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Finding US Records to Pursue Cross-Border Investigations

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Today I will continue to share US data sources that can help foreign journalists covering US wars, US allies, and the impact of US foreign policy. Of course, these sources are also indispensable for American reporters, researchers, and historians covering those same subjects.

Military and Security Assistance

Sometimes records and data published by US government agencies are presented to the public in less-than-convenient formats, hidden within non-searchable pdfs or in difficult-to-find locations online.

Fortunately, there are nonprofit organizations that take on the challenge of organizing difficult agency data sets and document dumps. They have created sites where the data is maintained and updated in more easy-to-use forms.

The Center for International Policy (CIP), a foreign policy research think tank in Washington DC, has offered the Security Sector Assistance Database since 2014:

The Security Assistance Monitor is a non-partisan research institution that tracks and analyzes US security sector assistance programs all over the world, providing an interactive database as well as original independent analysis to inform policymakers, media, scholars, NGOs and the public about trends and issues related to US foreign security assistance. Our program aims to provide key stakeholders the right information to enhance transparency and promote greater oversight of US military and police aid, arms sales, and training. (Source: CIP)

For those covering or writing about the Israel-Hamas war, here is CIP’s neat summary of US authorizations for commercial arms sales to Israel in 2020.

Image: Screenshot, CIP

Great! You can see what kind of arms sales were authorized. When you click on an item, it takes you back to the giant document. Authorizations come from the Department of State in what are known as Section 655 reports. I have tried to work with these Section 655 reports many times. You can see, below, that the 655 report comes from a spreadsheet, but was made public as a PDF. Years ago, I tried to type in all these authorizations for one country into a spreadsheet. It was very tedious and required fact-checking.

CIP’s Security Assistance Monitor has solved all of those problems. With their tool, you can pull up the records for one selected country, for two countries at war, for a whole continent, or the whole world.

This is what the multipage PDF of the State Department’s Section 655 looks like:

Image: Screenshot, CIP

According to CIP:

The data comes from various reports including the Defense Security Cooperation Agency’s Historical Factsbook, the State Department’s Section 655 Annual Military Assistance report, and the Commerce Department’s US export list. The 655 report provides details on the equipment licensed for sale based on the U.S. munitions list (USML) categories. In 2010, the 655 report stopped providing information on the actual items licensed and resorted to only providing the number of items per military item category on the USML.

Please make sure to read the Data Guide and check out the User Resources for information on which data is included or excluded, and on what the codes mean. The codes are translated by CIP’s Security Assistance Monitor, so you can see type of weapon involved such as firearms, or submersibles, or aircraft.

The Security Assistance Monitor also collects and organizes on general security sector assistance and on foreign military training.

Image: Screenshot, CIP

An easy way to check for basic information on US assistance to a country is to use the Map access to the data.

Image: Screenshot, CIP

For more detailed information, compiled from the Defense Department, the State Department, the Commerce Department, and other US agency public records and data filings, check the Tables link.

US Arms Sales

Arms Sales are the sale of defense articles or services, either by the US government or an American commercial vendor to a foreign client. (Source: CIP Security Assistance Monitor)

If you drill down on a country, you can get details on the sales of arms and military equipment, with link to the official (yet hard to search) documents.

Link to the data is here:

Image: Screenshot, CIP

Security Sector Assistance

Security Sector Assistance (SSA) is a component of US foreign aid that aims to build, train, advise, assist, and even accompany foreign security forces and institutions. (Source: CIP Security Assistance Monitor)

Link to the data:

Example: This shows some of the US security assistance to Syria in 2020:

Image: Screenshot, CIP

Foreign Military Training

Foreign Military Training (FMTR) is a part of US security sector assistance, which provides training to security personnel and institutions. On our website, this database is maintained separately from Security Sector Assistance, as we measure it in the number of personnel trained. (Source: CIP Security Assistance Monitor)

If you click through on a country name and year, you can see details on how many trainees from an agency are in a foreign country, and where the training took place in the United States or other locations. You may see foreign police forces trained by the US for example:

The link to the data is here:

Image: Screenshot, CIP

Munitions: Open Source Munitions Portal

A new site for identifying munitions was launched by civilian harm watchdog Airwars and intelligence consultancy Armament Research Services (ARES). Learn about the project here.

The Open Source Munitions Portal is a tool for researchers, journalists, and practitioners trying to learn more about munitions and their use and impact in conflicts. It was launched at King’s College, London, on November 23rd, 2023. (Source: Open Source Munitions Portal)

The Open Source Munitions Portal is a site for visual investigations of munitions that could cause civilian harm.

Image: Screenshot, Open Source Munitions Portal

Upcoming: how to search government data searches on economic sanctions, real estate, yachts, government contracts, and immigration records.

And I’ll be showing my work on a story that James Risen and I published in The Intercept last week, Not Political Prisoners: Federal Judges Have Shown Leniency in Nearly All Jan. 6 Cases.

Stay tuned.

This post originally appeared on Margot Williams’s new research and fact-checking newsletter, Desk Set Research, and is reprinted here with permission. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

Margot Williams is Research Editor for Investigations at The Intercept. She has also worked at The New York Times, NPR, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and The Washington Post, where during 14 years at the newspaper was a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams, for a 1998 investigation of Washington, DC police shootings of civilians and a 2001 prize for national coverage of terrorism.

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