Saturday, February 16, 2008

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 officer
  • A 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 information
  • A memorandum summarizing the findings of the investigation
  • A 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 captivity
  • Multiple 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 2003
  • Another list of sworn statements
  • And 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 secure”, then initials. This log is punctuated occasionally by “inventory lists” of what Lindh is fed and, occasionally, his behaviors. On December 2002, at 0955Z, Lindh is provided a fudge brownie, a half bottle of water, bread, peanut butter, chili and macaroni, cocoa beverage product, and bubble gum. He then prays and lies down. Why did I find this interesting? For one thing, it tells us something about the records that military guards keep concerning detainees. Secondly, it made me think of Moazzam Begg’s bemusement and frustration with the guards at Guantánamo who write down observations of his behavior, as though he is a caged animal.

But that’s something of an aside to my main interest, which is the problem of soldier photography. The sworn statements indicate that digital photographs present a challenge to the military because they are so easily disseminated – these are slippery forms of ephemera, unwieldy and hydra-like. Here are some quotes from the sworn statements – again, you can see these yourself if you go to the ACLU's FOIA site and enter DOD015552, the scroll for the page numbers I’ve provided you.

INT. Why did you take the photograph?
RESPONSE. The photograph was taken as a final team picture with an American member of the Al Qaeda Terrorist Organization (sic)…
INT: What was written on the blindfold and why?
RESPONSE: SHITHEAD, because we though it was humorous and we thought he was…. the detainee was not aware of any pictures after he was blindfolded.
INT. How is it possible for the photo to be rediscovered if you deleted it on 9 December 2002 and did not disseminate it?
RESPONSE. The camera had two flashcards. We attempted to open the photo on a borrowed laptop from the FOB (Forward Operating Base). The electronic copy was inadvertantly (sic) left on the laptop and possibly on one of the flashcards. The laptop was then connected to a LAN system at the FOB.
INT: What was written on the blindfold, why.
RESPONSE: “Shithead,” Barracksroom (sic) humor.
DOD 015602.
(implied) INT: Why did you take the photograph?
RESPONSE. The photo was taken simply because of who he is.
INT: Why did you take the photograph?
RESPONSE: For historical value because of who he was; an American fighting for the Taliban, and for humor.
It strikes me that we have here is something more akin to tourist photograph – the visual consumption of the exotic (an American Taliban); the exercise of power in the form of a Foucauldian gaze; the creation and dissemination of a souvenir that the individual being photographed is never allowed to see. The question is whether or not the Abu Ghraib photos really represent a botched blackmail attempt, or if they’re evidence of a much larger phenomenon – that is, soldiers capturing, collecting, and sharing forbidden digital photographs of their war experiences.

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.

Friday, February 8, 2008

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 DOD015552 - DOD015647, which was released on or about 18 April 2002, is a 96 page collection of the sworn statements of the soldiers involved in Lindh’s detention and handling.
  • Documents DOD015514-DOD015514, dated 3 February 2003, seems to be a summary of Buford’s findings. In it, he writes that, “… a momentary lapse of “mature” good judgment and propose that it was a sophomoric idea that quickly grew unsavory in its own right… this is clearly indicated by the ODA team leadership who began to expunge the photo-in-question from the archives within 24 hours of its existence... however, the age of electronic data handling or “business velocity” enabled the photo to quickly outpace local recover efforts and others outside the ODA were soon seeing the photo in question on other electronic devices” (DOD-015515).
  • Documents DOD015517-DOD015548, dated 4 February 2003, is a moderately redacted, 32 page review of the Buford investigation. In this review, the “shithead” photo is described as “barracks humor” and as “sophomoric.” Later in the same document, the Deputy Staff Judge (name redacted) authoring the review writes that another member of the ODA – meaning a member of the Special Forces – exhibited a “humbling” generosity towards Lindh: he segregated Lindh in a separate room out of concern for the unpredictable actions of other detainees towards Lindh, while a US Army staff sergeant provided Lindh with a cot and a heater, while he himself “continued to sleep on a concrete floor, in a separate unheated room.”
While I'm sure Lindh's lawyers and family would see this as a clumsy attempt at official apologia and self-congratuation on the part of the military, I think it hints somewhat at the diversity of attitudes and behaviors towards enemy prisoners of war among the military personnel responsible for maintaining detainee facilities.

I’ll be writing more about the phenomenon of soldiers and digital photography in an upcoming post.

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.

Monday, February 4, 2008

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!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

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!