The secret Iraq documents my 8-year-old found
By Pete Moore
With a couple of keystrokes, you too can read the hidden history of the Coalition Provisional Authority, America’s late, unlamented occupation government in Iraq.
May 18, 2007 | I’m a political scientist, and I’ve spent many hours rooting through documents to study the bureaucracies that once, not so long ago, ran various British colonial outposts in the Middle East. Back in the days when occupation governments dealt in paper, there was always a chance that you’d find a surprise in these cobwebbed mountains of folders, ledgers and official reports. There were sometimes notes scribbled in pencil in the margins of books, and it was not unheard of to open a dusty old volume and have a personal letter fall out. Through such fortunate mistakes researchers could piece together the unofficial, off-the-record history of empire.
When I started studying the massive archive of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American occupation government that ruled Iraq from April 21, 2003, to June 28, 2004, I expected my experience to be different. I didn’t think any letters would fall in my lap, because the archive is paperless. The first archive of occupation created during the IT era, the CPA’s virtual history can be found online at www.cpa-iraq.org, on thousands of pages that each begin “Long live the new Iraq!”
But I forgot to factor in the ubiquity of human error, and of Microsoft Word. It turns out the IT era really is different, after all. It took my 8-year-old son just a few seconds to shake loose some hidden history from within the official transcript of the CPA.
My son made his discovery while impatiently waiting to play a computer game on my laptop. As part of a research project, I had downloaded 45 documents from a section of the CPA Web site known as Consolidated Weekly Reports. All but three of the documents were Microsoft Word. I had one of the Word documents up on my screen when my son starting toying with the computer mouse. Somehow, inadvertently, he managed to pull down the “View” menu at the top of the screen and select the “Mark up” option. If you are in a Word document where “Track changes” has been turned on, hitting “Mark up” will reveal all the deletions and insertions ever made in the document, complete with times, dates and (sometimes) the initials of the editors. When my son did it, all the deleted passages in a document with the innocuous name “Administrator’s Weekly Economic Report” suddenly appeared in blue and purple. It was the electronic equivalent of seeing every draft of an author’s paper manuscript and all the penciled changes made by the editors. I soon figured out that with a few keystrokes I could see the deleted passages in 20 of the 42 Word documents I’d downloaded. For an academic like myself it was a small treasure trove, and after I’d stopped hooting and hollering it took some time before I could convince my startled son that he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Posting sloppily edited documents on an official Web site pales in comparison to some of the CPA’s other mistakes. Its worst miscalculation was probably dissolving the Iraqi military on May 16, 2003, which jump-started the insurgency by sending 400,000 trained soldiers into the streets without jobs. In one of the best deconstructions of the CPA yet written, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” the Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s describes the enchanted, ideologically blinkered world of the CPA workers in the Green Zone, and recounts how their bubble began to deflate as the insurgency mounted and as the harsh reality outside the high walls of the Zone began to intrude. A close look at the deletions in just one of the improperly redacted Word documents from the waning days of the CPA reveals how the enchanted mind-set worked, just before the spell wore off.
The document that my son accidentally undeleted, Administrator’s Weekly Economic Report, was dated March 28, 2004. Its content is dry and unremarkable — it charts the value of the new Iraqi dinar, for example, and summarizes public-sector economic reforms. The only truly interesting parts of it, in fact, are the deletions, which are on another topic altogether.
Presumably, staffers at the CPA’s Information Management Unit, which produced the weekly reports, were cutting and pasting large sections of text into the reports and then eliminating all but the few short passages they needed. Much of the material they were cribbing seems to have come from the kind of sensitive, security-related documents that were never meant to be available to the public. In fact, about half of the 20 improperly redacted documents I downloaded, including the March 28 report, contain deleted portions that all seem to come from one single, 1,000-word security memo. The editors kept pulling text from a document titled “Why Are the Attacks Down in Al-Anbar Province — Several Theories.”
Read all the rest of this intriguing article here.