The New Yorker regularly features essays about the importance and relevance of records to political, cultural, and economic issues. In Ben Taub, “The Assad Files: Capturing the Top-Secret Documents That Tie the Syrian Regime to Mass Torture and Killings,” April 18, 2016, pp. 36-49, we have another example. While archivists often despair of what they perceive to be a lack of understanding of their work and holdings, they still must acknowledge that there is wide appreciation of the importance of records and their evidence.
Taub, a journalist covering jihadism in the Middle East, considers the labors of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a group established in 2012 in response to the war in Syria. This group has been responsible for smuggling “more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities” (p. 36). It recently issued a four hundred-page report connecting the “systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad” and carried out by his security and intelligence agencies (p. 36). Taub, in this essay, draws on this report and interviews with various people involved in the investigation by the CIJP, including how individual Syrians were trained to gather evidence about the criminal activity in that nation authored by Assad and the use of “military and political analysts, translators, and lawyers in Europe,” now totaling a staff of around one hundred and fifty (p. 42). Like other forms of truth commissions, this organization has become a surrogate archives, a replacement for a government deliberately not operating in humane and transparent ways.
There are many lessons archivists can take away from this story.