Introducing Myself

Hello everyone, and thanks to Savage Minds for the nice introduction and the chance to blog about my experience reading government documents about interrogation and torture in the Global War on Terrorism. I desperately need the outlet – it’s been a strange and somewhat lonely experience, simply because I don’t know of any other anthropologists who’ve done the same. (If you have, I’d love to hear from you.)

Before I go any further, let me issue the disclaimer: Chris noted that I work at Sandia National Laboratories – I was at Los Alamos National Laboratories for 6 years, too – but absolutely nothing I write on this blog has anything to do with Los Alamos, the Department of Energy, Sandia National Labs, Lockheed Martin, or anyone who signs my paycheck. In my day job, I pursue fairly technical work among computer scientists and mathematicians, but I won’t be writing about that. Instead, I’ll be blogging about my personal obsession with torture and interrogation. I only point this out because I was criticized as something of a shill for national security community(mostly on the basis of my institutional affiliation, I think) when I wrote a short editorial about Patai and torture in Anthropology Today. So I want to make it very clear that no one is paying me to dig through FOIA’d interrogation documents. This is my own thing, and I pursue it purely for my own interest, and on my own time, and with my own resources, because I find it fascinating, and because the more torture documents I read, the more I’ve come to believe that interrogation and torture are ethnographic problems worth our collective attention. I mean, this stuff is really interesting.

So, now that that’s out of the way, you might be wondering why anyone would spend their weekends downloading, reading, and taking notes on PDFs of poorly scanned, redacted, jumbled, jargon-and-acronym filled government documents. It all started in 2006, when I was asked to lead a roundtable discussion on anthropology and ethics at the inaugural Ethics in Intelligence conference in Springfield, VA. I wanted something more recent than the usual Project Camelot-Vietnam-Franz Boas stories, so I chose the Raphael Patai/sexual humiliation/Abu Ghraib story as a case study to illustrate why anthropologists tend to be hostile to military and intelligence activities. I knew I’d probably have some experienced intelligence and military personnel at the table, so I figured it was a good idea to have more material than just Hersh’s article.

And that’s how this all began. In searching for articles that might shed more light on how Patai’s book had been used in Abu Ghraib, I came across plenty of people citing Hersh. However, I couldn’t find any independent accounts that corroborated his allegations about Patai’s book being linked to torture. Since then, I’ve thought long and hard (obsessively) about torture, anthropology, politics, war, interrogation, critique, and culture, and – as I noted above – it’s been a long, strange, often depressing trip. I am working on a couple of articles about these topics, but in the meantime, I’ll be blogging sporadically about some of the more interesting materials I’ve come across. So – more to come.

10 thoughts on “Introducing Myself

  1. Savage Minds has arrived: we finally have a blogger with a “personal obsession with torture and interrogation”

    That is opposed to the professional interest the rest of us take 🙂

    I for one am very excited about Laura’s work on torture and interrogation, because, as I’ve mentioned to her, it seems to me that most anthropologists are willing to believe the most outrageous claims about the government, the military, even corporations because they assume that any relevant information will be either secret or unreliable. That’s obviously not the case today: there is tons of stuff out there for the diligent researcher, much of it collected, organized and analyzed by various ngos and think tanks, some of it very raw. I’ve always suggested to students that the Internet is more than just email and search, but a cryptic archive of ethnographic material waiting for the creative researcher to figure out how to access it… but we live under that cloud of suspicion that somehow anything done “on the internet” cannot possibly be ethnographic. Needless to say, I differ…

  2. Actually, it hit me last night that the ongoing discussion about methodological sharpening does tie into the problem of using documents for ethnography, insofar as I have this sense of watching the organizations work through this disjointed narrative of official documents. It’s an odd kind of armchair (desktop?) organizational study.

  3. Laura,


    For those interested in reading more about Patai, back in 2004 I posted a review of his book, The Arab Mind, by Elaine Hagopian (Journal of Palestine Studies, 1977) on my blog. You can read it here.

  4. Laura, I too look forward to your posts. Will you be talking about the FOIA process at all? I’m curious how one would even begin to find out what there is to get. Is there some kind of index that people use to request certain documents? Not all anthropologists are hostile towards the military; some of us are instead hostile to politicians who misuse the military.
    I think the jargon/acronym culture of organizations would also reveal much about how they work. There are certain words/sayings that I find myself accidentally using, and no one seems to have heard of these terms.

  5. You write here that you “dug through FOIA’d interrogation documents.” A few questions on this: which specific documents are you referring to? How did you use the Freedom of Information Act to have these documents released, and which agency released them to you?

  6. Well, here’s the thing: in this case the ACLU has done all the hard stuff for us. So have the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, the Center for Public Integrity, the Federation of American Scientists, and the National Security Archives. ACLU’s collection is the most user friendly. They maintain a searchable database of over 100,000 pages of documents from DoD and DoJ, primarily. The worst thing is the quality of the scanned documents and the redactions, which are a pain to deal with. I’ll put links in my next blog post.

  7. Hey Laura and all, I’m looking forward to Laura’s post as well. Crazy as it sounds, I’m an anthropologist who’s worked on FOIA as well. I wrote a whole dissertation on it, with research done on FOI in Poland and the United States. Also, like Laura, David Price used FOIA to write his history of anthropology during the Cold War, so there is some, very limited, precedence. For any anthros out there looking to use FOIA, I could recommend places to look, like the National Security Archive’s resourceful web site, or, humbly, my own website called “The Art of Information Access Project” (found on ckelty’s server no less, thanks much) which looks at FOIA from an ethnographic perspective and also shows a few details about how to use the law:

  8. I’m just happy there are more people obsessively consumed by their subject. Too many people today want to be ‘tranquil’ and ‘serene’. pffft.

  9. Serenity is overrated, Rex. The pendulum has swung back, and obsession is where it’s at these days.

    Michael, thanks for the link to your site; I’ll be sure to check it out. David Price and I correspond regularly about a variety of things and I agree – he’s absolutely wonderful with FOIA.

    I, alas, am merely a freerider, taking advantage of the hard work done by others. I just read the documents; I don’t actually request them. But one of my best friends is a FOIA officer. Does that count? 🙂

  10. Laura,
    A mutual acquaintance (internet “friends”) turned me towards your site. I think you and I could have an interesting discussion. I can definitely tell you that Patai’s Arab Mind had nothing to do with Abu Ghraib. I served as a military historian (for military intelligence) and directed service level interrogation training for several years. Feel free to contact me via email.

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