An Iraqi civilian looks through personal files, Thursday April 10, 2003, scattered on the floor of the bombed out White Lion, the building that housed the secret police documents, jail cells, and interrogation chambers where Saddam Hussein's Baath Party  leaders kept political prisoners in basra, Iraq. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

Protection or Plunder?

A U.S. Journalist Took Thousands of ISIS Files Out of Iraq, Reigniting a Bitter Dispute Over the Theft of Iraqi History

An Iraqi civilian looks through personal files, Thursday April 10, 2003, scattered on the floor of the bombed out White Lion, the building that housed the secret police documents, jail cells, and interrogation chambers where Saddam Hussein's Baath Party leaders kept political prisoners in basra, Iraq. Photo: David Guttenfelder/AP

For the last five years, Sara Farhan has been researching medical education in Iraq. A doctoral student of history at Toronto’s York University, Farhan has been trying to piece together the story of the Royal Medical College of Baghdad – a dynamic and innovative institution during Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy.

To do her research, the 31-year-old Farhan has interviewed more than 20 members of the Iraqi diaspora, spread out across the Middle East, North America, and Europe. She’s collected oral histories and talked to former doctors and medical students and their families, spinning together a web of people connected to the university. But if she had embarked on this research 15 years ago, Farhan likely would not have had to crisscross the globe to tell the story.

In the chaotic aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion, Iraq’s National Museum and a variety of archives were plundered as American soldiers stood watch. Millions of pages of documents were either destroyed in fires and flooding, taken by thieves profiting off the war, or purposefully removed by American officials tracking down Iraq’s mythical weapons of mass destruction. The overwhelming majority of those documents, including the archive of the Royal Medical College, remain unaccounted for. It’s a devastating loss for the country – and a huge problem for researchers.

Had Farhan been able to utilize the archive in her work, “I would’ve graduated two years ago,” she said in an interview, laughing.

LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 682 -- Pictured: (l-r) Journalist Rukmini Callimachi during an interview with host Seth Meyers on May 7, 2018 -- (Photo by: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Journalist Rukmini Callimachi during an interview with TV host Seth Meyers on May 7, 2018.

Photo: Lloyd Bishop/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
In early April, Farhan’s frustrations with the erasure of so much of Iraq’s archival history came to a head when she read a piece in the New York Times. “The ISIS Files” is about the inner workings of the so-called Islamic State, based on more than 15,000 pages of internal documents that reporter Rukmini Callimachi removed from Iraq over a period of more than a year. The documents tell a detailed story of ISIS rule, laying out mundane bureaucratic procedures, such as levying taxes, collecting trash, and issuing birth certificates. Callimachi presents these files as evidence that the militants realized their dream of establishing their own state, albeit temporarily. It’s a dramatic narrative of history that probably gives too much credit to ISIS, however. Callimachi acknowledges, after all, that ISIS didn’t build its state from the ground up — it pretty much modeled its rule on the bureaucratic framework of the Iraqi state it had pushed out.

“Individually, each piece of paper documents a single, routine interaction: A land transfer between neighbors. The sale of a ton of wheat. A fine for improper dress,” Callimachi wrote. “But taken together, the documents in the trove reveal the inner workings of a complex system of government. … The world knows the Islamic State for its brutality, but the militants did not rule by the sword alone. They wielded power through two complementary tools: brutality and bureaucracy.”

Over the last four years, journalists, analysts, and local activists from Iraq and Syria have written about ISIS documents, including some that were taken from the countries in which they were found. But Callimachi appears to be the first journalist to obtain and remove a cache of documents this large. She traveled to Iraq when coalition forces launched a battle to retake Mosul from ISIS in late 2016. There, she was on the front lines, rushing into buildings that were cleared of the militants and stuffing documents and hard drives into trash bags she had brought with her. But her story, and her new “Caliphate” podcast, which is based in part on the documents she obtained, have set off a controversy about outsiders taking historically important documents out of a country at war.

About a week after the piece was published, Farhan emailed Callimachi to ask if she got permission from Iraqi government officials to take the documents, and if she got consent from the people named in the files to publish their names. Farhan didn’t hear back, so she worked with two legal scholars to launch a petition calling on the Times to rethink its use of the documents. The removal of the documents violates international law, the petition authors wrote, calling for them to be returned to Iraq and warning that failure to do so would set a “dangerous precedent for the plundering of material and cultural heritage in conflict zones.” This wasn’t the only academic protest. In early May, Judith Tucker and Laurie Brand of the Middle East Studies Association published an open letter to top editors at the Times,  decrying the “myriad legal, professional, ethical, and moral issues” arising from Callimachi’s story.

The controversy goes to issues that are far larger and deeper than the ISIS documents obtained by Callimachi. Her cache is minor when compared to the scores of millions of documents the U.S. government took from Iraq following the 2003 invasion. The controversy has resurfaced age-old questions about the ownership and protection of national documents in a time of war — not just in Iraq, and not just in this decade or century. How can Iraq or any country come to terms with its own history when its people no longer possess the documents that can help them better understand all that they’ve endured? What should journalists do when they come upon important documents that are abandoned or without protection during war?

View of stacked files created by the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party documenting torture, executions, and mass graves in Baghdad, Iraq on Oct. 19, 2003. The files are currently being handled by Kanan Makiya and his assistant, Hassan, of the Iraq Memory Foundation. Iraqi citizens and occupying forces recovered the files, which were created by Ba'ath party officials prior to the U.S. invasion.

Stacked files of the Baath Party documenting torture, executions, and mass graves, in Baghdad, Iraq, on Oct. 19, 2003. The files were being handled by Kanan Makiya’s Iraq Memory Foundation.

Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII/Redux
For Iraqis like Farhan, Callimachi’s removal of the documents reopened the wound caused by the U.S. government’s expropriation of millions of pages of national documents after the 2003 invasion. Decades’ worth of history under Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was disappeared, giving only the U.S. government — not the Iraqi people — the means to understand the machinations of Saddam’s oppressive regime. This fits into a painful, centuries-long pattern of cultural theft across the world, with imperial invaders or colonizers taking artistic or architectural artifacts to display in their museums (or, as often turns out to be the case, to store in their basements).

Lawlessness prevailed after the fall of Baghdad, and a multitude of groups sought control of the documents that laid out modern Iraqi history. They ransacked the national archive, the Baath Party headquarters, and other government and military buildings. Members of the Baath Party tried to destroy documents that would incriminate them, while opposition members looked for records that would help build their case against the regime. But it was the U.S. government that ultimately collected the largest trove. The Coalition Provisional Authority, which was the U.S-led occupation government formed in the aftermath of the invasion, issued an order on May 23, 2003 that dissolved Iraq’s military, as well as its security organizations, presidential secretariat, and National Assembly. The assets of those entities, including records and data, were to be held by the CPA administrator – at the time, U.S. diplomat Paul Bremer – “on behalf of and for the benefit of the Iraqi people and shall be used to assist the Iraqi people and to support the recovery of Iraq,” according to the order.

That’s not quite what happened, however. Coalition authorities later flew millions of pages of documents out of the country to Qatar for study by the Iraq Survey Group – a group of American, British, and Australian officials focused on their fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction and links between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda. In an October 2004 statement, Iraq Survey Group Commander Brig. Gen. Joseph McMenamin said there were “hundreds of linguists, analysts, and administrators working to triage, gist, and load the documents and other media into national databases.” By that point, the Iraq Survey Group had scanned 40 million pages of documents, according to McMenamin.

But that’s just part of what the United States took. According to a 2008 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which cited information from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the United States “recovered” more than “120 million plus pages” of documents from Iraq. (Bremer, the CPA administrator, told Wisam Alshaibi, a doctoral student at the University of California, Los Angeles, that the U.S. had seized seven linear miles of documents.) The Defense Department kept the documents out of circulation, and most of them remain unaccounted for, but a small percentage were available for some time in at least three separate collections.

The first is a public database, called the Harmony Program, that was maintained by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. By October 2004, the Iraq Survey Group had loaded about 150,000 files from its trove into that database, McMenamin said in his statement. The Harmony Program website notes that the documents “were collected on the battlefield unscientifically,” but otherwise the website doesn’t make clear how exactly the documents were obtained. That database also includes records captured in Afghanistan, as well as records seized by the U.S. military from an Al Qaeda affiliate in Sinjar, Iraq, in 2007. (Critics said the inclusion of the Iraq documents in the Harmony Program was an attempt by the Bush administration to legitimize its prewar narrative of operational ties between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda.)

The second collection was the “Saddam Hussein Regime Collection” at the National Defense University’s Conflict Records Research Center. The 53,000-page collection included documents from Iraqi government and military units, Saddam’s personal and political correspondence, as well as 200 hours of recordings of Saddam’s meetings with his deputies. Access to it was tightly controlled: Researchers had to obtain Institutional Review Board approval of their research plans before being granted permission to view the archive, housed in Washington, D.C. As Arbella Bet-Shlimon, a history professor at the University of Washington, wrote in a recent article for the Middle East Research and Information Project, “After the center closed in 2015 due to a lack of funding, however, the materials in its possession became entirely inaccessible to scholars of any nationality.”

How can Iraq or any country come to terms with its own history when its people no longer possess the documents that can help them better understand all that they’ve endured?

The third collection was the “Operation Iraqi Freedom Document Portal,” a website the federal government created in March 2006 that made public thousands of pages of documents captured in Iraq. The website was created largely in response to pressure from conservative lawmakers, led by Rep. Pete Hoekstra, who said U.S. intelligence agencies had failed to adequately analyze the documents, which may have contained evidence related to Iraqi WMD programs. But the government took the website down in November 2006, following an inquiry from the New York Times about concerns from weapons experts that the documents contained a basic guide to building an atom bomb. Some of the documents had no link to the Baath regime or prewar Iraq, raising questions about the government’s decision to release them. “The fact that the only such relics to worm their way into the Operation Iraqi Freedom Documents focus on al-Qaida, the jihadist fringe and unconventional weapons strongly suggests an attempt to reinforce the Bush administration’s prewar claim of ties between a WMD-hungry Saddam and al-Qaida terrorists,” wrote history professor Fritz Umbach in an April 2006 article for Salon.

The U.S. military has been involved with at least three other sets of documents from Iraq. In 1991, Kurdish groups seized an estimated 18 tons of Baath Party documents from northern Iraq. The Kurds turned the documents over to the U.S. military and Human Rights Watch, which used them to investigate the Anfal massacre, the Saddam regime’s genocidal campaign against Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War. In May 2003, the U.S. Army discovered a trove of documents in a flooded basement about Iraqi Jews; the U.S. National Archives has since digitized the collection, which is available online. Lastly, the U.S.-based Iraq Memory Foundation collected millions of pages of Baath Party documents from Baghdad after the fall of Saddam, which it got approval from the U.S. military to maintain custody over. Those documents are now housed at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in northern California.

The United States has removed documents from other conflict zones as well. After World War II, the United States and Great Britain maintained custody of German documents, and the U.S. Army ran centers in Germany to help the Allies gather intelligence from those documents. The U.S. eventually began to return the documents to Germany, but when historians raised concerns about losing access to documents that could be used for their research, the U.S. Army began the process of microfilming the documents, according to a blog post on the website of the National Archives. After the documents were declassified and microfilmed, the originals were shipped back to Germany. According to the blog post, “By March 1968, the Army had returned 35 shipments of records captured during the war.” That was more than two decades after their seizure.

In Haiti, U.S. troops seized approximately 160,000 documents in 1994 “without the knowledge or consent of Haitian authorities,” according to Human Rights Watch. In 1995, the Clinton administration said it would return the documents after working with Haitian officials to ensure the documents would be used to investigate possible crimes. By 1999, the United States had not yet returned the documents, saying that it would only do so after deleting the names of U.S. citizens. “This apparently serves the illegitimate purpose of covering up U.S. complicity in political murder and other abuses,” Human Rights Watch wrote at the time. Shortly before his departure from office, President Bill Clinton ordered that the documents be returned to Haiti, on the condition that they be used only in judicial proceedings, said Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. “The documents were transferred to a locked room in the basement of the National Palace,” Concannon said. “We tried to get access for three years, to help build our cases against the military and paramilitary leadership, but were unable.”

More recently, and with a lot more fanfare, the United States seized a large amount of files when it raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011, killing the Al Qaeda leader. The files included bin Laden’s personal journal and documents related to Al Qaeda’s operations. U.S. intelligence agencies have released copies of some of those documents, most recently with a dump of nearly 470,000 files last November. “The information remaining in the Abbottabad collection that has not been released publicly includes materials that are sensitive such that their release would directly damage efforts to keep the nation secure; materials protected by copyright; pornography; malware; and blank, corrupted and duplicate files,” the CIA said in a statement at the time.

Iraqi children watch U.S. Marines after they took control of the Ministry of Oil building in Baghdad Wednesday, April 9, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Iraqi children watch U.S. Marines after they took control of the Ministry of Oil building in Baghdad, April 9, 2003.

Photo: Jerome Delay/AP
Foreigners run into legal and ethical quagmires when they remove historically important documents from a country. International law leaves a lot of wiggle room depending on the context in which the documents are removed, as well as the identity of the remover.

As an occupying force, the United States was obligated under international law to ensure public order in Iraq, and prevent looting and other lawless activities. The 1907 Hague Convention, which governs land warfare and is considered binding on all nations, prohibits the pillaging and destruction of cultural heritage. Under the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, the United States had a duty to protect cultural property, which includes “property of great importance to the cultural heritage of every people,” such as “collections of books or archives.”

These protections were not applied as U.S. forces took control of Iraq. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, museums, banks, hotels, and libraries were left unprotected and were ransacked – most notably, the National Museum in Baghdad. In a sign of U.S. priorities, however, the Ministry of Oil was rigorously guarded by American soldiers who saved it from the pillaging that was occurring throughout the Iraqi capital at the time.

There is a carve-out in international law for documents that involve wartime intelligence. Under the 1907 Hague Convention, invading and occupying powers can capture adversary records of the state; anything that can be used for military purposes – such as the documents seized by the Iraq Survey Group – is considered a spoil of war. Similarly, international law does not dictate if and how such documents should be returned after the cessation of hostilities; rather, that is a matter to be diplomatically decided.

International law is less clear when it comes to the conduct of nongovernmental actors, such as the Iraq Memory Foundation, the group that removed millions of documents from Iraq in 2003. In a 2011 paper on the Baath Party archive removed by the Iraq Memory Foundation, Bruce Montgomery, a professor at the University of Colorado, noted that international wartime norms are silent on the conduct of non-state actors. He concluded that the Iraq Memory Foundation did not appear to violate international, U.S., or Iraqi law. But Michelle Caswell, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, reached a different conclusion in a 2011 paper. “Given the available information, the Baath Party records might have been collected using means outside those recommended by international law,” she wrote, noting that international law could not adequately address the Baath Party records, which she considers to fall under the domain of “cultural property.”

Questions about the ownership of the ISIS documents removed by the New York Times are even more complicated since ISIS is not a sovereign state. Nasser Weddady, a Boston-based analyst who consulted with Callimachi on her “Caliphate” podcast, said there are a number of groups that could lay a claim to ownership of the ISIS documents. “Saying these are Iraqi documents is a little problematic because the state of Iraq does not recognize ISIS as an Iraqi organization,” he said. The de facto capital of ISIS was Raqqa, Syria, and “many of the members of the group were from Syria, so someone could make a claim that the documents were from Syria.” ISIS has also recruited members from all over the world, and the governments of those countries might also say that they have a right to information about ISIS in the name of national security, he added.

In their letter to the Times, Tucker and Brand of the Middle East Studies Association said the Iraqi state alone had a right to the documents. “It is only legally designated representatives of the Iraqi state, and certainly not foreign journalists,” they wrote, “who should control the disposition of any documents found in circumstances like those in which Ms. Callimachi and her team operated, in accordance with Iraqi law and regulations governing public records.”

UNITED STATES - MARCH 07:  Associate Librarian Deanna Marcum, Baghdad Mayor Ala' al-Tamini, and president of the Iraqi Memory Foundation Kanin Makiya at the "New Iraq: Memory and National Identity" forum at the Library of Congress.  (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images)

Associate Librarian Deanna Marcum, Baghdad Mayor Alaa al-Tamimi, and president of the Iraqi Memory Foundation Kanan Makiya at the “New Iraq: Memory and National Identity” forum at the Library of Congress.

Photo: Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty Images
Kanan Makiya, who oversaw the Iraq Memory Foundation’s removal of documents from Iraq, is either a villain or a hero in the story of the U.S. invasion, depending on who you ask. An Iraqi-American exile who opposed Saddam Hussein, Makiya lobbied the Bush administration in favor of the war — even meeting with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney— and was one of the war’s loudest Iraqi proponents in the United States. He described the sound of American bombs falling on Baghdad as “music to my ears. They are like bells tolling for liberation in a country that has been turned into a gigantic concentration camp.” (Makiya was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time.)

But his Iraq Memory Foundation, a U.S.-based group that operated in Baghdad during the American occupation, is often criticized for its role in removing millions of pages of documents from the country, eventually bringing them to the United States and making them virtually inaccessible to the Iraqi victims of Saddam’s regime. Fifteen years later, the millions of pages of documents – one of the largest caches of Iraqi documents for which the whereabouts are known – continue to be housed in California.

Makiya first began working with Iraqi government documents in 1991. Then a researcher at Harvard University, he traveled to northern Iraq to study an archive of Baath documents seized by Iraqi rebels. He used those documents to investigate the ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Kurds in the Anfal massacre during the Iran-Iraq War. At Harvard, Makiya started the Iraq Research and Documentation Project to organize and preserve that cache of documents. In 2003, he founded the Iraq Memory Foundation, through which he sought to help Iraqis come to terms with their past under the Baath Party.

Makiya was in Baghdad in April 2003 when he stumbled upon a trove of documents in a flooded basement about the inner workings of the Baath Party, and he asked the U.S. military for permission to store the documents. In September, the documents were moved to the Iraq Memory Foundation’s office, which was Makiya’s parents’ home, located inside the Green Zone where the Coalition Provisional Authority was based. It’s not clear why the U.S. government agreed to cede control over documents that were of high intelligence value to the United States to a nongovernmental organization, but Makiya’s close ties to U.S. officials likely played a role. (In a sign of that closeness, the Iraq Memory Foundation was awarded $5.6 million in Defense Department contracts between 2004 and 2010.)  In Baghdad, a group of volunteers worked on scanning the documents, but their resources were limited, and they could only get through about 50,000 to 100,000 pages per month, Makiya told The Intercept.

The American-controlled Green Zone increasingly became targeted by Iraqi insurgents, and neither the people nor the materials in that area were safe. As the insurgency continued to expand in 2004, Makiya made a calculation. “I just did the math. If we did 100,000 per month, it’s going to take years and years [to scan the entire trove],” he said. “I entered into negotiations with the U.S. government to save and protect these documents, and in that agreement, we were to accompany the documents at all times. Keep in mind, there was no Iraqi government to speak of. There was no authority to turn to.” At the time, actually, there was the Iraqi Governing Council, a group of Iraqis that was appointed by, and served under, the Coalition Provisional Authority. Ahmed Chalabi, a controversial figure with whom Makiya had close ties, was a member of the council. Montgomery, the University of Colorado professor, wrote that the CPA gave Makiya the green light to assume custody of the documents.

Makiya describes the Iraq Memory Foundation as a temporary custodian of the documents, even though the group appears to be holding onto them indefinitely.

The documents were transferred to the United States, where the Army scanned them in West Virginia and then returned them to the Iraq Memory Foundation’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Makiya describes the Iraq Memory Foundation as a temporary custodian of the documents, even though the group appears to be holding onto them indefinitely. “The new Iraqi identity could not emerge without in some way acknowledging what had happened [under Baath rule],” he said, noting that he had developed a passion for preserving such documents after his work in the ’90s. Of his agreement with the U.S. government to remove the trove from Iraq, he said, “It was critical to include in the first paragraph that these documents are the property of the Iraqi people, that we are temporary custodians of it because of exigent circumstances, extreme circumstances, exceptional circumstances, and that these documents must go back to the Iraqi people.”

In 2008, the Iraq Memory Foundation entered into an agreement with the conservative Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, to house the documents. The move was so controversial that American archivists took the unusual step of inserting themselves into the matter. In April 2008, the Society of American Archivists and the Association of Canadian Archivists issued a statement about five sets of Iraqi records removed from the country, including those held by the Iraq Memory Foundation. The return of the documents was “required by a just regard for the government and people of Iraq as well as by the best interests of the U.S. in its role as an ally to the new Iraqi regime,” they wrote. “As archivists, we believe strongly in the inalienable character of national records and the importance that these records can play in the reconstruction, administration, and cultural stability of Iraq.”

In response, the Iraq Memory Foundation produced a letter from Jaber al-Jaberi, Iraq’s senior deputy minister of culture, saying that the Iraqi government had approved of the transfer. But not all Iraqis were convinced.

Saad Eskander, an exile who returned to Iraq in November 2003, had since then been working to rebuild the Iraq National Library and Archive, which was plundered by looters and professional thieves in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Part of his effort involved a campaign to bring back all documents held by Americans and non-state actors. He wrote a letter to the director of the Hoover Institute claiming that Jaberi’s letter did not represent the views of the Ministry of Culture; Eskander said that Jaberi was pressured to sign a letter written by one of Makiya’s allies. “The Ba’ath documents are the property of the Iraqis and the institutions that represent them, and so it is arrogant and unethical for one person to decide the destiny of millions of sensitive official documents that have had and will continue to have considerable impact on the private lives of millions of Iraqi citizens,” Eskander wrote to Hoover.

In 2010, the Iraqi government, through Eskander’s INLA, formally asked for the return of the Baath archive, as well as the archive on the Iraqi Jews. At the time, Richard Sousa, director of Hoover’s library and archives, told a Stanford newspaper that the Iraqi government had given Hoover permission to hold onto the documents until the government found a safe haven for them. “Now, even though the Iraqis say things are better, it’s certainly not clear to everyone that the situation is better,” Sousa said.

Eight years later, Makiya unconvincingly argues that that is still the case.

“Everyone wants these documents to go back to Iraq, but there’s nobody there able or willing to seize them,” Makiya told The Intercept. “We’re simply waiting for an address to send them back to.”

Kanan Makiya and his assistant, Hassan, of the Iraq Memory Foundation review a file created by the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party documenting torture, executions, and mass graves in Baghdad, Iraq on Oct. 19, 2003. Iraqi citizens and occupying forces recovered the files, which were created by Ba'ath party officials prior to the U.S. invasion.

A file from the Ba’ath Party, in Baghdad, Iraq on Oct. 19, 2003, when it was being handled by the Iraq Memory Foundation.

Photo: Ashley Gilbertson/VII/Redux
The largest archive of Iraqi documents outside Iraq is now located 7,500 miles from Baghdad, at the Hoover Institution. The collection of 10 million pages of digitized documents from Baath-era Iraq, and hundreds of hours of recorded testimonies, includes the Baath Regional Command Collection, obtained by the Iraq Memory Foundation in 2003; the northern Iraq dataset, captured by Kurdish forces in 1991; the Kuwait data set, taken out of Iraq-occupied Kuwait in the 1990s; and the oral histories videotaped by the Iraq Memory Foundation following the U.S. invasion. There is also a collection called the “Kanan Makiya Papers,” currently closed to the public, which includes contracts between the Iraq Memory Foundation and the U.S. government, according to Alshaibi, the doctoral student at UCLA who has accessed it.

Researchers who wish to access the archive must sign an agreement not to photograph the documents or use the names of the people identified in the documents, many of which are unredacted. The digitized documents are accessible from computer terminals at the institution, though some parts of the collection are not entirely useful, according to Bet-Shlimon, the University of Washington professor who wrote a comprehensive article about the document controversy for MERIP. “During my own trips to Hoover in 2013 and 2015 to conduct research in these files, I found that the scans are in black and white and often of poor quality, rendering many of the documents illegible,” she wrote.

Sinan Antoon, a Baghdad-born writer and scholar who is a professor at New York University, is among the Iraqis who have long called for the return of the Baath-era documents to Iraq. “These plundered documents are a treasure for scholars,” he wrote in a 2012 article. “They illuminate the inner dynamics of the Ba’th regime and trace its growth and detail its various visceral effects on Iraqi society. But alas, neither Iraqi scholars, nor Iraqi citizens, the victims of the Ba’th regime, have access to these important documents about their visceral past.”

FILE - In this June 23, 2014, file photo, fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road at the northern city of Mosul, Iraq. (AP Photo, File)

Fighters from the Islamic State, in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle, parade down a main road in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq.

Photo: AP
When it was published in the New York Times on April 4, “The ISIS Files” tapped into the years of controversy over the removal of documents from Iraq.

The article, which sets out to explain how the Islamic State stayed in power as long as it did, used the group’s own documents to examine the “inner workings of a complex government.” ISIS has been a particular puzzle for the foreign journalists who want to write about it, because, for the most part, they have been unable to visit the areas it has controlled. Much of the foreign reporting on ISIS has been roundabout – examining what the group and its members say and broadcast on social media and talking to people who have lived in areas it has controlled or fought on its behalf.

With the group having lost control of most of the territory it held in Syria and Iraq, one of the ways to understand how it operated – to go back in time, in a way – is to look at the records it left behind. Traditionally, it is scholars who do research of this sort, once the relevant documents have been secured in an archive somewhere, but Callimachi and other journalists have now taken up the practice. In 2014, Callimachi, then at the Associated Press, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for reporting based on Al Qaeda documents she had dug out of the trash in Mali. She used similar tactics in Iraq, rushing to the country when U.S.-led coalition forces launched the battle to retake Mosul from ISIS militants in late 2016. She struggled to find documents at first, but after coming across piles of folders in an outhouse, she learned “to stay off the beaten track,” as she described it in her “Caliphate” podcast.

“Every reporter that covers conflict and war knows that you have to be there,” Callimachi said on the podcast. “You have to be on the ground if you want to try to understand the story. As for me, I’m trying to understand ISIS, and one thing I’ve learned is that if you’re able to get to the buildings they occupied right after they’re liberated – and I mean right after – you often can find the documents that they left behind. These are not documents that are meant for publication.”

The question isn’t so much whether journalists should try to use these sorts of documents, but whether they should have control over them. The answer, at least among historians and archivists, appears to be no.

Callimachi’s 6,000-word article includes a note about the newspaper “working to make the trove of ISIS documents publicly available to researchers, scholars, Iraqi officials and anyone else looking to better understand the Islamic State.” On May 7, as this piece was being reported, the Times began to solicit questions from readers about the “issues the collection of the documents raised.” The Times has not yet answered key questions about the ethics of removing the documents but said it would respond to readers “in a coming piece.” What’s currently unfolding is an unusual conflict between a news organization that is aggressively reporting on an issue, and an academic community that is alarmed about the sudden removal of important documents from a country that has already suffered an enormous amount of loss.

Tucker and Brand of the Middle East Studies Association in their public letter to the Times, wrote that the removal of the documents from Iraq with no clear plans to return them “once again empowers outsiders to unduly influence, or even control, the narration of Iraq’s history.” They accused the Times of having “no right to possess or retain these materials,” adding that possession of the files “is not a matter that you or Ms. Callimachi or any other non-Iraqi or non-Iraqi institution is entitled to decide. These materials belong to the Iraqi people.” Their letter also warned that it would be unacceptable for the Times to make the cache publicly available because doing so could endanger the lives of Iraqis named in the documents. This particular warning was in response to the Times publishing copies of about a dozen ISIS documents, including unredacted versions of a tax form, a citation for a teenage boy found to have violated ISIS rules, and a birth certificate.

Callimachi told The Intercept that the Times is working with an outside partner to digitize and publish the documents online. She directed further questions to a company spokesperson. Danielle Rhoades Ha, the vice president of communications at the Times, did not specifically respond to The Intercept’s questions, sending a statement instead. “The New York Times recovered documents that otherwise would have been destroyed or simply abandoned,” she wrote. “Previously Iraqi security forces had been burning documents they discovered. … In every case, Times reporters were being escorted by Iraqi security forces who assisted in the collection and preservation of the documents.”

But did those forces have the authority to give those documents away? Saad Eskander, the former director of the INLA, said they did not.

“The 2016 Law on the Preservation of Records, which I personally drafted when I was the Director General of INLA, states clearly that all types of official and semi-official papers should be administrated by INLA,” he wrote in an email to The Intercept. “This Law also covers records made by Iraqi NGOs. So the above mentioned Iraqi Law does not grant any civilian or military entity the right to decide the fate of Iraqi records, let alone permitting their removal from the country.”

Callimachi’s reasoning for taking the documents – to protect them — is reminiscent of the excuse made by foreigners who have taken cultural artifacts throughout history. But in the case of the ISIS files, they did appear to be in genuine jeopardy. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an analyst who studies ISIS documents and helped Callimachi confirm the authenticity of the documents she had obtained, said that Iraqi security forces were indeed destroying documents that were perceived to have no intelligence value. Locals might also have had reason to get rid of the documents, said Tamimi, who splits his time between the United Kingdom and Baghdad. “If people keep the documents, [other] people might ask: ‘Why are you keeping these IS documents? Are you sympathetic to IS?’” Tamimi said.

Preserving documents does not have to mean taking them out of the country.

But preserving documents does not have to mean taking them out of the country. According to Antoon, the NYU professor, the Times could have given the files to a university or teamed up with researchers in Mosul who have demonstrated an interest in preserving their historical record, such as those reconstructing the Mosul University library. Antoon has publicly criticized Callimachi, harshly describing her removal of the documents as “plunder.”

“These are very important documents about the lives of Iraqis under ISIS occupation, and it’s up to the citizens living in those areas to decide what to do with this record of their history,” Antoon told The Intercept. “It’s interesting how these discoveries or recoveries are narrated whereby the non-Iraqi person removing these documents illegally becomes the hero. And there’s a long history of this that goes back early on under archaeology in imperial or colonial times, and it’s basically a continuation of this colonial privilege.”

But others say the situation in Mosul – which was under heavy, U.S.-led bombing for months and is partially in ruins – would have made it difficult for locals to convene to discuss preserving the documents at the time that Callimachi was collecting them. “It’s a war zone and not just any war zone,” said Weddady, the political analyst who consulted with Callimachi about the podcast. “I don’t see a community city council sitting together and having a debate about a bunch of documents.”

The world “has a right to access these documents,” he added. “For me personally, as an Arab and a Muslim, this story of the emergence of ISIS is the story of a generation. It’s my religion, my faith, my tradition that’s been hijacked.”

The question isn’t so much whether journalists should try to use these sorts of documents, but whether they should have control over them. The answer, at least among historians and archivists, appears to be no.

“It’s especially interesting to me that there seem to be reporters who see it as their prerogative to go over to a country like Iraq or Syria and take documents,” said Joyce Battle, director of the Iraq Documentation Project at George Washington University’s National Security Archive. “It’s hard to be completely critical of course because they’re trying to make information available about the conduct of groups like ISIS, for example. I’m sure that they feel they are serving the public interest in doing that kind of thing, but it’s problematical.”

In this Nov. 16, 2017 photo, Yahya Ali, right and Haifa Shehab, look through the rubble in their house in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq. The U.N. estimates around 40,000 homes will need to be rebuilt or restored in Mosul, which faces the longest path to rebuilding of all the Iraqi cities freed from Islamic State fighters.  (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Yahya Ali, right, and Haifa Shehab, left, look through the rubble in their house in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq, on Nov. 16, 2017, after it was freed from Islamic State rule.

Photo: Felipe Dana/AP
The removal of documents from Iraq goes to a core issue about how history is written: There is tremendous power in possessing the documents upon which the past is understood. The dilemma was adeptly described by archival scholar Jeannette Allis Bastian in her book on the loss of archives in the Caribbean. “A community without its records is a community under siege, defending itself, its identity, and its version of history without a firm foundation on which to stand,” she wrote.

For instance, Dina Khoury, a history professor at the George Washington University, relied on the archive at Hoover in writing her 2013 book on the dynamics of the Baath Party, “Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom and Remembrance.” She was careful in her use of the archive, however, and aware of the way that other researchers had used those documents to insist that Saddam’s regime was a completely totalitarian system, with no participation by ordinary Iraqis. That conclusion, which she says her research disproves, is likely influenced by what the holders of an archive choose to share with the public: According to Khoury, of the millions of Baath-era documents at the National Defense University, the only public ones highlight the violence of Saddam’s regime.

Khoury used the Hoover documents “with the specific purpose of countering a narrative by people who are in the security and policy field, who insist on using these archives basically to simplify Iraqi society.” She added, “I found that the Baath Party was, in fact, by the ’90s, quite weak – although others might disagree – and the [Hoover] archive itself becomes a way of projecting more power than really existed.”

The removal of documents from Iraq goes to a core issue about how history is written: There is tremendous power in possessing the documents upon which the past is understood.

So what’s a foreign journalist to do when finding a trove of documents?

Jenan Moussa, a reporter for the UAE-based Al Aan TV who covers ISIS, recently created a common ground between a reporter’s desire to report on documents and a country’s right to possess them. Last year, Moussa came across a 5,000-page trove of ISIS court documents at a mosque in Tabqa, a city in northern Syria. “The imam told us he wanted to burn these documents because no one wants to be accused of having ISIS documents in their possession,” Moussa told The Intercept. “So we said, Can we take them? He agreed. If we wouldn’t have taken them, then they would have been burned within couple of hours.” She said she spent days inside Syria making digital copies of the documents and never removed them from the country. She shared the documents with local groups that are “grateful that these documents are saved and that they can study and preserve them for possible future use,” Moussa said. She added that in 2013, she handed over Al Qaeda documents she had found and reported on in Mali to an international court.

That’s not the end of the story. Who are the right authorities or groups to hand the documents to? Traditionally, archivists have promoted a theory of “inalienability” when it comes to national documents, under which state documents become the property of a successor state in the event that a government is overthrown. In the case of ISIS, which was never a sovereign state, Caswell, the archival studies scholar at UCLA who has written about Iraq, said she assumed the Iraqi government would be the one to lay claim to the ISIS documents. But that’s not always an ideal situation, she noted, especially when a successor state might have motives to use such documents to exact revenge against the previous order.

In order to give communities ownership over their own histories, some archivists are turning to what is called a “post-custodial” model of archiving, Caswell said. Under that approach, outsiders would help a community digitize a record for safekeeping, working with human rights organizations on the ground to figure out what would work best for each particular community. “I think the post-custodial model really causes us to think about context and power and politics and history and culture – that whole configuration matters,” Caswell said.

Journalists working with archival documents have a responsibility that extends beyond their ordinary duties, Caswell added. “Once you’re in the realm of digitizing the record and making it publicly accessible, then you’re going beyond what traditionally has been what journalists do and stepping into what archivists do,” she said. “So I think then you need to consider not just codes of ethics, but pay attention to the basic principles that archivists consider when we’re making decisions about disclosing information — consent, privacy, consequences.”

Correction: May 23, 2018, 11:18 a.m.
In an earlier version of this story, Nasser Weddady was quoted as saying Iraq does not recognize ISIS as an independent organization. The quote has been changed to clarify that he said Iraq does not recognize ISIS as an Iraqi organization.

Top photo: An Iraqi civilian looks through files scattered on the floor of the building where Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party kept political prisoners in Basra, Iraq, on April 10, 2003.

Join The Conversation