Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Italian Letter

These days, government leaders are more likely to be concerned with managing growing volumes of digital records and information systems. Occasionally other events emerge reminding us that there are other matters to be concerned about, such as forged records. Two journalists, Peter Eisner and Knut Royce, in their The Italian Letter: How the Bush Administration Used a Fake Letter to Build the Case for War in Iraq (New York: Rodale, 2007), remind us that sometimes we need to be just as concerned with the content of records and the ways in which the content is used as with the threats to digital amnesia or the leaks of secrets.

Eisner and Royce track the influence of a document alleged to have provided evidence that Iraq was seeking to acquire uranium from Niger, a letter determined to not just a forgery but a poor one at that. The letter was the source of President George W. Bush’s “sixteen words” about Saddam Hussein’s threat to develop weapons of mass destruction in his 2003 State of the Union address. As the journalists suggest, “The Italian letter [so-named because of its Italian source] and accompanying dossier of forgeries comprised one of the most damaging frauds in U.S. history,” even though the letter “contained numerous errors – dates were wrong, officials were misidentified and their positions outdated – easily detectible with a simple fact-check on Google” (p. 4). This source was trumpeted by the Bush administration, even as its credibility declined very quickly, causing some to contend that the Bush-led government was intent on invading Iraq no matter what the evidence suggested. Our two journalists provide the complete story of the use or misuse of this document.

The Italian Letter is not a study of archives and records management issues, but it is a book that demonstrates the importance of records in public policy and international diplomacy. Eisner and Royce add, referring to the Zimmerman telegram leading the U.S. to involvement in the First World War, “a letter may not start or advert a war, but it can have a profound effect” (p. 239). Sadly, just before posting this book review, all I was hearing about was the death of nine American paratroopers in one ambush in Iraq, and the statistic that, several years after our leader’s confident mission accomplished utterance, 85 American soldiers are dying each month in that far away country. Somehow, the poorly forged letter seems even more odd and scary in our modern information age when we place it in its context.