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Is this “transparency”?

August 2, 2013

Ever since the Snowden saga broke a few weeks back I’ve defended the Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) against the most scurrilous charges in the media, which regrettably have been legion. Yet throughout I’ve advocated for greater transparency by both of them. The time has come for the American people to have a clearer idea of what is done in its name.

I’ve felt this way for years, as a scholar as well as a citizen. One cause I’ve cared a lot about is getting scholars and journalists access to captured records from the events of the post-9/11 era, particularly documents relating to the global struggle against Al-Qa’ida and the war in Iraq. I was very encouraged when previous SECDEF Gates stood up the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, as a focal point for getting important information declassified and made available to people outside DoD and the IC. CRRC was part of DoD’s broader MINERVA initiative to bring the Pentagon and outside specialists in various academic disciplines closer together, with benefits to both sides, and above all to scholarship.

During its short life and despite its fly-speck budget by DoD standards, CRRC has done excellent work, putting declassified records out there for independent researchers to see; important books, articles, and conference papers have resulted. Knowledge has surely increased. This is exactly the sort of thing DoD and the IC need to be doing to achieve the rightful degree of transparency.

And it’s all over now. For months rumors had swirled that CRRC’s future was up in the air due to sequestration and the generally dismal state of the Pentagon’s budget. Yesterday we learned that at the end of September, with the conclusion of FY2013, the CRRC will shut its doors. Here’s the sad email from the center’s acting director:

 I am writing to update you on the CRRC’s recent accomplishments and to inform you of the Center’s complete lack of future funding.  The CRRC does not have any funding beyond September 30, 2013.  The CRRC has previously received generous funding from the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy (OSD(P)).  The Center does not, however, have any funding beyond the end of the current fiscal year.  If the CRRC does not receive funding prior to September 30, it will shut down and the National Archives (NARA) will take ownership of all CRRC records.  Current CRRC holdings constitute less than one percent of the records that the Center is working to make available.  If the CRRC goes out of business, its collections will be frozen in time. 

 NARA officials have informed CRRC staff that NARA would not release CRRC records for 25 years, with the exception of a trickle of records in response to Freedom of Information Act Requests.  NARA has also announced that it would release only the CRRC translations, not copies of the Arabic originals, and would redact most of the names in the translations. 

 The Senate Armed Services Committee’s markup of the FY14 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) recommends that the CRRC receive $1 million in FY14.  It is unclear, however, when the NDAA will become law.  If the CRRC fails to receive an appropriation by September 30, the Center will go out of business.  In recent years, NDAA legislation has not been signed into law until after September 30.  Funding uncertainties have led to operational instability.  I regret to inform you that Dr. Lorry M. Fenner, who served skillfully and diligently as the CRRC Director, has left the Center for more stable employment with the MITRE Corporation. 

 I am pleased, though, to provide you with an overview of recent CRRC accomplishments.  In the past quarter, the CRRC has created 39 new records, consisting of 1,419 pages of documents and 14.7 hours of audio files, which are now available to researchers at the CRRC.  The CRRC provides an English translation for every record it adds to its Research Database.  Updated indexes of the CRRC’s records are available on the al-Qaeda and Associated Movements and Saddam Hussein regime collection pages.  An index of the records added in the past quarter is also available on the CRRC’s website, and is included as an attachment to this e-mail.

On June 3, the CRRC publicly released 26 records in support of a Woodrow Wilson Center – Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation workshop on Deterring New Nuclear Weapon States.  On April 19, in conjunction with a panel on Iraq at the International Studies Association, the CRRC released several records on Saddam Hussein’s meeting with U.S. Congressman Bill Richardson.  All of these records, with full English translations, are available on the CRRC’s new and improved website – http://crrc.dodlive.mil/.  

CRRC records have contributed key information to several recent publications.  For instance, on May 13 Dr. Caitlin Talmadge, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, published “The Puzzle of Personalist Performance: Iraqi Battlefield Effectiveness in the Iran-Iraq War” in the journal Security Studies.  This article, which finds its basis in CRRC records, provides analysis of a recent U.S. adversary’s military performance. 

The CRRC has been active in publishing and in presenting research at leading conferences.  In response to a greater than expected demand, the National Defense University Press is publishing a new hard copy edition of 9/11 Ten Years Later: Insights on al-Qaeda’s Past & Future Through Captured Records. The first edition of the book is available electronically online, and a limited number of hard copies should become available on August 9th.  Mohammed Baban, a former CRRC intern and paid service provider, translated a fascinating interview with Tariq Aziz, Saddam’s foreign minister, which the CRRC has released via its website.  In the past three months, CRRC staff have presented research at conferences sponsored by the International Studies Association, Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, Peace Science Society, Woodrow Wilson Center, and Stanford University.  CRRC staff have recently briefed the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and a wide variety of other U.S. Government organizations. 

Got that? Due to Pentagon and Congressional chaos and silliness, nobody can find a million bucks – cue the Dr Evil voice, you know you want to: One MEEEEEEEEEEELLION Dollars – and CRRC is done. Worse than that, its records will be packed off to the National Archives where they’ll be locked away for the next quarter-century and, once researchers are eventually allowed to see them, it will be in translated, not original, form, and then heavily redacted. To scholars this will have little value at all, to say nothing of the needless 25-year wait. We’ll be assured that “top men” are working on it, but you, me and Dr. Jones know what this really means.

This, per Talleyrand, is worse than a crime, it is a blunder. Indeed an epic fail. For DoD and IC, which are struggling to show greater transparency these days, the timing of this decision could not possibly be worse. The needless death of the CRRC is sacrificing excellent outreach initiatives begun under SECDEF Gates and must call into question the future of MINERVA as well. In all, a disgrace.

Don’t let this happen ….

[N.B. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and not those of any of his current or past employers.]

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5 Comments
  1. So, in service to access to source documentation that is central to academic, national security, and intelligence research and purposes, in order to preserve the mechanism for keeping the pipe open, an Defense Department research center, with all of the machinery and access channels and infrastructure and staff in place to serve this vital need requires the public collective to intercede and save it due to lack of funding by the government that recognized its need and value and created it in the first place (not to state the obvious in a naive way, because there is a point to the above recapitulation). So might it be appropriate to mount a crowd sourced funding initiative to raise the money needed to fund the Center independently? Seems to me there are enough folks with significant money and brains in the private sector to recognize the strategic value and need for this to pony up a million bucks, no?

    • I wish getting private funding for CRRC would be that easy but I’m sure the mountains of DoD regs would make it very challenging. :(

  2. Reblogged this on akula51 dot net and commented:
    This is some *real* perspective on another of the Obama Administrations’ many claims to be transparent when their desires may actually go in a different direction. Why would *anyone* want to have a potential 25 year gap in the access to these records?

  3. One of multiple worthy initiatives, the latest casualty of loony brinkmanship budget negotiations that have brought progress to a halt on many fronts. We deserve better from our elected representatives.

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  1. Conflict Records Research Center: Update | The XX Committee

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