A New Approach to Iraqi Records Management

Remember all those Baathist records that were lost from the Iraqi National Library during the invasion? Well, funny story:

A lot worse things have happened in Iraq, but the removal of the Baath Party archives from the country — 7 million pages that undoubtedly document atrocities of the Saddam Hussein regime — is significant. The documents were seized shortly after the fall of Baghdad by Kanan Makiya, an Iraq-born emigre who teaches at Brandeis University and heads a private group called the Iraq Memory Foundation. Despite protests from the director of Iraq’s National Library and Archives, the documents were shipped to the U.S. in 2006 by Makiya’s foundation and in June deposited with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University under a deal struck with Makiya.

The move was criticized in both countries. The Society of American Archivists said seizing and removing the documents was “an act of pillage” prohibited under the laws of war. Iraq’s acting minister of culture, Akram H. Hadi, issued a statement in late June expressing the Iraqi government’s “absolute rejection” of Makiya’s deal. The documents “are part of the national heritage of Iraq,” the statement declared, and must be returned to Iraq promptly.

Given the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the millions of refugees, why should anybody care about Iraq’s archives? It comes down to whether you care about what happens to Iraq. It’s part of its cultural patrimony. It’s part of its ability to hold the previous regime accountable.

About 100 million other pages of Iraqi government documents are still in the hands of the U.S. military after being seized during the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction. The documents now at the Hoover Institution were taken from the Baath Party Regional Command Headquarters in Baghdad and are particularly significant because they almost certainly reveal who secretly collaborated with Hussein — politically explosive information.

How did one man get possession of the entire Baath Party archives?

Makiya is best known not for his foundation or his 1989 book “Republic of Fear,” but rather for his crucial role in convincing Americans — particularly leading journalists — to support a war to overthrow Hussein. “More than any single figure,” Dexter Filkins wrote in the New York Times last October, Makiya “made the case for invading because it was the right thing to do.” Makiya was an ally of Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, and gained fame for a face-to-face meeting with President Bush two months before the U.S.-led invasion during which he said American troops “will be greeted with sweets and flowers.”

So, to review: the guy who wrote the book (literally) on why we should invade Iraq, who also filled the heads of our top decision makers with fantasies about how we would be received and has numerous close ties to every shady character in the Bush administration who stands to profit from the invasion, either directly or indirectly, has control over the documents that might show who in the US government was aiding and abetting Husein in previous decades (I’m looking at you, Cheney*). But I’m sure it’s all a coincidence. Why would you think there was some sort of corrupt, back patting scheme going on here?

If the Hoover Institution continues to refuse the Iraqi government’s demand for return of the archives, the U.S. government, which improperly gave Makiya permission to collect and remove the documents, ought to insist that those records belong to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government. It’s up to the Iraqis to decide what to do with them.

And I’m sure we’ll just send them right over, just as soon as Bush and Chaney have redacted all the stuff that implicates them or their cronies in any wrong doing made them look pretty.

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*Funny thing: I am in fact looking at Dick Cheney most of the day as there is a picture of him in my new office with a personalized greeting, welcoming me to my new job. And people say we librarians don’t have a sense of humor.

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