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Penny Wise and Pound Foolish Thinking about the Iraqi Records Project

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish Thinking about the Iraqi Records Project

When the headlines are talking about the fate of a $400 billion-plus plane with technical difficulties, it might seem quaint to talk about a teensy-weensy defense budget cut of parochial interest to researchers, but I can not think of a better illustration of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking, so bear with me. At issue is the news release that proposed budget cuts will close the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at the National Defense University (NDU).

The CRRC is the repository that has prepared and published the archive of material taken in a dozen years of the war on terror. It includes unrivaled archived material from the files of al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime.

When I was in the government, I found it very frustrating that this repository was not made even more generally available. The argument that we could not release those documents generally without compromising sources and methods struck me as bizarre. Everyone in the world knew how we got those records: We invaded Iraq and took the files. There were better reasons for being careful, including the possibility of releasing sensitive personal information (such as names of people who had been abused by Saddam’s regime or names of people on the payroll) so of course it had to be scrubbed. But the vast majority could be released and would be a bonanza for experts seeking to understand the recent past — and, given the importance of the recent past, the sooner the better.

There was far less chance that the trove would contain material embarrassing to the United States. Indeed, as I have observed before, one of the key dysfunctions in the marketplace of ideas is that weak arguments criticizing U.S. policy last much longer than they would in a more information-rich and better-functioning system. More to the point: The information collected and released by the CRRC goes a very long way to rebutting some of the critiques about the run-up to the Iraq war that have the status of unquestioned conventional wisdom among academic security specialists and foreign critics of the United States.

That is why I simply do not understand why the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would seek to choke off public access to records that help us better understand the stakes in the global war on terror.

A caveat: I do not know enough of the details of the budgets of the CRRC and INSS and NDU to state confidently that the first must stay nested within the second which must stay nested within the third. I am prepared to learn that it would be better to relocate the CRRC somewhere else, provided that it can keep operating more or less as it has thus far (or even on an accelerated basis).

What I am strongly disinclined to accept unless someone provides a compelling explanation, is that it is in the U.S. national interest to close the CRRC and kick it into the larger National Archives (NARA) where, because of NARA’s priorities and procedures, it will freeze the release of documents for many years to come.

Put another way, is there anyone who is prepared to argue that it is not worth spending some money on developing a deeper understanding of the dynamics of dictators and terrorists in the Middle East?