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.


Bob said...

I assume you have now seen the NYTimes article on how anthropologists are being used in Afghanistan. The article indicates how valuable they have been in relieving tensions, or at least avoiding some unnecessary clashes with the local Pushtun Tribes. It also indicates the conflicted feelings anthropologists have over whether they should be cooperating with the government in hostile settings. I personally am pleased they are trying to be sensitive to local sensibilities in Afghanistan; if it takes the help of an anthropologist then great. But of course the knowledge of anthropologists vary, and can indeed lead to very different conclusions. Also, I think it is OK in Afghanistan because I have always supported the American involvement in Afghanistan. Iraq is another story. It is not a just cause, so from my point of view it would be less easy to justify the involvement of anthropologists there. Thanks for what you are doing. Bob

Laura McNamara said...

Hello and thanks for the comment. It is astoundingly complicated, the involvement of anthropologists on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think that we'll see a diversity of views in the anthropology community on this issue. I'm not sure where I stand, given that the DoD defined the program, apparently, as sitting outside any kind of human studies/IRB review - which makes this problematic for at least some anthropologists. I'm not even getting into the issue of anthropology vs. IRBs... that's another story.