Blogger: State Department Admits No Mechanism Exists for Providing Ongoing Security for Sites or Museums, Defends Its Efforts





[Mr. Rothfield teaches at the University of Chicago.]

As readers of this blog already know, in October the State Department issued a fact sheet laying out its support of what was described as “numerous activities relating to the protection and preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage”:

These include emergency response to the looting of the Iraq National Museum, training of Iraqi museum professionals, support for archaeological site protection, and instituting legal measures to mitigate illicit trafficking in Iraq’s looted cultural property. Since 2003, several million dollars have been applied to these needs resulting in professional and infrastructure improvements to the National Museum as well as other museums and institutions, and improved archaeological site security in Iraq.


As usual, the issue of site protection was lumped together with others, leaving it unclear how much money has been applied to supporting archaeological site protection, for what programs, protecting how many sites, with what results.

Addressing the problem? Not exactly.

In response to my request, Darlene Kirk, a spokesperson from the State Department’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, has amplified on the fact sheet’s summary, and kindly permitted me to share this information with the public. Kirk admits that “the Department of State has no mechanisms at its disposal to provide ongoing security at archaeological sites and museums in Iraq,” but she goes on to argue that State “has taken steps to address the problem in a variety of ways:

• The Department of State is funding the newly announced Iraq Cultural Heritage Project (ICHP) and the development of a site management plan for Babylon. Together, these initiatives include programs that will focus on, inter alia, building Iraqi professional capacity for conservation, for preservation of sites including archaeological sites, and for museum governance and administration. It is expected that strengthening the ability of responsible entities within the Iraqi government and its citizens to serve as the responsible stewards of their rich heritage will have a positive impact on site and museum security on a sustainable basis.

• In April 2008, the Department of Homeland Security promulgated U.S. import restrictions on all Iraqi cultural property after a decision to do so was made by the Department of State acting under authority delegated by the President. This import restriction is in addition to the ongoing OFAC regulations banning importation of Iraqi cultural property since 1990.

• The Department of State supported two security assessments of the National Museum in Baghdad which resulted in $1 m. in contracts to implement security measures at the Museum.

• In 2004, in response to evidence of serious looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq, the State Department used funds donated by the Packard Humanities Institute to purchase 20 trucks and communications equipment for site guards in Dhi, Qar, Diwanyah, and Babil provinces. It was determined that these guards needed such tools to monitor the sites and deter the pillage that was being carried out by very well equipped looters. These vehicles and equipment were given to the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) which in turn issued them to the provinces for use by the site guards. According to SBAH officials in the affected provinces, this resulted in a substantial diminution of the looting in those provinces.

• U.S. personnel responsible for the Ministry of Culture during the period of the Coalition Provisional Authority until July 2004 worked closely with the SBAH and with the Department of State to build and train a Facilities Protection Service (FPS) Archaeological Site Protection Force devoted to site protection under the administration of SBAH.

• Throughout the past several years the Department has acted to address the problem of looting in other ways such as promoting coordination within the international law enforcement community and funding the development, publication and distribution of the Red List for Iraqi Antiquities at Risk which is produced by the International Council of Museums in Arabic, English and French. Now in its third printing, this publication helps raise awareness about the problem among law enforcement entities and would be collectors. The US Embassy in Baghdad recently distributed new copies of the Red List throughout the country and in particular at border crossings.

• The State Department has funded satellite imagery acquisition for large areas of Iraq to allow archaeolgists at SUNY Stony Brook to assess site looting. The Department has also funded training programs in satellite imagery analysis for Iraqi archaeologists.

• The State Department has recently allocated funding for meetings of a proposed Iraq archaeological site protection working group, to be composed of SBAH senior officials from Baghdad, and senior archaeologists and FPS commanders from governorates most affected by looting. The possibility of convening an international law enforcement working group on Iraqi cultural property is also under consideration. (Kirk added in a followup message that “$93,000 has been allocated for the site protection working group meetings. The budget for the international law enforcement working group on Iraqi cultural property has not yet been determined, as this meeting is in the early planning stages.”)

• In July 2008, State Department and US Embassy Baghdad personnel arranged a helicopter overflight of 40+ sites in Qadissiya, Dhi Qar, and Wasit governorates to assess current looting. The results of this mission are being analyzed and will be shared with SBAH authorities for followup. (Kirk later added that “the July 2008 overflight of 40+ sites was conducted by a pair of US military helicopters at the request of the US Embassy in Baghdad. The expert participants were the Cultural Heritage Liaison Officer of the US Embassy and the State Department Special Coordinator for Iraqi Cultural Heritage. The sites were extensively photographed from the air by both experts. The data are being analyzed by the expert participants.”)


This list says volumes about the failure of American policy to deal with the problem of site looting. Import restrictions, Red Lists, site management programs, and security efforts at the Iraq Museum do not secure archaeological sites. The funding for trucks by the Packard Foundation in 2004 was never supplemented by any governmental assistance, nor was any effort made to solicit additional support from other foundations. The FPS force was never given the funding and logistical support it needed, and I believe it has now been disbanded. The funding for satellite imagery was not for large areas of Iraq, but only for southern Iraq, and was provided only in part by the State Department; given that the US military certainly has time-series satellite images available for all sites, it remains puzzling why the State Department did not arrange for those images to be provided to archaeologists, rather than paying for a private company to provide images for only a fraction of sites (and not in a coherent time series even for those sites).

A hopeful development

Only the last two of these bullet points deal directly with contemporary site-protection efforts. Most welcome is the news that a working group on site protection has finally been proposed and allocated funding for meetings. It would have been even more welcome if the working group included some experts on securing and protecting sites (not archaeological sites but all kinds of sites) from the military or State Department.

Where's the Report?

The final bullet point raises interesting questions of its own. A similar helicopter tour of eight sites was conducted in June 2008, leaked almost immediately, and published in mid-July. Why is it taking so long to release the findings from the helicopter overflight in July? Could it be because they would contradict the message that both the US and the Iraqi governments want to present, that the looting is over? One hopes not, and it is always possible that the “expert participants” (presumably John Russell and Diane Siebrandt, neither of whom to my knowledge is an expert at analyzing imagery though both are highly competent, dedicated, and indeed heroic individuals putting their lives on the line in Iraq) simply are better at keeping things under wraps than the British Museum, but the delay certainly raises suspicions.


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