Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Joffe on Syrian Regime Archives

Alexander Joffe has a piece in The National Interest called "Preserving the Syrian Paper Trail" (available here) discussing the importance of the fate of the archives and records of the Syrian government. Joffe begins:
When the regime of Bashar al-Assad is destroyed or pushed out of Damascus, it will leave behind a wrecked capital and unparalleled record of supporting terrorist groups and covert deals with Russia, Iran and North Korea. What we understand of that record will be shaped by the documents that are preserved and analyzed. What Syrians will understand about forty years of rule by the fascist Baath party and its crimes against the Syrian people also depends on preserving something vital yet almost out of sight: the regime’s archives and files.
Joffe states that in "recent conflicts" the "United States has secured records haphazardly" citing Iraq and notes that in Egypt "members of the internal-security agency shredded files to sanitize the Mubarak regime and themselves and to create gaps in the historical record." Joffe continues:
Documents were once a prime military target. As the Allies swept across Europe during World War II, they seized hundreds of tons of Nazi documents that are still being studied today. Among other things, these provided the documentary record of the Holocaust and were introduced as evidence at Nuremberg and other war-crimes trials. They also form the basis for our understanding of that dark period of history. But such materials have slipped from view as a military priority. Actionable intelligence has been the primary focus of military “document exploitation” in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as Saddam’s and Osama bin Laden’s files have yielded vital historical and legal insights.
Joffe ends with the following call to action:
Demanding that mere paperwork be preserved seems strange when people are dying. But Syrian rebels, Egyptian revolutionaries and the next group fighting against repression need to be taught that files are a key to the future. The U.S. government and military must relearn the lessons of World War II—that the future depends in part on securing the past. Specialized skills are involved in document recovery and exploitation, more familiar to U.S. attorneys than U.S. Special Forces. Forensic accountants and computer geeks need to be at or near the front line supporting U.S. and friendly forces. Archivists, lawyers and historians need to follow up quickly, to utilize materials for criminal prosecutions and to correct the first draft of history provided by journalists and propagandists.