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Archive of Captured Enemy Documents Closes

It was a bold vision: The American military had captured a massive cache of enemy documents, including detailed records of Saddam Hussein's high command in Iraq and Qaeda records from Afghanistan. With the strong support of Robert M. Gates, then the defense secretary, the plan was to set up a center where the documents and even captured audio recordings would be available to scholars outside government.

Some of the brightest minds from around the world would be able to provide insights about inner workings of United States' foes. As the center grew, it might even be expanded to include enemy records from other conflicts, such as the 1989 Panama invasion or wars yet to be fought.

The result was the Conflict Research Records Center, which was established in a few windowless rooms at National Defense University here in 2010.

Now just as American advisers are heading back to Iraq in still small but increasing numbers, the center has run out of Pentagon funding. Racing against the clock, researchers from as far as Israel and Norway pored through the center's latest cache of declassified documents before it closed its doors last Friday.

"It was extremely useful," said Amatzia Baram, an Israeli academic who has been studying Iraq for three decades.

Scrambling to keep the collection available to scholars, Pentagon officials say they are planning to transfer the archive to a civilian institution, which would assume the responsibility for funding it.

"One very strong candidate has been identified," said Patrick G. Buchan, a Defense Department official. Pentagon officials hope the center can be reopened before the end of the year.

Though Mr. Buchan declined to identify the archive's prospective home, the leading candidate is the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University, which already houses Baath Party records from Iraq.

Still, critics say the Pentagon center's closing, and the chronic funding problems, personnel shortfalls and temporary shutdowns it has endured in recent years is a classic case of a penny-wise, pound-foolish mentality. With a budget this year of just under $1 million, the center's spending was a mere rounding error for the Pentagon, whose budget request for the next fiscal year is about $600 billion.

The departure from Congress of some of the center's supporters, like former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, as well as turnover at the Pentagon, left the center without powerful champions.

"Several secretaries after Gates, I don't think there is anybody in the leadership, let alone at the working level at the Pentagon, who feels a sense of ownership," said Thomas G. Mahnken, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a former Defense Department official. "In an era of institutions that are too big to fail, my fear is that in the end the C.R.R.C. will have proven to be too small to survive and thrive."

The shutdown also comes as the Obama administration has vowed to defeat the Islamic State, a terrorist organization that has its origins in Al Qaeda in Iraq -- whose records are also among the center's holdings.

"It's unfortunate and more than a little ironic that the C.R.R.C., which provides valuable insights on Al Qaeda affiliated terrorists and Baathist Iraq, has lost its funding while U.S. forces are battling a mélange of Islamist extremists and former Baathists in Iraq," said David Palkki, a former deputy director at the center who is a fellow at Texas A&M University.

Sending the archive out of Washington, Mr. Palkki said, will make it harder for policy experts there to access the collection.

Shifting the records to Hoover, however, would put to rest one worry that has haunted the academic community: the fear that the center's material would be shipped to the National Archives. That would require researchers to file Freedom of Information requests to gain access to the records until they were publicly issued 25 or more years from now.

Kevin M. Woods, who played an instrumental role in establishing the center, said sending the material to a civilian research center would fulfill Mr. Gates's long-term goal of having a consortium of universities house the collection.

"It is actually a good thing that it is moving to a civilian institution," said Mr. Woods, who is a historian at the Pentagon-funded Institute for Defense Analyses.

One crucial question that remains to be worked out, however, is whether the government will continue to declassify and funnel documents to the center.

Documents in the center are made available to researchers in the original language as well as in English translation. But translating, reviewing and formally declassifying the material is a time-consuming task, and the center's current public archive represents less than 10 percent of the material that is potentially available in the government's captured holdings.

"It will 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," said Lorry M. Fenner, a former director of the center.

The Institute of Defense Analyses will continue to process and translate additional documents through September. But how the material will be handled after then is unclear.

"That is a decision that will be made within the Department of Defense," Mr. Buchan said. "But it is not something that has been shelved."

Over 200 researchers have used the center, whose materials have figured in historical books and academic articles.

As the center's days wound down last week, its reading room filled with researchers anxious to read though the center's latest offerings before it shut its doors. Some recalled some of their most important finds.

Michael Brill, a graduate student at Georgetown University, who has logged long hours at the center, said he had been astounded to read a transcript of a 1991 meeting between Mr. Hussein and Hassan al-Turabi, a Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood leader. Mr. Turabi urged the Iraqi dictator to embrace Islam publicly to shore up Muslim support abroad for his government.

"The Iraqi files open a window into one of Saddam's most important and less known foreign alliances," Mr. Brill said.

Mr. Baram recalled that he had listened to a riveting recording of a September 1980 meeting of Mr. Hussein and top aides on whether to invade Iran.

"It was like sitting in the most innermost circle of Saddam and his advisers, listening to one of the most crucial decisions they ever made," said Mr. Baram, who used the material in his most recent book.

[Source: By Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times, Washington, 21Jun15]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
small logoThis document has been published on 22Jun15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.