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Preview: The Interrogation Diaries

The Interrogation Diaries

An anthropologist's take on torture and interrogation in the Global War on Terrorism

Updated: 2016-12-24T02:47:13.311-08:00


Last post on the Lindh Files


I’m interested in photographs because – surprise, surprise – of a Seymour Hersh claim that the humiliating photos taken in Abu Ghraib were part of a deliberate effort to blackmail the torture victims; who, as Arab men, were allegedly vulnerable to sexual humiliation. In “The Gray Zone,” Hersh wrote that a “government consultant” told him… that there may have been a serious goal, in the beginning, behind the sexual humiliation and the posed photographs. It was thought that some prisoners would do anything—including spying on their associates—to avoid dissemination of the shameful photos to family and friends. The government consultant said, “I was told that the purpose of the photographs was to create an army of informants, people you could insert back in the population.” The idea was that they would be motivated by fear of exposure, and gather information about pending insurgency action, the consultant said. If so, it wasn’t effective; the insurgency continued to grow.As part of my research, I’ve been digging through the ACLU documents to see if I can find anything to substantiate this particular theory about deliberate photographic humiliation (I haven’t, yet). Along the way, what’s emerged instead is that the Army seems to have a difficult time controlling the use of cameras, and that photo taking, collection, and exchange are hardly isolated to Abu Ghraib. There’s something else going on here, something worth digging into – and in doing so, that’s how I came across the Lindh documents, which I’ve kind of detoured into.Last week I blogged briefly about the Army’s investigation into potential charges of cruelty and mistreatment in the John Walker Lindh arrest. The investigation was spurred in part by discovery of an “inappropriate or unauthorized pictures of Johnny Walker Lindh taken by members of [Redacted; FOIA exemption b2-2] at Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, on or about 7 December 2001” (DOD015553). The photo – which isn’t available online, at least that I can find – depicted Lindh wearing a bandana with the word “shithead” scrawled upon it. I’m not sure if there were other photos, but this one seems to have been sufficient to get an investigation into prisoner mistreatment started. DOD015552-DOD105647 in the ACLU FOIA collection is a 96-page compilation of the findings of the AR 15-6 investigation carried out by a Major General in the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. It’s worth skimming for two items: the log describing Lindh’s detention and the sworn statements in which soldiers explain why the photo was taken.Here’s a brief inventory of the set:The memo that appoints this individual as the investigating officerA chronology of investigation events, 10 April 2002-18 April 2002, which looks to be mostly a list of interviews (there’s a second and longer chronology later in the collection);A form for reporting the proceedings of the investigation – mostly blank, as the attached documents carry most of the informationA memorandum summarizing the findings of the investigationA page noting that photographs were withheld under FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7, because they depict Americans;A photocopy of the log that Lindh’s guards kept while he was in captivityMultiple sworn statements taken from soldiers during the investigation. Some are typed and some are handwritten. A “Report of Medical Examination and Treatment of American Citizen.”A longer chronology of the investigation, covering the major investigation submissions and reviews between 22 April 2002 to 3 February 2003Another list of sworn statementsAnd several pages indicating that some documents were withheld because they were apparently being used in a DOJ investigation.One thing that caught my eye is the detainee log, DOD015566-015575. It’s ten pages of handwritten notes taken by Lindh’s guards, who seem to have conducted regular checks on Lindh every half-hour or so. The entries are pithy: date, time; “Conducted check of guest. All secur[...]

Diversifying Readership?


Hey, here’s something interesting… my blog posting on the Lindh investigation photos got some discussion on a Special Forces discussion forum. Actually, the posting didn’t get much discussion, but it raised what seem to be two very sensitive hotspots – US citizens like Lindh, who are reviled as defectors; and the uncontrollable damage that photos can do to the military’s public image. Check it out. I know that this blog has discussed by anthropologists, but until now I didn't realize that military personnel might be reading and talking about it.

People like the posters in Shadowspear are well positioned to correct my misreading of official DoD policy documents, and will likely do so quite vocally if they pay any attention to what I’m writing about. Even though I spend a lot of time reading government documents and trying to make sense of them, it’s difficult for outsiders like myself to grind through the mind-numbing rules and regulations in the military, and even harder to get a sense of how the rules play out in real time as human beings engage in military operations. So Shadowspear is a valuable potential counterperspective – and while I don’t plan to spend a lot of time blogging about such forums, as I’m really focusing on the FOIA collections, I’ll check in from time to time.

That said…one really striking thing about the Shadowspear discussion forum is the avatars that the posters use. Some of them are quite funny: Varsity, the person who found my blog, has an animated kitten doing pushups, while Chopstick – a member of the “Verified Estrogen Brigade,” has a line drawing of a polar bear with the caption “Polar Bears: The White Trash of Bears.” Others choose more serious avatars: “razor_baghdad” has a skull with glowing eyes and what looks like a hole in its temple, while Car, an “old NCO,” has an image of a soldier split by what looks like lightning: half of the soldier's body is in fatigues against a desert background, half is a Terminator-like figure against a background that reminded me of the movie Tron.

These avatars brought to mind my colleague Lani Gunawardena’s work on the formation and projection of a “social presence” online. She’s a distance education researcher who studies online learning communities, where social presence is important in creating an affective environment in which people transmit and acquire knowledge. Avatars are important in establishing the boundaries that demarcate membership in a community of practice – and they give insight into the collective identity shared by a community’s members.

Given how disconnected US society tends to be from the day-to-day experience of its military personnel, discussion forms like Shadowspear are important windows into a culture that people like myself don’t encounter every day. Read though some of their postings, then compare their voices to the relentless officialese of, say, the DoD's website. It strikes me that few anthropologists attempt to really study military culture, despite the centrality of the military in American political life. Sociologists and political scientists do a much better job than we do, but that's a different can of worms.

Blah, blah, blah. I'm working on another post about the Lindh files and will get that up later today.

What Happened with the John Walker Lindh photos?


You probably remember John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. What you might not remember is a series of photos that American soldiers took of Lindh at the time of his arrest. Writing in a May 2004 article entitled "Chain of Command" in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh described Lindh’s arrest and the photos that surfaced:One of the most prominent prisoners of the Afghan war was John Walker Lindh, the twenty-one-year-old Californian who was captured in December, 2001. Lindh was accused of training with Al Qaeda terrorists and conspiring to kill Americans. A few days after his arrest, according to a federal-court affidavit filed by his attorney, James Brosnahan, a group of armed American soldiers “blindfolded Mr. Lindh, and took several pictures of Mr. Lindh and themselves with Mr. Lindh. In one, the soldiers scrawled ‘shithead’ across Mr. Lindh’s blindfold and posed with him. . . . Another told Mr. Lindh that he was ‘going to hang’ for his actions and that after he was dead, the soldiers would sell the photographs and give the money to a Christian organization.” Some of the photographs later made their way to the American media. Lindh was later stripped naked, bound to a stretcher with duct tape, and placed in a windowless shipping container. Once again, the affidavit said, “military personnel photographed Mr. Lindh as he lay on the stretcher.” On July 15, 2002, Lindh agreed to plead guilty to carrying a gun while serving in the Taliban and received a twenty-year jail term. During that process, Brosnahan told me, “the Department of Defense insisted that we state that there was ‘no deliberate’ mistreatment of John.” His client agreed to do so, but,the attorney noted, “Against that, you have that photograph of a naked John on that stretcher.”We all know what happened to Lindh – he’s serving a 20-year sentence at a federal prison in Indiana. But snapping pictures of prisoners of war (except for identification photos taken at the time of detention) is against military regulations... so what happened to the soldiers who took the photographs?Well, I’ve been browsing through the ACLU collection using the keywords photograph, photo, and picture and came across several documents that pertain to Lindh’s arrest and the infamous "shithead" photo. The short version is that the Army did conduct an AR 15-6 investigation into the photographs and into possible mistreatment of Lindh during his arrest and detention, but doesn't seem to have found evidence of criminal behavior on the part of US soldiers, and concluded that the "shithead" photograph was a “sophomoric” attempt at “barracks humor.”I've provided links to the ACLU search page in each of the headers below. Enter the document number and you're good to go. The acronym "ODA" stands for "Operational Deployment - Alpha" and refers to a US Special Forces team.AR stands for “Army Regulations,” and 15-6 sets out the procedures for conducting investigations. “Informal” AR15-6 investigations are a more limited version of an official formal investigation and are conducted in the interest of expediency, when a quick inquiry is considered most efficient for gathering information. You can read more about AR 15-6 here.Documents DOD015549-DOD015551, dated April 22, 2002, is a memo from Major General Geoffrey Lambert appointing Col. David Buford in Fort Bragg as the Investigating Officer responsible for looking into the "shithead" photograph. Buford is directed to look into roughly 15 different questions around the photograph - when, where, and why the photograph was taken; under whose orders it was removed, deleted or destroyed; where it was distributed; what training the soldiers had regarding treatment of Prisoners of War at the time that Lindh was arrested; at what point it was released to the FBI or the Department of Justice. Buford is also told to look for evidence that a soldier may have committed a criminal offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.Documents DOD0[...]

Some quick links....


Anthropologist and activist extraordinaire Laurie King sent me the following links, which include relatively recent news items about torture, interrogation, detainees, intelligence... I'm only posting the ones I've had time to browse through.
  • The New York Times posted this about Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell's testimony, which reads as something of an attempt to justify waterboarding - instrumentally if not ethically, the argument being that three of the people waterboarded seem to have provided information about Al Qaeda's activities.
  • Here's a legal-type article on the illegality of waterboarding and another on detainee treatment and renditions.
  • The legal-eagle blog Balkinization provides thoughtful critique on the Bush Administration's machinations around detainee treatment, renditions, and torture.
More conservative venues are in on the action, too.
  • The Wall Street Journal's editorial page is, not surprisingly, making nimble excuses for the CIA's behavior.
  • And Malcolm Nance in Small Wars Journal bravely made the argument that "Waterboarding is Torture... Period." This generated a LOT of interesting discussion among the SWJ contributors.
Finally, a piece by Andrew Sullivan in the UK's Sunday Times pointing out that, when it comes to detainee treatment, the Nazis pioneered a lot of the creative thinking that the Bush Administration seems to be employing.

PoMo Lit Crit is Torture. No, Really - I Mean It.


In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, professor of comparative literature responds to J.M. Coetzee's novel, Diary of a Bad Year. Coetzee apparently accuses postmodern literary criticism - the kind taught in effete college classrooms like the ones I used to sit in - of enabling the kind of mental acrobatics that get young American Muslims convicted of attempted terrorism, with bad home videos serving as conclusive evidence. I'm still trying to figure out the argument but haven't read the book yet - I'm working from the essay here.

Anyway, the essay's author, Peter Brooks, seems to have taken Coetzee's criticism very much to heart - so much so that he applies it to the torture memos issues by the Bush Administration. Good heavens, he asks - is Coetzee right? Has postmodern literary deconstructionism (the kind I assume he teaches in his classroom) enabled people like Alberto Gonzales to come up with the supple, situated, contingent definitions of pain and suffering that he and his cronies so skillfully deployed in the torture memos? Reflecting on the memos, Brooks writes, "We may uneasily sense that we are witnessing a tricksy free play of the signifier of the sort that literary critics and philosophers are sometimes accused of sponsoring... [the memo] resonates at moments as a kind of parody of literary interpretive deconstruction at its worst."

Now, I've not read Coetzee's book, but... oh, good grief. Gonzales, Yoo, Bybee and the whole crew were dead set on creating a legal justification for coercive interrogation techniques. Of COURSE they left standard definitions twisting in the wind - they had a legal basis to establish, one that had to snake in circuitous fashion around multiple legal and conventional norms against the mistreatment of prisoners. Just because the end result is as syntactically painful as a Derrida essay doesn't mean that there's a link between the torture memos and postmodern literary criticism.

Read it for yourself. Navel gazing or perceptive argument? You decide.

Thanks to Gregory Starrett for this one.

Haute Torture?


It seems that John Galliano has gotten inspiration from the Abu Ghraib photos. Check out this National Public Radio podcast on fashion and politics. The story kicks off with the Galliano Fall 2008 collection, which featured male models in hoods and bloody body paint. The bulk of the 10-minute-or-so story isn't about Abu Ghraib, but is about the relationship between fashion, and class, politics and war. The commentator, a professor of design at RISD, says that Galliano is "using his pulpit in a responsible way...." NPR treats the whole thing rather ironically by opening and closing the story with dialogue from - you guessed it - Zoolander.

I'm not sure what I think of this. Maybe I need more coffee.

Inga Treitler, practicing anthropologist extraordinaire, found this. THANKS INGA!

Back from a Much-Needed Vacation


Hi everyone,

Yes, I quit blogging for a little over three months. I desperately needed the break. Those of you who are in the American Anthropological Association, or who follow its gyrating tempests in academic teapots, might know that the past year has been fraught with controversy. I was involved in lots of those discussions last year and by the time I got back from the AAA meetings in December, I was completely burned out on culture, war, torture.... I couldn't even stomach the thought of opening this blog page. So I decided to drop it for a while.

However, I'm happy to say that the burnout seems to be dissipating, so I'll be throwing more ideas up on this page - hopefully on a weekly basis.

Thanks for your patience!


Assessing 'Truthiness'


This comment came in last night and set off a chain of thoughts, which I'll lay out in mishmash fashion below:"The problem with Provance is that he's a fraud. He only became a "whistleblower" after MG Fay threatened him for not speaking out earlier!!!!! The entire basis for his story is a lie coupled with the fact that he's was an incompetent Soldier shuffled from job to job."Not to put the commenter on the spot... but this comment was in response to the post in which I quoted from Samuel Provance's Congressional testimony. It's interesting insofar as it illustrates one thread of discourse around "whistleblower" status: that soldiers who go public with stories of prisoner abuse are frequently called out as frauds or liars or bad soldiers. Which, of course, happens to whistleblowers in most settings.Provance may or may not be a bad soldier. I don't know what that entails, never having been in the military. But I doubt his stories are fraudulent; there are plenty of similar accounts in the government's own documentation. Go read the 13 DoD investigations and you'll see what I mean - Slate has summaries of a handful of them.The subtler point here is the difficulty of judging TRUTH about interrogation and torture; specifically, the basis on which we assess the credibility of investigations and reports about torture and prisoner abuse. I bet there are plenty of people who think that Provance - as an outsider and critic of DoD policies - is "more" credible than the 13 DoD investigations the country has paid for. The arguments against DoD official credibility might go like this: the DoD can control what's been issued; the investigations didn't go high enough in the chain of command; institutional insiders conducted the investigations, etc., etc. In that frame, a lone wolf like Provance, or Saar, or Lagouranis - people who allegedly don't fit in with the military - could be perceived as more, not less, credible than the "good" soldiers who do fit in with military culture.I do think it's possible to get to the 'facts' about human rights abuses based on repeated and well-correlated observations from agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross (whose 2004 report was leaked to the public), or through the Fay-Jones Report, but teasing apart the conditions and motivations that contribute to prisoner abuse is an even more complicated project. For multiple DoD investigators, the problem is a failure to follow doctrine. For psychologists, torture is something that humans do to each other with remarkable ease. For lawyers, the door to torture opens when legal memos suspending basic Constitutional rights are issued from on high. For anthropologists, there's a good dose of racism, coupled with the emergence of what some of us might consider "culturally-informed" interrogation techniques that are humiliating and abusive enough to constitute torture. There are political and ideological threads here as well - for example, the comment I've quoted above indicates the existence of a parallel discourse around interrogation policies, from people within the military who react to public confessionals like those of Lagouranis and Saar, or whistleblowers like Provance, quite angrily.All of these are "true," but none is entirely necessary nor sufficient to explain torture, abuse, interrogation, unfair imprisonment, or the whole ethical, legal, moral, political, and social mess that is represented by places like Guantanamo - or, for that matter, by organizations like Al-Qaeda that engage in their own horrific processes of dehumanization.Just a few random observations on a Saturday. Time to walk the dogs.[...]

Related books...


Larry kindly sent me the references that I'd misplaced, along with some notes:
ONGKA, and A. STRATHERN. 1979. Onka: A Self-Account by a New Guinea Big-Man. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. (Larry writes, "Personal account of torture and rape of people he captured, don't need to buy the book - could just find relevant passages." Knowing me, I'll buy the book as soon as I log off here.)

KEELEY, L. H. 1996. War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Larry writes, "This might be a source for references - he talks about torture and mutilation in cross-cultural perspective.")
Larry tells me, "Have fun!" Which seems a rather odd comment given what I'm reading about, but I've got to admit that this is fascinating.

Of course, this theme brings me to another topic: anthropological writings on headhunting (Rosaldo) and trophy-taking in war, and its manifestation in the US Army: picture taking. In the ACLU documents, there are many references to soldiers being disciplined for taking pictures against Army regulations. Susan Sontag wrote a gorgeous essay on the Abu Ghraib photos as a kind of souvenir of cruelty. More themes to post about...

Torture references


My friend Larry Kuznar teaches in the Anthropology Department at Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne - he and I have been discussing torture for a few months now, and he sends me references from the anthropology literature. He encouraged me to do a cross-cultural comparison of torture - which I'd LOVE to get into, but I'm swamped right now with what I've already taken on. It's a great idea, though, and someone should run with it.

Anyway, here's one of the references that Larry suggested. There are a couple of others, but I can't find the email that lists them... sigh. I'll get them up as soon as he kindly re-sends them.
Knowles, Nathaniel (communicated by Clark Wissler) 1940 "The Torture of Captives by the Indians of Eastern North America." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 82(2):151-225.

Samuel Provance


In the foreword to the book Cultures of Insecurity: States, Communities, and the Production of Danger (Jutta Weldes, Mark Laffey, Hugh Gusterson, Raymond Duvall: 1999; Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press), George Marcus writes that effective critique locates “‘cracks’… those concepts, methods, ideas, practices, and life experiences within the culture of the mainstream about which there is self-doubt and uncertainty…” (xi). Torture scandals have opened up all kinds of fissures of doubt and uncertainty in the face of the “War on Terrorism.” Some of the strongest criticism of GWOT human rights abuses comes from within the ranks of military itself, and points to a productive fissure for exactly the kind of questioning and exploration that Marcus suggests.As people within the national security community come forward to question the policies and practices that lead to human rights abuses, more fissures appear, and they are worth exploring in depth. For example, Samuel Provance is one of the most outspoken critics of DoD prisoner abuse. Trained in military intelligence and a specialist in information systems, Provance arrived in Iraq in September 2003 to assume the role of system administrator (i.e., computer guy) for Abu Ghraib prison. His tenure at the prison coincided with the worst of the abuse incidents. In written testimony to Congress, Provance describes how his experience at Abu Ghraib directly contradicted the values, policies, duties, and practices that Army training inculcated in him:The Army has stood for duty, honor, and country. In wearing my country’s service uniform and risking my life for my country’s protection, it never occurred to me that I might be required to be a part of things that conflict with these values of duty, honor, and country.Provance doesn’t blame the torture on a few “bad apples.” Instead, he points to changes in “procedures,” and sees soldiers being encouraged to act in ways that he understands as prohibited by DoD policy and training.When serving with my unit in Iraq, I became aware of changed in the procedures in which I and my fellow soldiers were trained. These changes involved using procedures which we previously did not use, and had not been trained to use, and in involving military police (MP) personnel in “preparation” of detainees who were to be interrogated.Provance’s description of Abu Ghraib is surreal: a female interrogator bragging about the discomfiting power of her sexuality among Arab men; interrogators playing the Barney “I Love You” theme song at full blast to torment prisoners in Abu Ghraib; Military Police laughing as they exchanged tips on knocking detainees unconscious without leaving any marks. Provance insists that he was not trained to behave this way, and indicates that he and other soldiers were very uncomfortable with what they saw going on around them – though he writes that most were discouraged by their immediate superiors from reporting abuses.One way to get a sense of the degree of difference between Provance’s training, and what he actually saw going on around him, is to review the DoD policies that govern the humane treatment of military and civilian personnel in its custody during a time of war. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s indicative of the legal and policy frameworks that were in place prior to the beginning of detention and interrogation operations under the Global War on Terrorism – and how far we’ve gone astray.The Geneva Conventions. 194 states have acceded to the Geneva Conventions, which provide the grounding principles for US policies towards military and civilian prisoners of war. The third and fourth Geneva Conventions deal with, respectively, the treatment of enemy prisoners of war and civilian p[...]

Moazzam Begg on Dehumanization


In a recent post, I wrote about the way that firsthand accounts of interrogation and torture give perspective and depth to the journalistic sketches and the bureaucratic officialese of government reports. Moazzam Begg, Tony Lagouranis, and Eric Saar have each written accounts of their time “behind the wire,” to use Saar’s book title, and they fit together like puzzle pieces. I came to think of these books as a dark kind of Canterbury Tales in which a prisoner, interrogator, and translator each relate a journey into the miasma of GWOT detention operations in three different countries, over a three-year time period between January 2002 and January 2005.Moazzam Begg is kidnapped (“detained”) from his home in Islamabad, Pakistan, on January 31, 2002. He spends three years in US custody, first in Kandahar, then Bagram, and finally Guantánamo, before returning to England on January 25, 2005.Eric Saar’s book covers his six-month stint as a translator at Guantánamo from December 2002-June 2003.Tony Lagouranis arrives in Iraq in January 2004 and conducts interrogations in Abu Ghraib, al-Asad, Mosul, and North Babel before returning home in January 2005.Multiple themes emerge from these accounts. We learn about the sheer chaos of the Global War on Terrorism from Saar and Lagouranis, whose accounts highlight the absence of coherent policies for prisoner treatment among US bureaucracies. Begg writes about the betrayal of American principles of justice, fairness, and impartiality in the warped legal machinations around “enemy combatants.” All three describe rituals through which individual human beings are transformed into a nameless enemy Other, and we see quite clearly how the toxic environment of the prison traps all comers, dehumanizing guard, interrogator, and prisoner alike. In the end, we understand the manifold damages of torture: to the individuals involved, to their families, and to the credibility of countries that condone such practices.For me, the most moving of the three is Moazzam Begg’s book astounding autobiography – astounding because Begg so fluently balances anger with insight and even dry wit in the context of a horrifying nightmare of imprisonment. What follows are some excerpts from a longer review article I’m drafting, which I’ll be happy to share with anyone who wants it (use the email link above).*****Begg is getting ready for bed on a cold night in January 2002 when Pakistani and American intelligence officers kidnap him from the family’s apartment in Islamabad. His Pakistani captors treat him fairly well, but he is in their custody for only a short time before being transferred to US custody. US military personnel roughly shackle his hands and feet, hood him, and drag him into a military transport plane that takes him from Islamabad to Kandahar. Begg will go through similar rituals when he is transferred to Bagram, and later to Guantánamo.Throughout the book, we learn of the many ways in which prisoners are stripped of their identities as human beings. The military personnel refer to Begg and his fellow prisoners “motherfucker” as they forcibly cut off clothing, perform body cavity searches, and shave beards (“This is the part I like best,” the barber tells Begg as he removes this symbol of Muslim male identity). Begg is given an Enemy POW card with the number “558.” and is told that he will be known as “English 558” only because he speaks English, not because he is English (114). The guards rarely bother to learn the prisoners’ real names, but often give them nicknames: In Kandahar, the guards call the prisoners “Bobs” – short for “bad odor boys” (an epithet “meant to be demeaning,” Begg notes dryly[123]), while a mentally ill prisoner in Bagram is k[...]

Responding to Constructive Criticism


This week, an old friend chided me for not keeping the blog up to date. “This is important,” he wrote an email. AAARGH, I know, I know. It’s this darned day job and a lot of travel that’s distracting me, not lack of interest. Anyone who works on the October-September fiscal year calendar knows that October is a terribly busy month. I’m hoping things will settle down by mid-November, but no promises. The American Anthropological Association meetings are coming up at the end of November, and I’ve got a lot of preparation to do, so it could be early December before I really get some breathing room. I’ll try to get posts up at least once a week.

Another friend said he HATED the color scheme. I thought that the white-on-black design was rather elegant, but he told me it was hard on the eyes – and I looked again at the site and realized, “Gosh, he’s right, this is horrible.” So I switched templates and hope the change makes for easier reading.

I’m editing an entry about Moazzam Begg, Tony Lagouranis and Eric Saar, and I’ll post that later this afternoon.

One more thing – if you didn’t catch the hearings for Attorney General Michael Mukasey, it was great to hear the Senate Judiciary Committee members from both sides of the aisle pushing on the torture issue. But Mukasey was cagey, saying that he’d not been read into any programs yet, so he’d not yet seen the classified documentation. This, apparently, made it impossible for him to condemn practices like waterboarding as torture. Good grief. First off, there's no evidence that cruel and inhumane practices like waterboarding are effective for anything... except making a person believe he's drowning. Secondly, torture undermines everything the United States of America represents. Isn't that enough?

Thanks, everyone, for being so supportive. I never thought I'd actually have an audience!

If You're Not Outraged...


... You're really not paying attention. Go read the..

New York Times

Or Google "torture" and "CIA" and start reading.

Anyone who saw me blogging in September 2007 on Savage Minds knows that I'm skeptical about the relative importance of Raphael Patai's book, The Arab Mind, as a handbook for torturers or their upper level keepers, despite what Sy Hersh wrote (and other anthropologists have written).

However, I don't underestimate the role of lawyers or high-level policymakers in setting the conditions for torture - nor should you. Despite the scandal and furor over Abu Ghraib, it would seem that the Bush Administration didn't learn its lesson. Now we hear that the Department of Justice and the White House continued issuing secret legal documents that allow certain forms of what his administration very euphemistically refers to as "tough, safe, necessary and lawful" techniques.

If all of this is so legal and above board, why the secrecy?

First-Hand Accounts of Othering


I’ve been remiss in blogging this week – I’ve been swamped at work and this has fallen to the wayside. However, I’ve got a few entries coming up that I’ll be posting this week, which should make up for the gap. I've been thinking a lot these days about Othering, because it's been such a major theme in the reading I've been doing - which I discuss below.Most social scientists are familiar with the concept of Othering: the idea that the process of dehumanization involves people identifying and reifying social, physical, psychological, historical, and behavioral characteristics that become salient markers differentiating “them” from “us.” We construct an archetypal (stereotyped) Other whose being-ness diverges from our own in ways we identify as important, and we apply this construct to individuals we perceive as members of the Other group. Whether or not we want to admit it, most of us engage in mild forms of Othering whenever we categorize or stereotype: think of the last time you walked through the grocery store, or watched people in a restaurant. You’ve got your own markers for sorting people into various social groups.Under the right conditions, it is a short step from Othering, in which we identify someone as not-quite-the-same-as-us, to thinking of the Other as not-equal, therefore not-deserving-of-the-same-treatment, perhaps not-fully-human. The political, institutional, social, and economic conditions under which “difference” devolves into “dehumanization” are complex. They emerge across multiple levels, from the macro (the state, political leadership, large-scale economic trends, popular discourse) to the micro (as when individuals begin to recognize and act on perceived differences that demarcate group boundaries). Even groups that have historically perceived themselves as part of the “same”(town, neighborhood, county, church, state, etc.) may fall into the trap of Othering. The consequences can be devastating: think of genocide in the Balkans, Darfur, Armenia, Rwanda – or the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, or the torture of Muslim prisoners in Abu Ghraib.Which brings me to this week’s reading. One of the things I’ve been asking myself is what’s missing from the thousands of pages of DoD investigations. Not surprisingly, given the dearth of critical social scientists in the ranks of the military, social science theories of Othering are mostly absent, despite the fact that most of us would begin our investigations with the problem of Othering as a basic condition for explaining abuse. One notable exception is the Schlesinger Report, which introduces psychological research like Zimbardo’s to emphasize the importance of recognizing and mitigating the social dynamics that enable people to torture each other. However, most of the reports focus on such abstractions as the failure of soldiers and their superiors to follow Army or DoD doctrine (the concept of “doctrine” is actually an important theme for critique, as is the question of why the reports take the tack that they do, but I won’t get into those topics here).However, the theme of Othering is very salient in the voices of prisoners and soldiers themselves. During the past couple of weeks, I’ve taken a break from reading government reports to focus on first-hand accounts of interrogation and detention operations in the Global War on Terrorism (under which I include operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo). I’m aware of three such accounts:Moazzam Begg with Victoria Brittain. 2006. Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. New York: The New Press. ISBN 1-59558-136-7.Tony Lagouranis an[...]

Making Sense of Government Documents


As impressive as the ACLU’s database is, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by what it contains: thousands upon thousands of scanned documents and PDFs, many redacted, addressing six years of government policymaking and operations at over thirty detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Cuba; involving multiple government organizations, thousands of US citizens, many thousands of detainees, and tens of thousands of interrogations. Complicating matters is the fact that most of what the government has released was obviously written for internal audiences. If you do a random walk through the ACLU collection, for example, you’ll find piles of memos, emails, white papers, transcripts, testimony, and other pieces of information. Read a few and you’ll quickly realize that none of this was written for Joe Public, and that these agencies have a language of their own. As far as I know, there is no organizing scheme for making easy sense of these documents. It is difficult to tease anything resembling an explanatory or causal narrative out of this ocean of paper.Let’s take the Department of Defense’s thirteen investigations on detention and interrogation operations. Most of these reports were originally written as classified documents for the consumption of military decision makers and knowledgeable civilians in government. They assume a great deal of background knowledge on the part of the reader: organizational structures, military jargon, place names, roles and responsibilities, timelines. To give you a sense of how obfuscating military jargon can be, here’s an example from the relatively readable Taguba Report:“In an effort to provide structure, the CJTF-7 Commander attempted to create a single chain of command under FRAGO #1108 to OPORD 03-036. The FRAGO stated ‘Effective Immediately, Commander 205th MI BDE assumes responsibility for the Baghdad Central Confinement facility (BCCF) and is appointed the FOB commander and units currently at Abu Ghraib (BCCF) are TACON to 205th MI BDE for security of detainees and FOB protection’” (from the Executive Summary of the Taguba Report). It’s painful reading, isn’t it? You wouldn’t know it at first glance, but if you’re trying to piece together the chain of events and decisions that led to the torture events at Abu Ghraib, this paragraph describes some important decisions.Let’s start with the acronyms:CJTF-7: Combined Joint Task Force 7. The initial land invasion of Iraq was carried out by the Coalition Forces Land Component Command, or CFLCC. On June 14, 2003, CFLCC was replaced by CJTF-7. CJTF-7 unified the coalition land forces under a single command led by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. FRAGO #1108. It was issued by Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez on November 19, 2003. A FRAGO is a supplementary order that specifies changes to an existing order – in this case, Operation Order 03-036.OPORD – Operation Order. An OPORD sets out specifics for a situation or a mission: identifies the enemy, discusses weather and terrain, outlines the mission, details how it’s going to be executed, who will be involved, what support is required, and the like. I’ve not been able to find a copy of OPORD 03-036. TACON – Tactical control. This indicates that a military capability or force has been made available for tasking at the combatant command level or below.FOB – Forward Operating Base. FOBs are secure facilities that provide support for tactical operations during a war. (Main Operating Bases, in contrast, are permanently manned overseas bases.) There are dozens of FOBs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Abu Ghraib was just one of them. BCCF – Baghdad Cen[...]

On Psychology and Torture


If you’ve been watching the American Psychological Association’s recent ethical debates about interrogation and torture, you know that psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals are heavily implicated in GWOT interrogation activities. At the same time, psychologists have done some of the best analysis of the individual and institutional factors that influence one’s propensity to engage in cruelty. In framing the masses of primary documents on GWOT detention, interrogation, and torture, psychologists' work on evil is very helpful. I started with Stanley Milgram and Phil Zimbardo (who, interestingly, were childhood classmates) and recently discovered a quite provocative book on evil and genocide by James Waller (Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, Oxford University Press, 2002). Waller, Milgram, Zimbardo, and others all make the same point: as Waller puts it, “it is ordinary individuals, like you and me, who commit extraordinary evil” (18). I like Waller’s definition of evil, actually: “the deliberate harming of humans by other humans” (12). It’s simple and elegant. Although Waller’s book focuses on genocide, his model explaining how and why humans are capable of extraordinary evil is useful in framing torture, too.But let’s begin with two of Waller’s predecessors. Stanley Milgram’s experiments tested the limits of authority, obedience and cruelty: If you were put in a psychological experiment in which you were told to shock someone every time they answered a test question incorrectly, and the experimenters told you that part of the protocol was increasing the voltage with each successive wrong answer, how far would you go? If you were anything like Milgram’s subjects, the answer is that you’d go pretty far. You can read about the experiments and get references to Milgram’s works here. Then there’s Phil Zimbardo’s landmark Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE). Zimbardo has been very outspoken about the Abu Ghraib torture. He was an expert witness in Chip Frederick’s trial, and in his recent book The Lucifer Effect (Random House, 2007) he revisits the Stanford Prison Experiment and compares it to the events at Abu Ghraib, using Frederick’s experience as an entry point. It’s a fascinating read. The parallels between the SPE and the events at Abu Ghraib are astounding, particularly the rapid emergence of sexual humiliation in both contexts. Zimbardo has an excellent discussion of the SPE on his website.Whereas Milgram and Zimbardo both emphasize institutional conditions (though neither would argue that institutional settings absolutely determine whether or not a person engages in torture), Waller’s model incorporates evolutionary psychology into the discussion of evil. He writes that “humans have evolved in the context of group living” (151). In doing so, he (and other evolutionary psychologists) challenge what Leda Cosmides and John Tooby famously called the “Standard Social Science Model,” or SSSM – the view of human nature as a tabula rasa on which society imprints itself. (Cosmides and Tooby’s SSSM idea predictably generated enormous controversy among social scientists, but I won’t go into that here). The point that Waller makes is that “human minds are compelled to define the limits of the tribe,” and that as a result, we tend to be biased towards “us” and against “them.” Waller calls this our “ancestral shadow,” and sees its expression in xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and a desire for social dominance, which quickly degenerates into aggression and vi[...]

Researching interrogation


Since the United States kicked off its “Global War on Terrorism” (and I fully recognize how problematic this phrase is; it’s really more like “America’s Global War on Terrorism Waged in Afghanistan and Iraq with a Coalition of the Increasingly Tired and Skeptical”), governments and non-government agencies alike have spilled a lot of electronic ink writing about interrogation, detention, and torture. The Internet has played a critical role in the dissemination of information about torture, as well as detention and interrogation practices in the GWOT. Not only have internet and traditional print journalism used the Internet to disseminate articles, but numerous activist groups, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union, have used the Freedom of Information Act to gain public access to over one hundred thousand pages of government documents generated in the GWOT. Some of the databases I’ve found include:ACLUMinnesota Human Rights LibraryThe Federation of American ScientistsThe Center for Public IntegrityThe National Security Archive at George Washington UniversityThe ACLU database seems to be the most comprehensive, with (by its count) over 100,000 pages of information available from ten different federal agencies. Plus, unlike other databases, they’ve transformed most of the scanned documents, stored as PDFs, into keyword searchable text. It’s a great public service, and they deserve your donation.As I write about my experience reading interrogation, detention, and torture documents, I’ll provide either a link to the document itself, or the database name, location and a unique search term. For example, the ACLU’s number for the Presidential order suspending the Geneva Conventions is DODDIA000201-DIDDIA000202, which I’ll denote as (ACLU DODDIA000201-DIDDIA000202). That way, you can look at the documents yourself.Faced with 100,000 pages of government documents, though, you might well ask: where do I begin? It depends on which agency you’re interested in, and which time period, and which facilities. I started with the Department of Defense, specifically the Taguba report, and chained my way from there through a long list of documents. I’m nowhere near done, and have no hope of reading everything. It’s also been very confusing, since the DoD has (as of 2005; I’m honestly not sure if there are more ongoing) conducted no less than thirteen separate investigations, totaling nearly 500 recommendations and findings, each report dealing with a different aspect of detention, interrogation, and torture issues. As you’ll quickly discover, a single DoD investigation might be accompanied with thousands of pages of supporting documentation, which is where the most interesting details are usually located. And that’s just the DoD.So – if I were starting now, I’d begin with the Office of Inspector General’s report, Review of DoD-Directed Investigations of Detainee Abuse, dated August 26, 2006. It wasn’t available when I started poking around at the beginning of 2007, but was released in May ’07 with minimal redactions. It’s manageable reading – about 120 pages long – and provides a summary of all the investigations that DoD has conducted since 2003, as well as a set of its own findings. On page 32, there’s a timeline for the investigations along with all their informal titles (e.g., “Fay/Jones"), which are much more manageable than the official report titles (AR 15-6 Investigation of the Abu Ghraib Prison and 205th Military Intelligence Brigade LTG Anthony R. Jones, AR 15-6 Investigation of the Abu Ghraib P[...]

Anthropology and torture?


As I mention in my profile, I'm a cultural anthropologist with an interest in interrogation and torture. You might be asking yourself, "How does an anthropologist get interested in torture?" Well, therein lies a tale:This all started with Seymour Hersh's article, "The Gray Zone," which he published in The New Yorker Magazine in late May 2004. Hersh was one of the first to break that Abu Ghraib scandal; his three-part series on prisoner abuse came on the heels of the Sixty Minutes II episode that broke the news about torture in Iraq. In his series on the scandal, Hersh wrote extensively about the sexual humiliation of the prisoners, and alleged the existence of a Special Access Program, or SAP, code named Copper Green. The program allegedly enabled interrogators to use very harsh techniques, including sexual humiliation and physical torture, to get information from prisoners. This is where the anthropology comes in: According to Hersh, the people that thought up this program were informed by an ethnography written 36 years ago: The notion that Arabs are particularly vulnerable to sexual humiliation became a talking point among pro-war Washington conservatives in the months before the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq. One book that was frequently cited was “The Arab Mind,” a study of Arab culture and psychology, first published in 1973, by Raphael Patai, a cultural anthropologist who taught at, among other universities, Columbia and Princeton, and who died in 1996. The book includes a twenty-five-page chapter on Arabs and sex, depicting sex as a taboo vested with shame and repression. “The segregation of the sexes, the veiling of the women . . . and all the other minute rules that govern and restrict contact between men and women, have the effect of making sex a prime mental preoccupation in the Arab world,” Patai wrote. Homosexual activity, “or any indication of homosexual leanings, as with all other expressions of sexuality, is never given any publicity. These are private affairs and remain in private.” The Patai book, an academic told me, was “the bible of the neocons on Arab behavior.” In their discussions, he said, two themes emerged—“one, that Arabs only understand force and, two, that the biggest weakness of Arabs is shame and humiliation.” (Seymour Hersh, "The Gray Zone," The New Yorker, May 24, 2007)Since Hersh published this piece, anthropologists have been very worried about the idea that their work might be used to inform torture. I decided to tackle this problem empirically by looking for more evidence than a single anonymous source in a journalist's account. I started with the Taguba report, then the Miller and Ryder reports, then Fay-Jones... and my search for evidence of anthropologists being involved in torture quickly grew into an obsession with the dynamics of interrogation and torture more generally. Since I started this research in April 2007, I've come to believe that the devastating images that came out of Abu Ghraib in January 2004 have many explanations, and that the role of anthropology in their creation was likely minimal. But I've also come to believe very strongly that anthropologists have something unique to say about torture, a critique that can complement the already excellent work done by lawyers and psychologists in particular.The American Civil Liberties Union has made tremendous use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get copies of paper and electronic documents and correspondence generated in the context of interrogation and torture in the Global War on Terrorism. A[...]