Heritage sites during Operation Iraqi Freedom Using Freedom of Information Act Requests

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By: Levi Keach, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

The research I presented at the recent ASOR Annual Meeting in Baltimore, “Heritage sites during Operation Iraqi Freedom Using Freedom of Information Act Requests,” is deeply entangled with my personal journey towards archaeology. While serving with the 1st Infantry Division in Baghdad during the Surge, I came to understand that the rich archaeological heritage of Iraq was a source of both pride and comfort among many of the Iraqis with whom I regularly interacted. After my return to civilian life I took advantage of the G.I. Bill to pursue an education in archaeology. As the war in Iraq was coming to a close, I began to contemplate the most efficient way to conduct the After Action Review related to cultural heritage protection.

Figure: 1

Figure: 1

Experience taught me that the Army, and presumably the U.S. Military as a whole, is a large bureaucracy and relies on an extensive system of records. Moreover, I knew that these records are queryable through the Freedom of Information Act. FOIA requests are a bit complicated because one cannot ask a question with them; rather one has to anticipate the records which will hold the information necessary to answer one’s question. For this reason I decided that requesting records related to specific archaeological sites would provide the best window into the military’s awareness and actions related the heritage sites. Of course, Iraq’s archaeological heritage is so great that it would be unreasonable to expect an organization whose mission is to “fight and win our Nation’s wars” to keep track of them all. I selected several sites from a Department of Defense partner’s list of significant sites in Iraq. At this point I have completed FOIA requests for Tell es-Sawwan, Tell al-Ubaid, and Uruk.

Figure: 2

Figure: 2

FOIA has several categories of requesters for the purpose of assessing fees. As an academic research requester I was responsible for reproduction costs over 100 pages. Early in this research project I had worried that I would get a letter asking me to pay for 500 copies; what I received was quite the opposite. No records were found for Tell es-Sawwan, Tell al-Ubaid produced a partially redacted SIGACTs spreadsheet with no locational data (fig. 1), and Uruk produced a SIGACTs spreadsheet with locational data (fig. 2) and a heavily redacted slideshow relating to a ground vibration sensor (fig. 3). From the Uruk SIGACTs I was able to plot some of the dangers to the site (fig. 4).

Figure: 3

Figure: 3

Between the scant return and the redactions, it is very difficult to interpret these data. One possibility is that the U.S. Military was not tracking these sites in a way that generated records. Another possibility is that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has intentionally failed to return relevant document. A third possibility, which came up during the question portion of my presentation in Baltimore, is that when CENTCOM took over the Operation Iraqi Freedom records following the war they were not coded in a way that highlighted archaeology.

Based on the responses of the CENTCOM FOIA Office and the Pentagon FOIA Appeals Office to my requests for reproduction fee waivers, the military does not believe archaeology to be of broad interest to the American public. If the war records were coded to be searchable by keyword, which seems likely given that there are 47 terabytes of OIF records housed with CENTCOM, and archaeology is not believed to be of interest to the public then it is possible that the site names and locations are not searchable terms. In the future I would like to test this hypothesis by submitting a FOIA request for the database management procedures related to the OIF documents, as well as a FOIA request for the more general term “archaeology.”

Fig_4The full paper “Heritage sites during Operation Iraqi Freedom Using Freedom of Information Act Requests,” as well as the slides are available online.

Overall, I believe this research complemented the theme of the meeting quite well. During the plenary address, Prof. Rose discussed the adversarial relationship which developed between the academy and the military during the Vietnam War. While the results of my research are not entirely clear, it does seem to support the idea that despite internal and external efforts the prioritization of archaeological heritage preservation did not penetrate the bureaucratic apparatus of the U.S. Military. With Operation Iraqi Freedom behind us and Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan drawing to a close, we must—as a society and as individual archaeologists—resist the temptation to disengage with the military. We must use this coming period of relative peace to build the sustained relationships with the military necessary to become integrated into their institutions.

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