Skip to main content
Blog post

Reintroducing the Saddam Hussein Regime Collection of the Conflict Records Research Center

Michael Brill introduces the new collection of documents, The Saddam Files. These records, donated by Steve Coll, are a subset of the materials once held at the Conflict Records Research Center.

Saddam meets with founder of Ba'athist thought, Michael Aflaq, in 1988
Saddam talking to Michel Aflaq, the founder of Ba'athist thought, in 1988

Between 2010 and 2015, the Conflict Records Research Center (CRRC) located at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., came to hold digital copies of some 143,000 pages of documents and nearly 200 hours of audio tapes captured from Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. The digital records, processed from the Department of Defense’s Harmony Records Database, were drawn from a total amount ranging between 100 and 200 million pages, some 600,000 distinct files. There were also nearly 2,000 hours of audio recordings of Saddam’s meetings with his cabinet, the Revolutionary Command Council, the Regional and National commands of the Arab Socialist Baʿth Party, along with visiting foreign dignitaries. 


The original physical records, none of which were ever at the CRRC, were returned to Iraq in May 2013 and filled 35,504 boxes on 634 pallets. Although only a small fraction of these records, all of which were screened and digitized at US taxpayer expense, was ever released to scholars or the interested public, the CRRC archive was the basis for numerous publications by the center’s staff and external researchers alike. However, the CRRC closed its doors in 2015 due to budget cuts. For nearly a decade, the valuable historical sources it held were unavailable for research. Moreover, despite dedicated internal advocacy and public appeals to transfer the records to a civilian academic institution, which the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act authorized, there was very little movement on the issue for several years. 


Things began to change though in late-2021 when Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Steve Coll filed suit against the Department of Defense. Coll was in the process of researching and writing his book The Achilles Trap: Saddam Hussein, the C.I.A., and the Origins of America’s Invasion of Iraq, which was published on February 27, 2024, by Penguin Press. 


To tell this story, especially the Iraqi side of it, access to the internal audio tapes of Saddam’s meetings, along with the records of the Presidential Diwan and security services, was essential. After the Pentagon failed to respond to two Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for former CRRC records within the proscribed timeline (citing “unusual circumstances”), Coll took the issue to court. In Coll v. United States Department of Defense, the author was represented by Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press


The presiding Judge Rudolph Contreras was favorably disposed to Coll’s case and in the Biden administration Pentagon, specifically within the Office of the Under Secretary for Policy, officials were inclined to work with Coll in releasing CRRC records. After several extensions and joint status reports respectively granted and ordered by Judge Contreras, the parties settled outside of court and the case was dismissed. Defense officials provided Coll with a considerable trove of records formerly comprising the Saddam Hussein Regime Collection of records at the CRRC, including nearly half of the released audio tapes and thousands of pages of documents. The records were accompanied by the metadata cover sheets, along with English translations, as had been the case when they were part of the CRRC. Many of the tapes included Arabic transcriptions in addition to English translations.


After submitting his book manuscript and in the interest of facilitating research access to scholars and the public, Coll contacted the History and Public Policy Program at the non-partisan Wilson Center. Holding thousands of pages of formerly classified records translated from dozens of languages, the Wilson Center Digital Archive was a fitting and accessible platform for the CRRC records. The Digital Archive also already held English translations of select CRRC records released in conjunction with joint events that took place prior to the center’s closing. During the CRRC’s brief existence, the Wilson Center had hosted the leading scholars who had utilized the Iraqi records in their respective books.  


Researchers who visited the CRRC between 2010 and 2015 were required to obtain Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval and sign the CRRC’s Personally Identifiable Information (PII) non-disclosure agreement. In the time since these policies were first implemented, the entirety of the physical former regime records seized by the US military and Department of Defense contractors during the 2003 Iraq War was returned to Iraq in May 2013 and August 2020. The latter repatriation included a digital copy of the records in additional to the originals, in contrast to the former. However, this amounted to a comparably very small percentage of the total records. And in light of the uncertain fate of the original records repatriated to Iraq in 2013 and 2020, along with the political and institutional barriers to research in Iraq, facilitating access to the digital copies of Iraqi records retained in the United States remains the most viable way forward for Iraqi, American, and international researchers alike.


In keeping with the spirit of the earlier research protocols, the History and Public Policy Program is carefully reviewing the CRRC records provided by Steve Coll and redacting PII related to private individuals and low-ranking figures as needed. This includes both Arabic original records and their English translations.


In general, the Harmony records selected for processing to the CRRC related to high-level meetings and policy within the Iraqi Baʿth Party, Presidential Diwan, state ministries, security services, and the military. Most of the officials, Iraqi and foreign alike, Saddam met with were public figures serving in an official capacity. Although a majority of the records, especially the audio tapes, require little in the way of redaction, we have strived to emulate the process of the former CRRC when it released select records on its website, which are preserved today on a mirror site. All these efforts stemmed from the fallout when in 2006, yielding to political pressure, the Director of National Intelligence posted unscreened and unredacted Iraqi records on the internet. In that case, the ensuing uproar was less over the sharing of PII than it was the unwitting disclosure of technical information from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs that had been dismantled following the 1990-1991 Gulf War.


A word of caution is in order with respect to the English translations of Iraqi records. To the greatest degree possible, researchers are encouraged to consult them alongside the original Arabic records, both written documents and audio files alike. When the Iraq Survey Group based in Doha, Qatar, triaged the millions of pages of documents being sent in from US military document exploitation units in Iraq, several hundred contractor linguists faced a nearly insurmountable deluge of paper.


 Records received cover sheets, were categorized for intelligence value, and given a brief English summary. Over a period of years, the records were digitized and uploaded into the Department of Defense’s Harmony Database. When the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) researchers were tasked by the Pentagon with producing several studies and later adding records to the CRRC archive, they were able to select relevant Harmony records for full English translation. Working against the clock, and with limited funding and a relatively small team of translators, the volume of translations the IDA was able to produce is nothing short of impressive. However, translation is always an inexact science. Researchers will encounter translation errors, the incorrect dating of records, and variations in the quality of the initial scanning in Doha from document to document. 


It is worth noting that many translators, albeit skilled linguists, were not subject matter experts. References to individuals and events are sometimes not accurately captured and conveyed in each record’s metadata cover sheet and English translation.  At least initially, in the interest of continuity and facilitating research, the record titles and descriptions in the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive will be adapted directly from the former CRRC index and record cover sheets. 


With respect to the audio tapes, which constitute a majority of the CRRC records Coll obtained from the Pentagon, researchers will notice that some include parallel Arabic transcriptions and English translations. It appears that as time and funding for the CRRC ran out, translators forewent the Arabic transcriptions in favor of producing only English translations for as many audio tapes possible. Translators were not always able to identify the voices of participants in meetings, a task made even more difficult by background noise and the varying quality of the audio files. Nevertheless, the value and comparative rarity of the tapes are hard to overstate. By comparison, scholars have access to only eleven minutes of private recordings of Adolf Hitler and none for Joseph Stalin.


In conjunction with the publication of Steve Coll’s The Achilles Trap, the History and Public Policy Program has released the first 20 records – ten documents and ten audio tapes –from the larger CRRC collection made available by the author. Like the other CRRC records that will be added to the Digital Archive in the coming months, these sources date from the early years of Saddam’s rule in Iraq up until when the 2003 US-led invasion was already underway. Having informed the research for Coll’s latest book, the sources will be available to American, Iraqi, and global academic and public audiences alike. More than 20 years after the 2003 Iraq War, this project will hopefully be the first step in a wider initiative for responsibly releasing the full contents of the former CRRC, along with additional Iraqi records in the Harmony Database, to the public domain.


This first batch of records contains a file related to Saddam’s early life. Taken from the Baʿth Party Regional Command headquarters, it contains information related to Saddam’s childhood and education, including his sixth-grade report card. Three audio tapes are from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and cover the conflict’s military developments and diplomatic dimensions, such as Iraq’s relations with the Soviet Union and the rivalry with the Syrian Baʿth Party regime of Hafez al-Assad. Several documents and tapes deal with the prelude to and aftermath of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. 


One of the more peculiar records in this first batch is a telegram related to the last-ditch diplomatic efforts in the region to reduce tensions and stave off Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. Sent from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait just prior to the invasion, the document was captured by occupying Iraqi troops, sent back to Iraq, then later captured again by US troops in 2003. 


Arguably the most intriguing audio tape is the one recorded in the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the flight of Iraqi-American fugitive Abdulrahman Yasin to Iraq. Perplexed by Yasin’s arrival in Baghdad and concerned primarily with using the situation to Iraq’s advantage, Saddam and his advisers speculate that Zionists may have been behind the attack on the World Trade Center, but concede Islamist terrorists also could have been responsible.


Other records relate to the period of international sanctions against Iraq between 1990 and 2003, along with Saddam’s efforts to take advantage of the shifting diplomatic environment to reduce Iraq’s isolation. Records pertain to the defection of Saddam’s Minister of Military Industries and son-in-law Hussein Kamil, which was inadvertently a key turning point in the contentious relationship between Saddam’s regime and the weapons inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM)


Among the records, there are also meetings between Saddam and Iraq’s regional and global friends, including Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader George Habash, and Cuban parliamentarian Alvarez Cambras. Two tapes are of Baʿth Party National Command meetings, which address relations with the pro-Iraq Baʿth Party branches across the Middle East, along with party ideology. Until his death in 1989, the Iraq-based National Command was led by Syrian Baʿth Party founder Michel ‘Aflaq, who is referred to by Saddam in one of the tapes as “The Professor.” 


In 2002, Saddam sent a letter to his ministers instructing them to prepare for the next decade, a future that was dramatically cut short. Documents related to the Fedayeen Saddam militia overseen by Saddam’s son Uday, which would late put up some of the fiercest albeit still ineffectual resistance to U.S. forces in 2003, appear as well. Intelligence reports from 2002 document rumors about the upcoming US-led invasion, along with US and Israeli efforts to assassinate Saddam. When war came, the regime desperately attempted to devise and implement defensive plans, but to little practical effect.


These records are a small sample of the collection that will be added to the Wilson Center Digital Archive in the coming months, which like Steve Coll’s new book that utilizes them, will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of the history of US-Iraqi relations and the events culminating in the 2003 Iraq War.

The Saddam Files

Records from Saddam Hussein’s regime released by the Conflict Records Research Center. The collection contains a wide range of Iraqi government files including transcripts of high-level meetings, speeches by Saddam and senior officials, correspondence between ministries, and records of the Presidential Diwan. The core of the collection was donated to the History and Public Policy Program by Steve Coll in 2023-24.

Learn More

About the Author

Michael Brill

Global Fellow;
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University

Michael P. Brill is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, where his research focuses on Ba'thist Iraq.

Read More

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more