Sunday, September 30, 2007

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 Central Confinement Facility. The Army's name for Abu Ghraib (but it's almost always referred to as Abu Ghraib).
  • 205th MI BDE – the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade. At the time, it was under the command of Colonel Thomas M. Pappas, and was charged with conducting interrogations for CJTF-7.
So, here’s a rough translation:
On November 19, 2003, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez issued a “Fragmentary Order” (FRAGO #1108), basically an amendment to an existing order (OPORD 03-036), that put operations at the Abu Ghraib FOB – where prison operations were being conduced by Military Police (MP) under the command of Brigadier General Janis Karpinski’s 800th MP Brigade – under the authority of the 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, led by Colonel Thomas Pappas.

This is important because the Taguba report highlights how murky chains of command and perceived authority at Abu Ghraib contributed to the abuses. For example, Taguba points out that FRAGO #1108 contributed to an environment in which Military Intelligence personnel apparently felt comfortable asking Military Police to “set the conditions” for successful interrogations. Likewise, MPs felt they had leeway to “soften up” detainees. This is despite the fact that Army doctrine has historically kept prison guard operations separate from military intelligence operations – for reasons that are now, in retrospect, painfully obvious. This raises interesting questions about the conditions under which Army doctrine – the repository of accumulated wisdom that ostensibly guides military operations – loses its regulating power. But that's another story.

While FOIA is our best legal mechanism for ensuring government transparency and accountability, it doesn’t ensure that the documents we get are transparently meaningful. In making sense of large and seemingly random collections like the torture papers, it’s helpful to create..
  • An annotated list of acronyms with notes about what the acronym means and why each is important/the context in which the acronyms appear.
  • Timelines of important events. These are tedious to construct, but revealing: for example, most of the critical legal memos setting the stage for prisoner abuse were issued between September 2001 and August 2002. As the legal restrictions on prisoner abuse evaporate, all hell breaks loose.
  • Maps. The facilities in question are often divided into smaller “Camps” (for example, Camp Ganci at Abu Ghraib was a tented encampment that housed about 5000 detainees). Having a picture of what facilities are located where is quite helpful in sorting through events.
Over time, things do start to make sense.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

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 violence (see 153-154). Waller certainly doesn’t disregard institutional or historical context; I read his model as adding dimension to psychological research that emphasizes, as Zimbardo puts it, “the social dynamics of conformity and obedience” (296). And like Zimbardo, he emphasizes that understanding the many conditions that tap into what seems to be a very human propensity to commit extraordinary evil is critical in preventing evil.

I’ve not done any of these researchers justice, of course – their work is a lot more nuanced and complicated than I can explore in a blog. But anthropologists interested in the problem of torture should take a look at this work to get a better sense of the complexity of torture as a social phenomenon. I think one of the challenges for anthropologists is to figure out how we can ethnographically frame the problems of detention, interrogation, and torture in the current Global War on Terrorism so that we can add to the really excellent analyses of our colleagues.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

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:

Minnesota Human Rights Library
The Federation of American Scientists
The Center for Public Integrity
The National Security Archive at George Washington University

The 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 Prison and 205th Military Intelligence Brigade, MG George R. Fay. Phew!).

The DOD IG report is more than a tour guide to the DoD investigations. The report was generated by a multidisciplinary team chartered by the DoD Inspector General (DoD IG) on May 13, 2004, with monitoring “allegations of abuse among Enemy Prisoners of War and other detainees (hereafter referred to collectively as detainees)” (p.1). Their findings are interesting reading in their own right, because the report so clearly illustrates how contradictory policy statements regarding the handling of detainees (and the report tells us that DoD had apprehended seventy thousand people since operations in Afghanistan began in 2001) contributed to the abuse of people in DoD detention facilities. In fact, it’s hard after reading this report to credibly pin the Abu Ghraib scandal on the Granier-England-Frederick-et al “bad apples.” Instead, the DoD IG report, as well as other DoD reports, reveal a great deal of institutional confusion about what constituted appropriate-versus-inappropriate interrogation approaches among DoD personnel. Specifically, guidance from the President and the Secretary of Defense about a) the legal and judicial processes governing enemy combatants, and b) authorizing techniques that clearly violated existing Army policy and Geneva conventions, opened the door for the proliferation of coercive interrogation techniques. I’ll be writing more about that in future posts.

If you prefer hardcopy, Karen Greenberg and Joshua Dratel have assembled a volume, The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib (Cambridge University Press, 2005; ISBN-10 0-521-85324-9) that lays out the evolution of the legal arguments using primary documents, and that includes some of the DoD reports in hardcopy. At 1249 pages, it’s hefty, but worth the investment if you’re really interested in GWOT interrogation, detention, and torture.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

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. As of this writing (September 2007), the ACLU has over 100,000 pages of primary documentation on interrogation and torture in the US GWOT. That's my primary source for much of what I'll be writing about. However, I'll also be blogging about books, articles, and discussions that touch on this subject. Expect this to be eclectic as I explore questions like, What does it mean for ethnography to inform torture? How is anthropology used in interrogation? How does culture play in interrogation? What can interrogation and torture tell us about the Global War on Terrorism?

I welcome the comments of others, particularly anthropologists who are interested in reading the torture documents

Welcome aboard.