Saturday, October 27, 2007

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.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

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 populations held under enemy control. The International Committee of the Red Cross has an excellent website on the history of the Geneva Conventions and their role in international humanitarian law, including links to the text of the four Conventions.
Within the Department of Defense, there are several directives and regulatory documents that govern how prisoners of war are treated:
DoD Directive 5100.77, “DoD Law of War Program,” (December 9, 1998) (ACLU Document #DODDOA010213-DODDOA010221) references the four Geneva Conventions in setting out the roles and responsibilities of DoD leadership in ensuring the appropriate “care and treatment of Enemy Prisoners of War, retained persons, and detainees.” It requires that DoD observe and enforce law of war obligations, that it maintain an effective program to prevent violations, and requires that all reportable violations be promptly and thoroughly investigated and remedied.
DoD Directive 2310.1, “DoD Program for Enemy Prisoners of War,” (18 August 1994) (ACLU Document# DODDOA010206-DODDOA010212). Directive 2310.1 directs the US Military services to “comply with the principles, spirit, and intent of the international law of war… to include the Geneva Conventions.” Like DoD 5100.77, it sets out roles and responsibilities for each element of the Department of Defense in ensuring that all enemy prisoners of war, sick and wounded, retained personnel, civilian internees, and other detained personnel (detainees).
More specific guidance appears in Army Regulations governing the treatment of enemy prisoners of war.
Army Regulation 190-8, “Enemy Prisoners of War, Retained Personnel, Civilian Internees and Other Detainees” (ACLU # DODDOA000643) is an 86-page document that sets out policies for the general protection of enemy prisoners of war, civilian internees, and other detained persons. This includes policies governing the conditions of captivity, the administration and operation of internment facilities, employment and compensation for labor, treatment of personal effects, complaints about detainee mistreatment, and policies and procedures for maintaining internment facility discipline and security.
Army Field Manual 27-10, “The Law of Land Warfare," sets out similar rules and regulations for military personnel conduct during war, to include appropriate treatment of prisoners of war. It also references the Geneva Conventions.
Army Field Manual 34-52, “Intelligence Interrogation” (1987 and 1992). This handbook for interrogators is a fascinating read. It defines interrogation and explains its place in the intelligence cycle and lays out a series of strategies and approaches for effectively obtaining information from “sources” – a category that includes civilians, insurgents, defectors, refugees, prisoners of war, and any “other non-US personnel.” Section1-8 of FM 34-52 clearly prohibits the use of force:
The psychological techniques and principles in this manual should neither be confused with, nor construed to be synonymous with, unauthorized techniques such as brainwashing, physical or mental torture, or any other form of mental coercion… [which] revolve around eliminating the source’s free will. … Torture is defined as the infliction of intense pain to body and mind to extract a confession or information, or for sadistic pleasure.
Apparently, the Department of Defense had a well-documented set of policies and procedures in place to ensure that its personnel treated prisoners in accordance with commonly recognized international standards, treaties, and law. I expect that Provance isn't the only soldier asking why so many years of training and practice were thrown out the window.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

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 known as “Animal” after a character on the Muppet Show (141).

As individual identities disappear, the figure of an enemy Other emerges. Among the soldiers he encounters, Begg realizes that distinct people, entities and concepts – al-Qaeda, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, terrorism, Islam – have been elided in his captors’ minds into a single enemy, personified in the figure of the Muslim male: “They had been told frightening things about us as part of their training: We were Muslims, Arabs, Middle Easterners, killers, terrorists” (120). When an MP tells Begg that he “came within an inch of becoming a Muslim myself,” Begg asks him why he did not. The guard responds by pointing to a US flag on his arm. “Was this an admission that he thought his country had declared war against… my faith?” (128). Later, in Bagram, Begg notices that the guards have labeled the prisoners' cells with place names denoting events: USS Cole, Nairobi, Lebanon, Somalia, Twin Towers. Begg realizes that none of the prisoners within are connected to the events labeling their cell doors, and that the common denominator among all these entities is Islam (138).

The loss of identity is accompanied by bodily control and humiliation. Although accounts of torture focus on techniques intended to induce physical pain and suffering – stress positions, for example, or exposure to heat and cold – the prison keepers exercise power over the prisoners’ body in countless other ways: food, washing, bodily waste, physical movement, hair growth. In Kandahar, all the prisoners wear blue jumpsuits, share a single bucket as a toilet, are given Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) with most of the contents removed. They are not allowed to see the sunshine, exercise, or talk to each other. In Bagram, the toilet is a rusty barrel, rarely emptied, at the back of a prison cell. At one point, a prisoner is chained to a steel bracket near the toilet so that he is enveloped in the stench, but his chains are not long enough to allow him to reach the toilet, so he is forced to soil the area where he sleeps. In Guantánamo, the facilities are somewhat cleaner, but Begg is kept in solitary confinement in an environment that is no less humiliating. Begg writes that he lives in a dog kennel, surrounded by guards refuse to speak to anyone in an orange jumpsuit. They watch Begg constantly, recording every detail of his movements in the cell: eating, sleeping, reading, using the latrine. Many of the guards seem to delight in tormenting the captives, deliberately tightening wrist and ankle cuffs so they cut off circulation, flipping lights on and off, slamming doors, taking reading material away.

And yet, Begg’s book is filled with details of subtle and creative resistance to the overwhelming power of the US military: of prisoners figuring out ways to communicate with each other, of acts of collective defiance, such as hunger strikes; of jokes told about interrogators, of tricks played on guards – and, despite the circumstances, of ephemeral friendships that emerge between Begg and the guards that rotate in and out of his captivity. In Guantánamo, Begg befriends a reservist guard, Mesadore, to whom he relates his experiences in Kandahar and Bagram. Mesadore responds, “Shit, Moazzam. After the way you’ve been treated, if y’all weren’t terrorists before you came here, you will be by the time you leave” (252).

Begg’s book is well worth reading for anthropologists who are interested in the intersection of culture and power. Begg’s account brings to mind Michel Foucault (of course), Aihwa Ong, Benedict Anderson, Pierre Bourdieu – as well as anthropological writings on tourism, the body, transnationalism, violence, warfare, and identity.

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!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

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 and Allen Mikaelian, 2007. Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq. New York: NAL Caliber/Penguin. ISBN 978-0-451-22112-4

Eric Saar with Viveca Novak. 2005. Inside the Wire: An Military Intelligence Soldier’s Eyewitness Account of Life at Guanatamo. New York: Penguin. ISBN 1-59420-066-1

Inspired by anthropologists Catherine Lutz and Keith Brown’s essay, “Grunt Lit: The Participant Observers of Empire,” I’m working on a review of these three books as an example of "Torture Lit," fodder for anthropologists trying to understand the institutional, social, and cultural dynamics that emerge during, and contextualize, prisoner-guard-interrogator relationships. These books provide coverage over several years of GWOT detention and interrogation, as well as the main sites in which such operations are occurring: Kandahar and Bagram in Afghanistan, as well as Guantánamo (Begg), Abu Ghraib and Mosel in Iraq (Lagouranis), and Guantanamo (Saar). Begg is held as an enemy combatant for three years, while Lagouranis and Saar are both Arabic-speaking graduates of the Defense Language Institute who work for Army Intelligence – Lagouranis as an interrogator, Saar as an interpreter.

The similarities and complementarities among the three men’s accounts are striking; read against each other, and in parallel with some of the better government investigations (the Schlesinger report comes to mind), they highlight the role of Othering in dehumanization and abuse. What’s really interesting are the ways that their separate descriptions of the rituals of Othering converge with Phil Zimbardo’s account in The Lucifer Effect of how he and his fellow experimenters set up the demarcation between guards and prisoners in the Stanford Prison Experiment. I’m working on a series of short entries about each of these books, and another entry about the rituals of Othering in all four books, which I’ll post this week.

Another source of voices are transcripts of testimony given to DoD investigators. These transcripts are often included as annexes or appendices to the official reports. For example, the Taguba report include testimony from thirteen detainees as well as a number of soldiers who witnessed the abuse or were in Abu Ghraib when it was occurring. As fragmented and incomplete as these accounts are, they make for emotionally devastating reading. I’ll write about these in an upcoming entry.