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Documenting the Government — Strait of Hormuz edition

The recent encounter between U.S. warships and Iranian boats in the Strait of Hormuz provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of depository libraries in the digital age.

Background

The incident occured on January 6. On January 7, Navy Vice Adm. Kevin J. Cosgriff briefed Pentagon reporters via video teleconference from his headquarters in Manama, Bahrain. On the defenselink web site, a transcript of that news conference includes a link to page with a video of the incident. The video includes a voice saying "You will explode [unintelligible] minutes." In an undated post, apparently from January 7 or 8, on the U.S. Central Command web site, there is a story that includes a link to the same video and a still photo from it labeled "From Defense Department Video."

The incident received widespread news coverage. This morning, a search on news.google.com for "hormuz iran explode" retrieved over 2000 stories.

The initial stories were followed by accusations from Iran that the video was faked and second thoughts and analyses.

According to a story on TelegraphTV (The Pentagon have released amateur footage of the alleged encounter between the US Navy and Iranian vessels) the "amateur footage" released by the Pentagon was "filmed by a crew member of the USS Hopper" and "the audio and video recordings were made separately but have been put together in a compilation which showed more than 20 minutes of the alleged confrontation."

You can see copies of the 4 minute and 20 second video here:

Government Information Issues.

While the government has hundreds if not thousands of videos online, most go unnoticed by most Americans. But this video got extremely high media attention at a time when newspapers are running stories with headlines like "Bush’s Iran war plot."

One analysis of the news coverage said:

ABC’s Jonathan Karl quoting a Pentagon official as saying the Iranian boats "were a heartbeat from being blown up".

Bush administration officials seized on the incident to advance the portrayal of Iran as a threat and to strike a more threatening stance toward Iran. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley declared Wednesday that the incident "almost involved an exchange of fire between our forces and Iranian forces". President George W. Bush declared during his Mideast trip Wednesday that there would be "serious consequences" if Iran attacked U.S. ships and repeated his assertion that Iran is "a threat to world peace".
Official Version of Naval Incident Starts to Unravel Analysis by Gareth Porter, IPS, Jan 10, 2008.

This prompts me to ask several questions related to the role of the FDLP and libraries that wish to preserve and provide access to government information.

  1. Is the video an official government publication? You can ask this question from the point of view of FDLP and Title 44 and wonder if it is "within scope of GPO’s information dissemination programs." GPO is careful to not get information that is not within its scope (see: Web Publication Harvesting). But we can also ask, Is an "amateur video" by a crewman on a warship "official"? Can ask, When does audio, apparently from a warship radio, become a public document? Does a label of "From Defense Department Video" on a still photograph make the video official? Does anyone happen to know what that official-looking number (080107-D-6570C-001) attached to the defenselink version of the video means?
  2. Who assembled the video and audio? This question is, of course, related to the one above. The video consists of 4 or 5 separate shots and the "explode" audio over a black screen. Was it assembled officially and if so, by whom?
  3. What is the provenance of the video and audio? Were the separate shots and the audio recorded by one individual or several?
  4. Will the video be deposited with the National Archives? or GPO? or FDLP? And, the converse of this question is, of course, Will it disappear from the .mil web sites? Will take-down notices be filed with copies on Youtube? Will its "official" status later become "unofficial"? Will the military claim the video is owned by a private individual and the military has no rights to it?
  5. Has any digital library saved a copy of this video? There are copies of the video and exerpts of it all over the net. My search for the "official" version took some time and I came across news media excerpts, copies of newsmedia versions, and other copies. But none of the places I found the video (including the "official" versions on the .mil sites) have any library-role of guaranteeing long-term preservation and free public access. There once was a time when more ephemeral documents distributed by the government might have some life in newspapers and the stories about them. But, in an age of video, are any libraries saving copies of significant public documents like this video? Or are they hoping that someone else (ABC? CNN? DOD? GPO?) will do that for them? And who is in control of those copies? Daniel has put a copy in the Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/DodFootageOfJan62008IranianEncounter, but even the IA has a policy that web site owners "can voluntarily restrict access to their material."
  6. Where is the "20 minute" compilation cited in several news stories? Perhaps it is somewhere on the web, but I did not find it. If anyone has found it please let me know.

I believe that libraries should be asking these questions in general, not just of the highly-visible items like the Hormuz video. In fact, if anything, the Hormuz video will probably be saved somewhere because, like toothpaste out of a tube, it is hard to put something back once it’s been release on the net. But libraries are the only places that will preserve the things that are not high profile today but which will have great value tomorrow. Unless libraries create explicit policies to select, acquire, organize, and preserve digital information, much will be lost — whether it is "within the scope" of FDLP or not.

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