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Behind the Story: Investigating lost war records

In 2011, reporter Peter Sleeth was working on a historical account of a battle he had witnessed during his time as an embedded reporter in Iraq.  His work on the piece stalled while researching Sgt. Jacob Butler, a soldier who had died in battle at As Samawah, Iraq in 2003.  No one in the Army had records of his death.  The problem, U.S. Army historians told him, was that the Army was missing huge swaths of data from two wars.  The missing data, Sleeth found, was a result of poor communication between the U.S. Central Command in Iraq and confusion within units about the preservation of classified documents.

Sleeth put his historical account on hold and partnered with ProPublica and The Seattle Times to create a series entitled, “Lost to History:  When War Records Go Missing.”  He found that the loss of records has complicated veterans’ efforts to file for disability and may spread farther into issues of national security.  He recounts the beginning of his investigation as part of ProPublica’s “How This Story Came About” series.

Behind The Story is a weekly series from IRE exploring the investigative process. If you have a suggestion for the series, email web@ire.org.

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For his work with ProPublica, Sleeth began by submitting FOIA requests to military agencies.  Initial requests from the National Archives Division provided the foundation for his investigation.  As his research progressed, his requests through the U.S. Army Records Management and Declassification Agency brought him to a dead end.  

“FOIA in the military is a whole different ballgame,” he said.  Denials of his requests became “comical.” Even one wrong word would be enough for a denial, he said.

He overcame these obstacles with help from a few Army employees.  Sleeth developed relationships with workers who were disappointed that the Army was moving away from its long history of record keeping. His sources wished to remain anonymous, but they were ready to become whistleblowers.  They helped Sleeth fill in the gaps in his research, and they explained how to navigate the military’s FOIA process. With their help, Sleeth was able to obtain records through the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Sleeth relied on these reports as his official sources.  An Army spokesman was uncooperative with his investigation, refusing to participate in more than a one hour interview.

“In 30 years of reporting, I’ve never used FOIA so much,” he said. He still has unanswered requests from FOIA submissions he made in April.  He doesn’t expect these remaining requests to be fulfilled without a lawsuit, a fact he feels the military uses to its advantage.

Despite these setbacks, Sleeth plans to continue reporting on the absence of military documentation.  He remains in contact with the whistleblowers who helped him with FOIA requests.  

“They’ve been there for decades.  They know it inside and out,” he said.  He will be reporting on hearings Congress will hold over the missing military records, and his next piece will cover the national intelligence problems that resulted from the lack of military records management.

One day, Sleeth plans to return to his historical account of the battle he witnessed in 2003 at As Samawah.   

“I am probably the most knowledgeable person about that battle,” he says.  He believes that with or without the official records, Americans should know about the events that transpired there.  

Peter Sleeth may be reached via pdsleeth@yahoo.com.

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