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Conversations: Building Trust in Iraq Volume 57 Number 1, January/February 2004

A Manhattan D.A. recalls his investigation of the Baghdad museum looting

Matthew Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, is also a colonel in the Marine Corps. Recalled to active duty after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he was, until his tour of duty ended this past November, the deputy director of the Joint Interagency Coordination Group and in that capacity headed the investigation of the looting of the Iraq National Museum. Bogdanos spoke to ARCHAEOLOGY about his experience.

How were you assigned to the case?
We were in Iraq searching for prohibited weapons, evidence of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorist financing when the looting of the museum happened. So although it was not, strictly speaking, a counterterrorism mission, it did fall under our second mission, which is law enforcement. We requested permission from General [Tommy] Franks to conduct an initial assessment and investigation. That permission was granted, and we were then ordered to go to the museum.

Courtesy Department of Defense

Was establishing trust with the Iraqis difficult?
There is always trust-building in any investigation. You talk, you're straightforward, you're honest: This is why I'm here, this is what I'm interested in. I don't care if there's an Iraqi army uniform in your closet at home. I don't care if there's an AK-47 under your bed. I don't care if you are a real Baath Party member--as in you believe--or you joined the Baath Party simply because you needed employment. None of these things matter to me as an investigator. All I care about is, What did you see with your eyes, hear with your ears, and what you can do to aid in the recovery efforts? Period. Now, if you committed war crimes or if you committed crimes against humanity, yeah, I'm gonna arrest you, get that evidence, and prosecute you, but short of that, I don't care what you did before I got there. That's part of the trust-building. The second part was to convince people that, Okay I'm wearing a uniform, I'm a United States Marine and proud of it, but I'm also someone who has an absolute passion for antiquities and who recognizes the importance of Mesopotamian art and history and is as devastated as anyone else with the losses from the museum. Once I was able to convince them of these two things, the level of cooperation I received was tremendous, without reservation.

What's still missing?
You have the public gallery from which originally forty exhibits were taken. We've recovered eleven. Turning to the storage rooms, there were about 3,150 pieces taken from those, and that's almost certainly by random and indiscriminant looters. Of those, we've recovered about 2,700. So there's about 400 of those pieces, excavated pieces, missing. The final group is from the basement. The basement is what we've been calling the inside job. And I will say it forever like a mantra; it is inconceivable to me that the basement was breached and the items stolen without an intimate insider's knowledge of the museum. From there about 10,000 pieces were taken. We've only recovered 650, approximately.

How many pieces have been recovered abroad?
Approximately 750 pieces--actually a little more than that. New York and London are the two hot spots.

What's the link between the people who looted the museum and those looting sites outside Baghdad?
We are seeing that it is the same pipeline, the same pre-existing art-smuggling architecture, if you will, that is being used both for items taken from the museum, particularly the basement, and these sites.

How would you describe this case?
This is clearly for me the most rewarding investigation, on a personal level, that I've ever either led or participated in. I mean, my goodness, think of what we are doing here. We are recovering irreplaceable relics of our shared history. It's...I cannot truly conceive of a more worthwhile or valuable or rewarding experience.

What's your greatest concern looking forward?
My biggest concern is that with time, as this fades from view, other missions will drain resources away from this investigation. The investigation will go on for years. But no one expects it to get the same level of attention five years from now that it is getting now. I just don't want it to die, to wither on the vine.

* For more of this interview, see "A Conversation with Matthew F. Bogdanos."

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America