W&M students contribute to classified document release

  • Research in the National Security ArchiveWilliam & Mary students listen to Carlos Osorio describe what work the archive does in its research library on the students' first visit there.

    Photo courtesy of Silvia Tandeciarz

    Research in the National Security Archive
Research conducted by William & Mary undergraduate students has led to the recent release of formerly classified documents that shed new light on the impact of the detainment of one of Argentina's most famous political prisoners, Jacobo Timerman.

Last spring, 12 William & Mary students worked with Hispanic Studies Professor Silvia Tandeciarz and Southern Cone Specialist Carlos Osorio on an internship with the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C. They spent the semester researching hundreds of documents relating to the detention of Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman more than 30 years ago.  The results of that research were published in a National Security Archive Briefing Book this month that confirm Timerman's case caused the near-fracture of the Argentine military regime.

With support from a QEP-Mellon Undergraduate Research Grant, the students researched hundreds of documents in order to select those that best captured Timerman's story. The students then compiled short summaries of each of the documents and created an introduction for the briefing book.

"I have done a great deal of research during my time in college, but nothing compared to the research we undertook with this project -- there is something so much more intriguing, so much more real about reading actual government documents," said Erin Maskell '10. "Nothing had been processed, no one else had read it first and decided what was important and then presented this to you in a watered down version. You got to read the story; you got to decide what was important."

In the course of their research, the students reached out to fellow students on William and Mary's study abroad program in Argentina to compare the American version of accounts with that found at the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria. The coordinator of the Argentine Archive, Laura Lenci, invited two William and Mary students to create a companion briefing book with the Argentine documents. The students also used their research to compile a timeline, detailing important events in the Timerman story and providing information on the documentation for those events.

"It is our hope that the chronology and the briefing books will be of interest to human rights scholars of all disciplines, as well as to the general public," said Tandeciarz, Class of 2011 Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies. "It is with great pride that we present to the public the results of this collaboration, which brings together three institutions for the first time: the College of William and Mary, the National Security Archive, and the Archivo de la DIPBA, Comisión Provincial por la Memoria. And it is particularly gratifying to know that the College has played a small part in making this collaboration possible."

David Culver ‘09 said that the opportunity provided him and the others a rare experience.

"As undergraduate students we're often limited to studying the work and research done by professionals in the field, whether it be through textbooks or other published materials," he said. "Rarely are the students themselves put at par with those professionals and given the resources to do their own firsthand research and, as a result, create their own narrative of history. This course allowed us to do just that."

Culver hopes that the work that the students did during the internship and the resulting briefing book will allow others to "learn yet another aspect to the very complex story that is Jacobo Timerman." He said he'd also like to see more opportunities like this one made available to students.

"This was a course where the professors -- the experts in the field -- turned to the students as peers and relied on their intelligence, their drive and their dedication," he said. "Professor and student were discovering and learning together. It takes maturity on part of the student and humility on the professor's part. The result of this unique and rewarding approach speaks for itself."

Maskell said that the project taught her a lot about "what it means to do research."

"When we first began this entire project we went into it rather blindly- we weren't sure exactly what we were looking for or what our goals were," said Maskell, an economics major and Hispanic studies minor. "There were thousands of documents, and it felt overwhelming at times. However, the more we learned the more we were able to refine our research goals, and the project changed enormously over the course of the semester. I am much more comfortable with the entire research process now, and have acquired skills in reading and interpreting primary source documents that are transferrable to so many other fields of study."

The experience impacted Maskell so greatly that she decided to continue interning at the archive through the summer, finishing the briefing book and compiling documents to be used in an Argentine court case.

"I am still working on this project now, and I love every moment of it because I feel that I am doing something that truly matters," she said. "I love to learn just for the sake of learning, but to be able to take all the history I have read about or learned in a classroom and apply it to a current day situation in a way that actually has an impact makes me feel like all my hard work in school is worth it."