the United States in private meetings with subordinates align with his public statements? A new book has the answer. The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq, published in February, is the latest critically acclaimed work by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll. Coll’s book examines the history of U.S.-Iraqi relations leading up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam. At the center of the book’s research and highlighted in many reviews of it are the some of the digitized copies of Iraqi records captured by U.S. troops in the wake of the invasion. This trove included both documents and the Richard Nixon–style tapes Saddam made of meetings with his own government officials and visiting dignitaries.

While Saddam’s regime was relegated to history more than two decades ago, the number of authoritarian regimes in the world has grown in the intervening years. Earlier scholarship on “waves” of democratization has been succeeded by that on democratic backsliding. In a world of resurgent authoritarianism, supporting the close study of its inner workings is in the national security interest of the United States. And because the Pentagon digitized some 580,000 captured files consisting of more than 100 million pages of documents and several thousand hours of audio tapes, no modern authoritarian regime is more accessible to research than Saddam’s. Developments following the publication of Coll’s book now present officials in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy with an ideal opportunity to release additional Iraqi records from the Pentagon’s Harmony Database. More specifically, releasing the larger collection of audio tapes is the logical next step. The nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is in the process of releasing the records used by Coll for his book. This initiative provides defense officials with a template and familiar partner for making even more Iraqi records accessible to the widest possible audience.

As Coll noted in a New York Times guest essay, “It is plainly in the interests of the United States that the full archive be made available to researchers, so that insights about Mr. Hussein’s dictatorship can inform the American public and their government.” This point resonates even more against the backdrop of ongoing conflict in the Middle East, along with intensified geopolitical competition on a global scale with both China and Russia. Iraqi records offer important historical context on the Middle East and grant a rare inside view of an adversarial and opaque authoritarian regime.



The Harmony Database

In 2015, the Pentagon closed the Conflict Records Research Center, which housed an archive of digitized Iraqi records processed from the Harmony Database. Since then, the issue of access to these Iraqi archives had been static. The closure marked the completion of several Pentagon-commissioned retrospective studies undertaken by the Kevin M. Woods–led researchers of the Institute for Defense Analyses in the years following the Iraq War. However, in recent months, coverage of Coll’s book, along with his efforts to obtain the Iraqi records he used from the Pentagon, have generated more public discussion and interest than at any other time during the past decade.   

Coll obtained Iraqi records through an out-of-court settlement with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. He filed suit after the Pentagon initially failed to respond within the stipulated timeline to two Freedom of Information Act requests for Iraqi records. Represented by Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Coll v. United States Department of Defense, Coll ultimately succeeded. As a result, he acquired audio files, transcripts, and translations for nearly 100 hours of Saddam’s meetings between 1979 and 2003, along with the original scans of written documents and their translations numbering in the thousands of pages.

In collaboration with the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center, Coll was determined to make the Iraqi records used in his book, a subset of the former Conflict Records Research Center archive, available to researchers and the interested public. The records are now hosted by the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive, which includes thousands of pages of formerly classified records translated from dozens of languages. Right now, they are being screened for personally identifiable information relating to low-ranking personnel and private individuals. A majority of the records Coll obtained consist of audio tapes, Arabic transcriptions, and English translations. They include meetings of Saddam with the Iraqi Regional Command of the Baath Party, the pan-Arab National Command of the Baath Party, the Revolutionary Command Council, the cabinet of government ministers, military leaders, and foreign dignitaries. As the participants and the subjects discussed in these meetings were high level, concerns about protecting identities are almost entirely absent. The documents and English translations, however, occasionally contain the names of low-ranking party and military personnel, along with private individuals, although this is generally of minimal scope and risk.

Unfortunately, the fallout from the release of Iraqi records on the internet nearly two decades ago stills casts a shadow over all subsequent U.S. government deliberations on the subject. In 2006, congressional Republicans were concerned over the alleged unreliability of professional government analysts to objectively study post-war evidence on the pre-war weapons of mass destruction claims. As a result, they pressured Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte to order the mass release of Iraqi records from the Harmony Database on a website entitled the Operation Iraqi Freedom Portal. This initiative went awry when experts discovered that the documents included detailed technical information from Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, which was dismantled following the 1990–91 Gulf War. Facing embarrassing media coverage and criticism from Democrats, intelligence officials removed the records from the internet and took down the website. The nature of the later Conflict Records Research Center was influenced by this debacle. It posted only a selection of screened documents on the internet, while providing for the supervised in-person study of records by scholars who obtained Institutional Review Board approval. However, the Pentagon and the U.S. federal government failed to adequately fund and maintain the project.

The Wilson Approach

The recent collaboration between Coll and the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center combines the best aspects of both prior efforts undertaken by the U.S. government. It also goes to great lengths in avoiding the pitfalls that scuttled the first release. The Wilson Center is emulating the policies of the Conflict Records Research Center, posting records approved for release by the Pentagon and redacting names and personal information as necessary. In addition to being nonpartisan and chartered by Congress, the Wilson Center is committed to making the records freely available on the internet to all who are interested, wherever in the world they may be. This initiative builds on the legacy of cooperation between the Conflict Records Research Center and the Wilson Center during the short life of the former institution between 2010 and 2015, which resulted in the release of translated Iraqi documents about the Iran-Iraq War and weapons of mass destruction to the Digital Archive.

After making necessary redactions, the records are being released in batches between February and this summer. Like the first release in February, the recent second batch contains ten document files and ten audio tape transcripts. Professor Qais Nasir of Basra University translated the first accompanying post into Arabic and has agreed to translate the second post and all subsequent ones as well. Given the barriers to research facing Iraqi scholars interested in the Baathist period in Iraq and abroad, Nasir’s efforts will hopefully increase awareness of, interest in, and accessibility to these historical sources among Iraqis and other Arabic-reading audiences.

Bruce P. Montgomery, former head archivist at the University of Colorado Boulder Library and Archives, and I argued previously in this publication that the Pentagon should transfer the entirety of the records formerly at the Conflict Records Research Center, along with the larger trove of records in the Harmony Database, to a civilian academic institution. This is a proposal that continues to be supported by U.S. law. Despite the original hard copy records being returned to Iraq more than a decade ago, there have been no indications that the Iraqi government has the interest, will, or ability to make them available to researchers inside the country. Furthermore, the 2013 repatriation consisted of the original records and did not include a digital copy. Given these political, institutional, and circumstantial factors, the digital copies of Iraqi records in the Pentagon’s Harmony Database, from which the records of the Conflict Records Research Center were drawn, remain the most viable sources for researchers in the United States and Iraq, to the extent that access is granted to them. The trove of records obtained by Coll from the Pentagon heavily favors the audio records of Saddam’s meetings. Accordingly, the initial batches being screened and released by the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program are prioritizing the audio records. The records that have parallel Arabic transcriptions and English translations — as opposed to those with only English translations or where the Arabic transcription is disconnected due to a technical glitch — are being released first.

As the clock ran out on the Pentagon-supported translation and study of Iraqi records from the Harmony Database, contractor linguists working for the Institute for Defense Analyses produced only English translations of tapes to make as many accessible to researchers as possible. In the future, these records will ideally be edited and further developed as necessary, although at least initially, they will be released back into the public domain in the form they existed at the Conflict Records Research Center when it closed its doors in 2015. The audio files will be added to the Wilson Center’s YouTube channel this summer. Researchers using the Digital Archive will then be able to listen to original audio files while reading along with the Arabic transcriptions and/or English translations, which replicates the procedures of the former Conflict Records Research Center. This project builds on and advances the work of The Saddam Tapes edited volume, which presented selected English translations of Saddam’s tapes related to several major subjects of research. However, these renewed efforts are only a modest first step in a much larger project for which a way forward has now been established in partnership with the Wilson Center. Over the past few months, the publication of The Achilles Trap has drawn attention to a little-known chapter in the history of the 2003 Iraq War: the archives of Saddam’s regime. Coll’s book tour, along with the growing number of reviews underscoring the importance of Iraqi records, should highlight this issue for Pentagon officials. Since the trove of Iraqi records they gave Coll when settling out of court included nearly half of the audio files in the archive of the former Conflict Records Research Center, the logical next step would be releasing the second half, another 100 or so hours of tapes. As positive a development as this would be, it would still be scratching the surface of what is available and possible. Institute for Defense Analyses researchers reviewed summaries for some 7,000 audio recordings. They ultimately selected 900 recordings related to national security issues for transcription and translation, nearly 2,000 hours of meetings. Only around 200 hours of tapes were added to the Conflict Records Research Center prior to its closure. Even though external researchers never had access to the other 1,800 hours of processed tapes, this material could just as easily be transferred now and made available in the first stage of a wider initiative.

The successful settlement of Coll v. United States Department of Defense has created a precedent for the release of digitized Iraqi archival records back into the public domain. It is now in the public interest, along with arguably the self-interest of Department of Defense officials, to continue expanding access and forestall similar Freedom of Information Act litigation. Charles Duelfer is a former Wilson Center fellow and former head of the Iraq Survey Group, which oversaw the initial triage, study, and digitization of Iraqi records. In his review of The Achilles Trap, Duelfer explained, “My expectation was that the documents would become available to academics and scholars for extensive study later. That seemingly logical outcome has been stymied by a long series of bureaucratic, legal, and financial reasons that only make sense in Washington.” Until the day of more comprehensive action arrives, the trove of records obtained by Coll and shared with the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program will allow steps toward this logical outcome, one batch of records at a time.

The Enduring Relevance of Iraq

Though Saddam’s rule in Iraq ended more than two decades ago, authoritarian regimes like China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran remain at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy challenges. And as Coll observed, “Mr. Hussein’s case offers a rare, well-documented study of why authoritarians often confound American analysts and presidents.” This resonates with more recent examples. Much as American and Arab political leaders failed to correctly perceive the seriousness of Saddam’s intention to invade Kuwait in August 1990, European political leaders, including in Ukraine itself, were dismissive of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threatening rhetoric and military moves up until the brink of war. Thus, beyond the extensive information about Iraqi history and insights into Saddam’s thinking alone, studying the records of his regime holds the potential benefit of better understanding similar dictatorships in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

More than two decades since the 2003 Iraq War, Coll’s new book has demonstrated the value held by even a small fraction of Iraqi sources in addressing a wide range of subjects. The list includes a more complete understanding of U.S.-Iraqi relations, the modern history of the Middle East, the U.S. intelligence and political failures preceding the 2003 Iraq War, and the opaque nature of authoritarian regimes. As the Iraqi documents and audio tapes central to The Achilles Trap continue to be added to the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive in the coming months, Pentagon officials have the chance to expand this effort to include both the entirety of the former Conflict Records Research Center archive and additional Iraqi records from the Harmony Database. The Wilson Center is the natural partner for the Pentagon in this wider initiative.

Fostering the historical study of authoritarianism stands to benefit U.S. national security, and for this purpose, the Pentagon can transfer a digital archive unlike any other in terms of scale and content. Realizing the full potential of this entire archive, digitized at taxpayer expense, only stands to benefit the U.S. government and public alike.



Michael P. Brill is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, where his research focuses on Iraq. He is also a global fellow in the history and public policy program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Image: Government of Iraq via Wikimedia