Preservation or Plunder? The ISIS Files and a History of Heritage Removal in Iraq

by Arbella Bet-Shlimon | published May 8, 2018

On April 4, 2018, the New York Times published a gripping account of life in northern Iraq between 2014 and 2017 under the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS or IS). The article, titled “The ISIS Files: When Terrorists Run City Hall,” was the culmination of over a year of work by correspondent Rukmini Callimachi and a team of reporters, fact-checkers, and translators.[1]

At great personal risk, Callimachi scoured northern Iraq for the documents ISIS left behind. Because Iraqi intelligence agents had already obtained access to the primary administrative buildings of the region’s largest cities, she turned her attention to small villages and secondary buildings. She sought out the discarded records of ISIS’s bureaucratic operations: license plates, birth certificates, police records, tax forms, and identification cards. Collectively, her team assembled a trove of some 15,000 documents, from which they are endeavoring to piece together a picture of the mundane workings of daily life under a brutal regime.

In her article, Callimachi framed her project as a competition with Iraqi intelligence agents, who were also on the hunt for ISIS documents. Iraqi officials, she implied, are more interested in combing the files for the names of people affiliated with ISIS than in trying to understand the details of how ISIS administered its territory. These officials are unlikely to make captured files publicly accessible and may even destroy them. By contrast, the NYT, in a sidebar to the article, promised that it is “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.”

Yet despite this promise of transparency, many Iraqis responded to the publication of “The ISIS Files” with critical questions, frustration, and even fury. Sinan Antoon, a Baghdad-born novelist and poet who is now a professor at New York University, denounced the decision to take the ISIS files to the US as “plunder.” In an article for Al Jazeera, he challenged Callimachi’s claim to have received permission from Iraqi security forces to remove the documents and demanded that she provide written proof of her authority to do so.[2] Mosuli historian Omar Mohammed, who is widely known as Mosul Eye and is now a refugee in Europe, lamented that “our history [has] always been told by others using our own [materials]. Always….”[3]And Sara Farhan, a PhD student in history at Toronto’s York University who has close relatives still living in Mosul, was even more blunt. “You are a thief and a disgrace,” she railed at Callimachi.[4]

This outpouring of anger has dismayed Callimachi, members of her team, and her defenders. Predictably, she chafes at the perception that she and her colleagues are the moral equivalent of plunderers profiting from the spoils of war. When I asked her about the response to her article, she opined that, “had [the NYT] not preserved the thousands of pages of documents, no one would be debating this now.”[5] Indeed, considering that the fates of many other ISIS documents captured by the Iraqi army are now unknown, it is possible that these files never would have been made available to Iraqi journalists, historians, or archivists without Callimachi’s efforts.

Nevertheless, the outcry should not have come as a surprise. The removal of the ISIS files from Iraq is only the latest episode in a long history of seizures of Iraqi archives and artifacts by Europeans and Americans. Rather than dismiss Iraqi critics as unreasonable, everyone with a stake in the study of Iraq—including all journalists, historians, and archivists—must reckon with the enduring legacies of two centuries of Western removal of Iraqi heritage.

And we must begin by acknowledging that, again and again, the people who have taken Iraqi items have justified their actions by appealing to the need for preservation. Rather than considering themselves businesspeople or profiteers, they convinced themselves that they were performing an act of duty by safeguarding Iraq’s history for posterity and making materials available to scholars. In nearly every case, however, the institutions that have housed Iraqi heritage have ended up benefiting from it directly. They have attracted funding, researchers, accolades, and sightseers. All the while, efforts to make those materials accessible to Iraqis, if they have been made at all, have repeatedly fallen short.

Many critics of “The ISIS Files,” including the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association, have focused on the apparent illegality of the NYT’s removal of these documents in accordance with Iraqi law or international law such as UN resolutions and the Hague conventions.[6] But regardless of the legal issues, “The ISIS Files” project also raises ethical questions about foreign journalists’ responsibilities to the people they report on. In this case, a historical perspective is essential to understand the scope of those responsibilities.

Westerners began to remove historical artifacts from Iraq in the nineteenth century. At the time, archaeology was ascendant as a discipline, and scientific knowledge production was intertwined with the project of imperialism. In addition, Mesopotamia figured prominently in biblically inspired notions of European heritage. The British and French archaeologists who collected items such as cuneiform tablets and sculptures therefore felt they had a greater affinity to them than did the mostly Muslim local inhabitants. After all, the locals had left them undisturbed and were, in this European view, apathetic to their existence.[7]

The first national institution in modern Iraq devoted to collecting and studying historical artifacts was established in 1922, when Iraq was a League of Nations mandate territory under British administration. It became known as the Baghdad Antiquities Museum in 1926 and was later renamed the National Museum of Iraq. The museum’s founder, Gertrude Bell, was a British archaeologist turned colonial official who put herself in charge of deciding which archaeological findings would be kept in Iraq and which could be sent back to Europe.

These decisions were sometimes thoughtful—Bell expressed pride at the quality of the items she had elected to keep in Iraq—but could also be arbitrary. In one 1924 letter, Bell described splitting up artifacts from Ur between herself and British excavators by flipping a rupee.[8] In other letters, she casually referred to British mandate officials amassing personal collections of antiquities such as tablets, seals, and coins.[9] Despite her own questionable practices with these artifacts, Bell justified her actions by expressing doubts about Iraqis’ ability to maintain them. For instance, writing about a well-preserved carved plaque from Ur, she noted that it had been valued at 10,000 British pounds but that she would hide this information from Iraqi ministers “lest they decide to sell it.”[10]

As the steward of Iraq’s antiquities museum, Bell clashed with other European archaeologists, who maneuvered to ensure that they could retain as many of the artifacts they excavated as possible. One such archaeologist, Sir Leonard Woolley, once wrote that he had exaggerated the value of the excavated items he had relinquished to the Iraqi government so that Bell and the Iraqis would see an advantage in letting him keep a lucrative share, a process he referred to as “the partition of the spoil.” To Woolley, though, keeping some of the antiquities was not an act of self-interest; on the contrary, he saw himself as an altruistic volunteer undertaking excavations “so that [Iraq] gets a great deal for nothing.”[11]

As Iraqis began to develop a sense of these artifacts as part of their patrimony, history, and sense of nationhood, they started to protest the removal of antiquities from Iraq for display in foreign institutions. By this time, some of Mesopotamia’s most spectacular archaeological findings, such as the massive winged bulls that had protectively flanked Assyrian palaces, were in locations as far flung as Chicago, New York, and Paris. In 1933, an Iraqi newspaper protested, “May we throw a glance at our small museum and compare its contents with the objects unearthed in this country which have found their way into the museums which have been sending excavation missions into this country…and find out whether our share has been a fair one or otherwise?”[12]

The removal of antiquities from Iraq has continued in the years since, and has accelerated since the 2003 coalition invasion. In a particularly infamous recent case, the American arts and crafts retail chain Hobby Lobby was forced to forfeit thousands of clay tablets and bullae from Iraq that they had smuggled into the US with false labels. The company had planned to include them in an extravagant Christian-themed museum it is currently building in Washington, DC.[13] In a statement issued after the company reached a settlement with the US Department of Justice, Hobby Lobby said that its goals in acquiring these antiquities for the museum had been “to preserve these items for future generations, to provide broad access to scholars and students alike to study them, and to share the collection with the world in public institutions and museums.”[14]

In the past few decades, the removal of patrimony from Iraq has expanded to include paper archives that are records of more recent histories. In 1991, Kurdish troops seized a vast archive of documents of the Iraqi Ba‘th Party concerning its operations in the predominantly Kurdish northeastern region of Iraq. Those troops turned most of the documents over to the US military under an agreement with the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the nongovernmental watchdog organization Human Rights Watch (HRW). The archive was airlifted to the US, where HRW researchers used it to write definitive accounts of Al-Anfal, Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against Kurdish citizens in the last years of the Iran-Iraq War.[15] In 1998, the US government moved the files to the University of Colorado, Boulder. The university’s press release about the acquisition stated that it planned “an aggressive effort to translate the materials and make them available on the World Wide Web, for the greatest possible access.”[16]

Twenty years later, the goal of making those files widely accessible via the internet has not been realized. The files now reside in digital form at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank in Stanford, California, where they have been named the North Iraq Data Set (NIDS). They were scanned in the 1990s, and the scans (in lieu of the originals) are now available to researchers for viewing on Hoover’s own computers. 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. The original documents, according to a library entry for the collection, were turned over to “the Kurds”—presumably Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling parties—in 2007.[17]

At Hoover, the NIDS joined another, much larger collection of Ba‘th files. Those documents first came to the US after the 2003 coalition invasion through the intervention of Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University and longtime prominent opponent of the Ba‘th who had cooperated with the George W. Bush administration in support of the Iraq invasion. Makiya had established a small nonprofit organization, the Iraq Memory Foundation, with the stated purpose of chronicling and preserving Iraqi memories of the atrocities of the Ba‘th era.[18] In September 2003, the Iraq Memory Foundation obtained permission from the US Department of Defense and the Coalition Provisional Authority to take custody of millions of Ba‘th documents produced by the party’s Regional Command. The Iraq Memory Foundation’s website, which professes only an academic mission and encourages donations from visitors, gives no indication on any of its pages of the organization’s longstanding links to the Department of Defense.[19]

In accordance with the agreement, the archive was brought to the US and scanned. The Iraq Memory Foundation, lacking the facilities to maintain the archive, turned both the physical and digital files over to the Hoover Institution in 2008.[20] Today, researchers can view those digital files, known as the Ba‘th Regional Command Collection, on the same computers as the older NIDS scans. The physical documents, however, are not publicly accessible.

Stanford University’s public relations office has promoted Hoover’s Iraqi Ba‘th collection as a “treasure trove of insights” that “is helping both scholars and governmental representatives better understand” the regime’s brutality.[21] The implication in this rhetoric is that the scholars and governmental representatives in question are all American—or, at least, based in the US. What is absent from this praise is any recognition of the fact that Iraqi researchers are effectively barred from accessing a critical source about their own history. Stanford is located in California’s Bay Area, an extraordinarily expensive region even for middle class American scholars wishing to conduct a long-term research project. And Iraqis, who are stigmatized by current US immigration policies, have trouble obtaining visas to enter the country in the first place.

Yet another collection of Ba‘th materials that was removed from Iraq in 2003, including many audiotapes of Saddam Hussein’s meetings with his deputies, is now housed at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, DC. The university’s Conflict Records Research Center, whose mission is “to enhance national security” by encouraging the study of records seized during combat operations,[22] once undertook an ambitious project of digitizing the documents and tapes and translating them into English—a clear indication that the intended constituency of researchers was American. 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. Furthermore, the Department of Defense holds an untold number of Ba‘th files that have never been made available to the public in any form.[23]

The Iraq National Library and Archive (INLA), Iraq’s central institution of modern history and scholarship in Baghdad, has repeatedly demanded custody of the Ba‘th Party archives. These demands began under its previous director, historian Saad Eskander, who, along with the National Museum of Iraq’s late director Donny George Youkhanna, braved crossfire and death threats to salvage Iraqi archives and artifacts during the widespread looting that followed the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Soon after becoming aware of the removal of the Ba‘th files, Eskander appealed first to the Iraq Memory Foundation, then to the US Embassy in Baghdad. After being rebuffed by both, he turned to concerned Western scholars for support making his case. Eskander expressed dismay that files containing such sensitive material, including personal information gathered through the Ba‘th apparatus of mass surveillance, were in the hands of a private entity abroad rather than professional Iraqi archivists who could catalog them “in order to prevent theft and misuse.”[24] Today, ten years after obtaining the documents, the Hoover Institution has not outlined any definite plan or timeline to return the collection to Iraq.

This is the context in which Rukmini Callimachi claimed the ISIS files and airlifted them to New York. She is not the only journalist to have removed such materials from Iraq since the 2003 invasion. Eskander told me that many journalists, both “Arab and foreign,” have “illicitly ship[ped] out of Iraq records of political or cultural importance, including film footage, photographs, documents, manuscripts, and cultural objects.”[25] But the sheer scale and prominence of her project have subjected it, fairly or not, to unusual scrutiny.

If “The ISIS Files” is an exceptional endeavor entirely separable from Iraq’s history of heritage removal—from Gertrude Bell to Hobby Lobby to Hoover—then it is incumbent upon the NYT to explain how that is the case and to act accordingly. So far, though, Callimachi, her team, and their defenders have resisted the idea that they should answer to Iraqi scholars who might have an interest in the files. Indeed, Callimachi’s practice of removing the documents of extremist groups from the places where they were produced has long been a key aspect of her profile as a journalist; she has frequently said that her method of reporting this way began when she took thousands of Al-Qaeda documents out of Mali while working for the Associated Press in 2013.[26]

In public comments, Callimachi has repeated many times that the NYT is “looking for partners to create a digital archive” of the ISIS files.[27] Nevertheless, she did not, as of this writing, respond to two separate inquiries as to whether the newspaper has made any attempt to reach out to Iraqi universities, libraries, or archives as part of that search for partners.[28] It would be logical to do so. For instance, Iraq’s central library, which is part of INLA, has an active digitization program.[29] Saad Eskander, the former INLA director, suggested to me that there is no reason why the NYT cannot retain a digital copy of the archives to make widely available to scholars and journalists while returning the originals to Iraq.[30] But Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a British analyst of Iraqi origin who worked with Callimachi to authenticate the ISIS files, expressed support for the NYT’s stated digitization plan in a comment to me. If the newspaper relinquished control of the files, in his view, they could end up like the Ba‘th archives in “a private institution few can access.”[31] The tragic irony of his words, of course, is that the ISIS files are presently located in a closed private institution—the NYT—where Iraqis have no recourse to ensure that they will be given access to them.

Even more concerning, some of the NYT’s defenders in discussions about the ISIS files have portrayed Iraqi critics of the paper as insufficiently grateful for the intervention of wiser Americans, a notion that echoes the privately expressed sentiments of Leonard Woolley and Gertrude Bell a century ago. For instance, Kirk H. Sowell, a consultant who publishes the risk newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics (for which Al-Tamimi is a contributor), initiated an exchange with me in response to a defense of the NYT’s Iraqi critics that I had written on Twitter. He opened with a tweet reading, “Point me to the Iraqi newspaper which does in-depth investigative journalism & I’ll happily read it.”[32] Puzzled by the relevance of this comment to a statement about the ethics of removing archives for private ownership, I asked Sowell, “Just to be clear: your take is that Iraqis should stay quiet about their archives being taken to the U.S. because they don’t yet have the means to establish a [NYT]-caliber paper?”[33] He responded, “Absolutely.” (Callimachi herself “liked” this last tweet.)[34]

The ethical problems with the NYT’s ownership of the ISIS files, especially in light of this condescension and self-aggrandizement, are clear. But the correct path forward is not obvious. Should the documents be returned to the Iraqi state broadly, or to Mosul specifically? After all, the point of returning these files to Iraq is to do right by the people for whom they are a critical aspect of lived history. The best way to achieve that goal may be to return the files to northern Iraq, not to the capital. On April 30, 2018, Mosul University’s history department held a conference—its first since the city’s liberation from ISIS—on the topic of ethics in historical research. The choice of topic is an indication that the university’s faculty and students are actively engaging in this kind of conversation.[35]

On the other hand, it may be that Mosul does not have the infrastructure, physically or digitally, to house such a large trove of documents in the aftermath of ISIS destruction. In that case, should the documents instead be given to, as one petition condemning the NYT argues, Iraq’s Minister of Culture and the Director of INLA?[36] Or, as Mosuli writer Areej Aziz has argued, perhaps the Iraqi justice system should get the first say in who has access to the files, given the need of ISIS’s survivors to use them as evidence in court.[37] Would handing the archive over to Iraqi courts ensure survivors’ access to it?

None of these questions has a straightforward answer, but all those who have removed documents from Iraq have a responsibility to ask them in good faith.

 It is also worth considering whether it would be enough for the NYT to scan the files to permit Iraqis to read them on the internet (if this is actually done, and if the Iraqis in question have the privilege of high-speed internet access) while retaining custody of the original documents. As many historians and archivists have recognized, digitization is not magical. The physical properties of historical artifacts, including paper, files, and boxes, can be as important to researchers as the text written on them. Furthermore, as the low-quality NIDS scans at Hoover demonstrate, data decay and the rapid obsolescence of digital formats make possession of the physical originals for future re-digitization a matter of paramount importance. Why should those originals remain in the possession of a private American corporation with no accountability to ISIS’s survivors?
 
Finally, a concern that Saad Eskander raised with regard to the Ba‘th archives also applies to the ISIS files: the presence of detailed personal information on ordinary citizens. Jarringly, the online version of “The ISIS Files” contains full scans of documents with ordinary Iraqis’ names and personal information on them, including, in at least two cases, children. When I asked Callimachi why the NYT had chosen to present these documents publicly without redactions, she explained that the mission of a journalistic institution is to be transparent, and that redactions would constitute censorship.[38] This is a case, however, where journalistic ethics collide with the needs of ISIS’s survivors. If we accept the premise that the NYT’s mission requires the full content of any documents they possess to be made public, then does it make sense for the NYT to claim custody of an archive that contains the personal information of vulnerable people?
 
Iraqis who have publicly criticized the NYT’s actions in publishing “The ISIS Files” are nearly unanimous in the view that the files should be returned to Iraq, but are not in agreement on the correct way to do so. Some of them have recognized, with consternation, that many fellow Iraqis do not care about the preservation of these and other records. To them, this lack of interest does not mitigate the wrongness of Western removal of Iraqi archives and artifacts, but it does explain why something so objectionable happens so routinely. Indeed, looting is not an act committed only by Westerners in Iraq. Iraqi looters also have burned or stolen their homeland’s heritage, and have sold plundered documents and antiquities on the black market for profit.
 
Abbas Kadhim, an analyst and academic from Iraq who now lives in the US, has said that his attempts to access the Ba‘th records remaining in Iraq since 2003 have been unsuccessful. These records have typically been either destroyed, rendered inaccessible, or used solely to blackmail those named in them. In addition, according to Kadhim, the Iraqi government ignored his suggestion that it should fund Iraqi PhD students to travel to the Hoover Institution, where, he says, he offered to supervise their work.[39]
 
Balsam Mustafa, an Iraqi PhD candidate in modern languages at the University of Birmingham who has written extensively about ISIS, thinks raising awareness of these kinds of records could be a solution to the problems Kadhim observes. She told me, “I think Iraqis need to be more aware of the importance and value of these and other documents to their history, present and the future. The fight against IS is not just military.” She emphasizes that the files must return to Iraq, but, she adds, “there needs to be a coordination between…historians and archivists outside the country and those inside to make sure that the documents are going to be in the right hands.”[40]
 
The dilemmas in preserving Iraq’s fragmented historical record have no easy solutions. But it is clear that Western scholars, journalists, and government officials should first engage their Iraqi counterparts in a meaningful discussion about these files and other aspects of Iraq’s heritage. The frustrations of Iraqi critics are rooted in a long history of grievances. By removing the ISIS files from Iraq and pledging to make them publicly available, the NYT has taken on a monumental task. It remains to be seen whether they will fulfill the historical and ethical responsibilities that come along with it.
 
Author’s note: This article has been modified since its original publication. I have corrected my description of Aymenn Al-Tamimi’s relationship to the “ISIS Files” project, as well as my representation of the comments he made on April 11, 2018. He was an authenticator of the documents, not a translator, and his comments, while supporting the New York Times’ stance, did not foreclose the possibility of returning the files to Iraq.
 





[1]
Rukmini Callimachi, “The ISIS Files: When Terrorists Run City Hall,” The New York Times, April 4, 2018.
[2]@sinanantoon, Twitter, April 11, 2018; Sinan Antoon, “How the NYT Partook in the Plunder of Iraq,” Aljazeera, April 24, 2018.
[3]@MosulEye, Twitter, April 11, 2018.
[4]@Farhanistan, Twitter, April 10, 2018.
[5]Rukmini Callimachi, personal communication with the author, April 12, 2018.
[6]Committee on Academic Freedom, “Acquisition and Unethical Use of Documents Removed from Iraq by New York Times Journalist Rukmini Callimachi,” Middle East Studies Association, May 2, 2018.
[7]Magnus Bernhardsson, Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 19-56.
[8]Gertrude Bell, letter to her father, March 6, 1924, Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University.
[9]See, e.g., Gertrude Bell, letter to her father, April 1, 1925, Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University; Gertrude Bell, letter to her stepmother, April 6, 1926, Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University.
[10]Gertrude Bell, letter to her father, March 6, 1924.
[11]Sir Leonard Woolley, as quoted in H.V.F. Winstone, Woolley of Ur: The Life of Sir Leonard Woolley (London: Secker and Warburg, 1990), 128.
[12]Sawt al-‘Iraq, May 14, 1933, as translated and quoted in Magnus Bernhardsson, “The Sense of Belonging: The Politics of Archaeology in Modern Iraq,” in Philip L. Kohl, Mara Kozelsky, and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, eds. Selective Remembrances: Archaeology in the Construction, Commemoration, and Consecration of National Pasts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 197.
[13]“Hobby Lobby to Forfeit Smuggled Iraqi Antiquities,” NPR, July 5, 2017.
[14]“Artifact Import Settlement,” Hobby Lobby, July 5, 2017.
[15]See, e.g., Human Rights Watch, Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993).
[16]“CU-Boulder Archives Acquires Iraqi Secret Police Files,” CU Boulder Today, February 3, 1998.
[17]“Register of the Hiẓb al-Ba‘th al-‘Arabī al-Ishtirākī in Iraq [Ba‘th Arab Socialist Party of Iraq] Records,” Online Archive of California.
[18]“Addressing the Future of Iraq,” Iraq Memory Foundation.
[19]“Donations,” Iraq Memory Foundation.
[20]Michelle Caswell, “‘Thank You Very Much, Now Give Them Back’: Cultural Property and the Fight Over the Iraqi Baath Party Records,” The American Archivist 74 (2011): 211-240.
[21]“Ba’ath Party Archives Reveal Brutality of Saddam Hussein’s Rule,” Stanford News, March 29, 2018.
[23]Caswell, “‘Thank You Very Much,’” 214n10.
[24]Saad Eskander, as quoted in Caswell, “‘Thank You Very Much,’” 215.
[25]Saad Eskander, personal communication with the author, May 4, 2018.
[26]See, e.g., Lisa Ryan, “The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi on How She Gets Close to ISIS,” The Cut, April 26, 2018.
[27]See, e.g., @rcallimachi, Twitter, April 23, 2018.
[28]I made the first of these inquiries privately in an on-the-record exchange. I made the second one publicly: @abshlimon, Twitter, May 4, 2018.
[29]Vivian Salama, “Facing Islamic State Threat, Iraq Digitizes National Library,” Associated Press, August 4, 2015.
[30]Eskander, personal communication.
[31]@ajaltamimi, Twitter, April 11, 2018.
[32]@UticaRisk, Twitter, April 11, 2018.
[33]@abshlimon, Twitter, April 11, 2018.
[34]@UticaRisk, Twitter, April 12, 2018.
[35]@MosulEye, Twitter, April 29, 2018.
[37]@AreejNAziz, Twitter, April 11, 2018; @AreejNAziz, Twitter, April 12, 2018.
[38]Callimachi, personal communication.
[39]@DrAbbasKadhim, Twitter, April 28, 2018.
[40]Balsam Mustafa, personal communication with the author, April 13-14, 2018.