Cultural Dynamics in Interrogation: The FBI At Guantanamo

It is easy – commonplace – for anthropologists to have an opinion on “the war” and to think that our opinions are worth hearing. But those opinions are more informed, nuanced, and will carry further if they are shaped by the close, yet open-minded, encounters with ground level realities, and practice, whose importance we, and our disciplinary forbears, have worked so hard to promote.” – p. 327 in Keith Brown and Catherine Lutz, “Grunt Lit: The participant observers of empire.” AE 34:2, 322-328.

For Brown and Lutz, the autobiographical accounts of soldiers provide a window into the messy and chaotic instantiation of empire in war, and are worth submitting to what Lutz calls “[the] discipline’s standard tropes of person-centered, contextualized understanding” (Lutz 2006 in AE, 33:4, p. 593). Along these lines, the interrogation records of the GWOT should be subject to the same ethnographic scrutiny. If nothing else, they reveal that (to paraphrase Clausewitz) interrogation is the extension of war by other means, as a complex ideological conflict is waged discursively in the context of the prison interrogation room.

To make this point, I’ll share a very abbreviated draft of article I’m writing, for which I draw on a subset of roughly 500 pages of documents dealing with FBI interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, between February 2002 and July 2004. Within this collection, there are approximately fifty FBI “transcriptions” (which are perhaps better described as summaries of interviews, “interview” being FBI parlance for interrogation). Because many are heavily redacted, it can be hard to discern where one interview ends and another begins. Reading these is akin to listening to a radio broadcast between bursts of heavy static, or watching a movie interrupted by sporadic blackouts. Although the interview transcriptions do use proper names, identifying information is always redacted; and for convenience, I am following FBI convention in referring to the parties as “interviewers” and “detainees.” I use a bracketed ellipsis to denote redactions […], and I quotations to the official document number so that interested readers can look up the source material (e.g., 4042).

Redactions notwithstanding, this collection provides fascinating insight into the manifold ways in which “culture” makes its presence felt. As Robert Rubinstein points out in his forthcoming book, Peacekeeping Under Fire: Culture and Intervention (Paradigm 2008), culture operates at many levels in UN peacekeeping efforts. He identifies three interlocking cultural dynamics that shape the trajectory of these operations: interactions between peacekeepers and local populations; interactions between participating local and national bureaucracies; and in a meta-sense, as international perceptions of “peacekeeping” evolve politically and institutionally.

Similarly, cultural dynamics operate at multiple levels in interrogation. At its most basic, interrogation aims to get specific information for specific purpose: for example, to develop a criminal case, obtain a confession, or provide “actionable intelligence” that can be used in tactical decision-making. That interviewers are seeking such information is apparent when detainees are asked to explain their presence at an Al Qaeda training camp, or shown photos of other detainees and asked to identify co-conspirators (e.g., 3904). However, far more is going on in these FBI interviews than attempts to elicit specific facts from recalcitrant detainees. In the interrogation encounter, detainees and interviewers look at each other across the table and, with the help of a translator (who is always silent in the transcriptions), they dive into a discursive exchange that reaches far beyond the confines of the interrogation room.

For example, interviewer-detainee exchanges shed light on the dynamics of guard-prisoner interactions in detention operations at Guantánamo. Often, the detainees complain to the interviewers about mistreatment by military police: roughing up prisoners, insulting detainees, and disrespecting the Koran are all sore points among the detainee population. But the weak have weapons: in one interview, a detainee gives the interviewers advice for how guards should comport themselves in front of the detainees – and in doing so, hints at vibrant hidden transcript, in which the projection of state power, embodied in the masculine form of the military police guard, is undermined by a simple technology:

Detainees see the guards as babies, especially the “big American guards that fill the doorway.” This is because the guards are supposed to be strong, yet they walk around with a “camel” (a backpack water storage device with a drinking tube attached) on their back sucking on a tube of water all of the time. A strong man is able to go without water for long periods of time. (The detainee) suggested that the water be kept out of sight of the prisoners and have the guards walk to where the water is kept. (3913)

Secondly, the records illustrate how detainees under interrogation challenge the official transcript of GWOT internment with complex counter-narratives about such topics as the war in Afghanistan (e.g., 3906), jihad and September 11 (e.g., 3899, 4080, 3845, 3844, 3850), American imperialism and foreign policy (e.g., 3918-21, 3912, 3913, 3916, 3925, 3842, 3861, 4086), and the fact that the detention operation at Guantanamo violates legal rights guaranteed by the US Constitution (3924). Along the way, the detainees also share their views on Christianity (e.g., 3906), Israel and Judaism (e.g., 4026), popular culture and sexuality (e.g., 3921), proper treatment of the Koran (e.g., 4803, 4024) and privacy of the body and shame (e.g., 3836, 3854, 4061). Sadly, there are also numerous descriptions of physical abuse, mostly beatings, particularly when the detainees are initially arrested either by Northern Alliance (e.g., 3903) or US troops (e.g., 3892).

But just as the detainees challenge the official discourse of the GWOT, we can see the FBI interviewers developing their own counter-narratives of Islam for the purpose of convincing the detainees that they should share what they know about Al Qaeda, terrorism, 9/11, and the Taliban. The manipulation is psychological, playing heavily on old-fashioned self-interest, but is arguably cultural, too, insofar as the manipulation draws on a framework of religious beliefs. For example, in one transcription (4033-4034), the interviewing agents show the interviewee a movie and photographs of people dying in New York and Washington on 9/11. As they do so, they invoke a narrative of Islam that questions the theological basis for mass violence, then point out that the detainee had become involved with a group of people who “…(abused and maligned) the religion, and will feel God’s wrath and anger on judgment day. […] appeared visibly shaken by this realization.” The interviewer then offers the detainee a chance for absolution through cooperating with the FBI. He warns the detainee that his fellows are “out to save their own butt,” and tells him the window of opportunity is closing. The technique, it seems, is emotionally powerful, as illustrated in a surprisingly poignant closing paragraph:

At the conclusion of the interview, the interview team wished […] luck and that God may accept his prayers. After exiting the room, the interview team witnessed […] with his head down on his hands on the table in front of him… […] was crying and sobbing with the tears falling down on the table when he lifted his head” (4033-4034).

Whether or not this individual eventually gave the FBI team what it wanted is not clear.

By now it should be apparent that interrogation does not necessarily involve the forcible elicitation of “facts”. In these transcriptions, interrogation is revealed as a complicated communicative exchange in which participants share, gather, construct, and deploy knowledge as they provoke and/or resist an alien Other. As Alfred McCoy points out (2006), FBI interrogation strategies strongly emphasize rapport-building over coercion; and we can see FBI agents putting this ethos into practice in the interrogations they conduct. The resulting knowledge that emerges in these exchanges is often profoundly cultural, but not necessarily anthropological. Moreover, the headers on these transcriptions indicate that they were shared among the agencies involved in Guantanamo (DHS, DoD, and FBI) and as such, are likely source material for interrogators and intelligence analysts constructing their own model of the Arab/Islamic Other.

This raises another question about culture; namely, the problem of institutional culture and interagency power struggles as three major government bureaucracies – the FBI, DHS and the Department of Defense – each implement their own strategies for eliciting information from detainees. In particular, DoD interviewers frequently take a much more forceful approach to interrogation, something that FBI agents – and indeed, many DoD personnel – find troubling. And that’s the teaser for my next post.

21 thoughts on “Cultural Dynamics in Interrogation: The FBI At Guantanamo

  1. I am glad you are doing this. Someone has to help the FBI and CIA improve their interrogation techniques, and you are studying how to do this. We need more information from these prisoners, and we need it quickly, too much time is wasted worrying when we could be extracting information. We can only prevail in GWOT if we anthropologists pull together and use our ethnographic skills to study and improve interrogation means, and HTT can help us get the information we need even quicker. Time is running out.

  2. I think that’s supposed to be sarcastic.

    But just in case you were serious… the article above is not about improving interrogation techniques (where did I say it was?). It discusses how I’ve used primary government documents as ethnographic material to see a) how culture plays out in interrogation settings; b) to see how empire is instantiated in the microdynamics of interrogation interactions, and to point out that c) there is no unitary interrogation strategy, which (and I’ll write about this later) creates confusion on the ground about what’s appropriate and what isn’t. As Phil Zimbardo points out, that’s one of the conditions under which torture emerges.

  3. Some here think that any kind of interrogation is wrong. And some here think that any activity which preferentially benefits the US is also wrong. And some here think that any anthropologist who assists a military (more specifically, the US military) using their skills as an anthropologist acts unethically.

    Some here are unapologetic extremely idealistic pacifists. I’m not sure I understand them. I can appreciate their concerns, but I do not understand what practical alternatives they suggest. I think that we spend an awful lot of time destructively criticizing one another. What we don’t do so often is discuss the merits of the alternatives. We should always consider them: to promote our practical awareness of the consequences of what we advocate, and to help us better formulate alternatives for policy-makers.

  4. McNamara’s restriction of the analysis to the culture ‘of’ interrogation in effect eliminates from consideration the conditions that make possible ‘the culture’ itself. Politics of race seem to have no importance or place in her analysis. (Indeed, if not with respect to torture and interrogation, then where ‘do’ texts like Patai’s find their importance? Provided an area of influence could be found, what, then, would maintain the essential distance – between anthropological texts, on the one hand, and interrogation/torture practices, on the other – that McNamara seems intent on preserving?) Her treatment of Patai’s book is of course symptomatic of this problem. She admits that the text is standard literature for military personnel associated with torture; but ‘reading’, she claims (insofar as the book is not itself a manual for torture), is in itself extraneous to the actual acts of torture and interrogation. That is, since ‘anthropologists’ themselves are not directly involved in torture and interrogation, ‘anthropology’ in general falls outside the question.

    Even so, McNamara lists as one of the three domains of ‘culture’ the “interactions between peacekeepers and local populations”; but isn’t this specifically where Patai’s text finds its greatest application? A glance at the “Working and Training Guidelines” chapter of the “Area Studies: Middle East” (2004) pamphlet produced by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLI FLC) will demonstrate the special relevance of Patai to these questions. (After linking to this manual some time ago, it was promptly removed. An archived version, from 17 June 2004, is however available: One goal of the DLI FLC, which disseminates literature to soldiers and private personnel in various war theaters (including Iraq), is to produce ‘cultural awareness and sensitivity’ in the soldiers. The “Working and Training Guidelines” manual, which specifically cites Patai, is one such effort. “The Arabs’ tendency toward subjectivity complements their preference for idealism over realism, and that pattern is further manifested in the abstraction of words from intent and meaning. As Patai has noted, ‘the verbal utterance, which expresses such mental functions as feelings, aspirations, ideals, wishes, and thoughts, is quite divorced from the level of action.’ Thus, when a plan or proposal is well-stated, it is deemed ‘perfect’ for that reason, regardless of whether it is complete or feasible. Implementation, or action, more directly involves the world of reality, which with all its uncertainty, unpleasantry, and disorder, daunts the Arab mind.” Resistances to subjection are accordingly deemed symptomatic of behavioral and psychological qualities implicit to the Arab Mind (and exclusive to the situation). ‘No’ can only mean ‘yes’. So, with respect to whatever difficulty might be encountered in giving orders and instructions (“Patience is mandatory”), it is quite understandable that “Americans who work as advisors or contractors may react to such impasses by taking matters into their own hands. Linguists cannot normally influence events this way, but they may at least feel impelled to berate the person(s) involved.” Thus, if violence is to be avoided or reduced, manipulation is required, on account of the special nature of the Arab himself. The “important point is to keep up appearances if you are to continue to be effective in the Arab system. […] In the Arab world, naturally, ‘appearances’ have more priority than accuracy, so the answer, should you ask the question, will always be, ‘yes.’” Nine short fictional didactic conversations dispersed throughout the manual succinctly demonstrate these claims.

    Countless other military documents citing Patai drive home the point of Arabs’ special susceptibility to not only stupidity, but humiliation. As the principal features of an archaic, developmentally primitive culture, ‘pride’ and ‘honor’ are routinely isolated as the Arab’s most formative (and vulnerable) qualities. Indeed, it is this kind of ‘cultural education’ – which one can just as well gather from the media, from popular opinion, from blogs – that makes the war, the occupation, and the procedures of interrogation possible in the first place: consistently described as dissimulative but stupid, abstract but illogical, inferior but useful, Arab subjects are perceived from the start as ‘essentially’ and ‘already’ inferior. This general racist program, not the ‘organizational model’ of the ‘culture’, is what governs the interrogation and the greater apparatus of which it is a part.

    But for McNamara the process of interrogation maintains an essentially rational basis; she describes the detainees as if they are legitimately apprehended for the purposes of fighting an essentially legitimate war. Their lack of legal status, or rather their ‘extra-legal’ legal status, is therefore irrelevant to the ‘practical’ situation McNamara is intent on affirming. “At its most basic, interrogation aims to get specific information for specific purpose: for example, to develop a criminal case, obtain a confession, or provide ‘actionable intelligence’ that can be used in tactical decision-making.” One would think from this description that the torture camps are not in fact filled with innocent civilians, journalists, and the anonymous (whose identities will not be released). One would think the whole moral objection to the systematic disappearance and confinement of an unknown number of persons is immaterial and in effect superfluous to the problem of modifying and ‘improving’ the ‘organizational model’ of the interrogation itself. The extensive scholarship on the gulag, the false confession, and the general cultural-psychological role of torture in an essentially fascist apparatus receives no consideration from McNamara. Indeed, a cited interrogation that ends with the detainee “crying and sobbing with the tears falling down on the table when he lifted his head” is interpreted as a potentially ‘successful’ elicitation of information. For McNamara, shockingly, these tears unambiguously signify ‘guilt’.

    The “roughing up” of prisoners, as McNamara puts it, is merely a “sore point” amongst the population. But even so, the interrogations, we learn, actually offer the detainees an opportunity for empowerment. The “records illustrate how detainees under interrogation challenge the official transcript of GWOT internment with complex counter-narratives.” We can thus find comfort in the fact that these interrogations admit of little freedoms for the shackled? Emptied of anything that might resemble a power relationship, the interrogation is described as a “complicated communicative exchange,” a “sharing” of information – in short, a cultural exchange “in which participants share, gather, construct, and deploy knowledge as they provoke and/or resist an alien Other.” Indeed, the ‘symmetrical’ model of the interrogation is McNamara’s most general thesis: “Rather, what’s anthropologically interesting is the way that people within the bureaucracy are actively engaged in making sense of an alien Other, and in doing so, are formulating their own theories and understandings about what makes this Other tick. Moreover, there’s evidence that the Other is engaged in reciprocal effort vis-a-vis guards and interrogators. As such, interrogation itself constitutes a sociocultural encounter of an astoundingly complicated kind.” Interrogation (and the violent features of detention it obscures) comes off as a meet-and-greet, a genuine cultural contact. One would think the detainees are not even detained.

  5. Dr. McNamara, I see no reason to treat me as if I am being “sarcastic,” but now I don’t understand what you are doing if not trying to remove abuses (torture) from interrogation systems as an aid to GWOT, by getting interrogation right (so we have less abuses and gain better intelligence).

    I’m with comet jo, I have no problem with decentralized chemical or radioactivity detection units based on the populace’s pda or cell phones. We’ve got to do what gets the job done and afteral, we are at war.

  6. I’d like to see the “countless military documents” are that cite Patai, if you’re willing to share them. I mean that very genuinely – I’m wondering if you’ve got access to a database that I’ve not seen. As I’ve written before, I’ve been spending most of my time in the ACLU database, and the Minnesota Human Rights library, and the Center for Public Integrity. I do know of several reading lists where Patai’s book is mentioned, but that’s it. By the way, your link doesn’t bring up the handbook – you might check it. I’d like to see it.

    In any case, you write that I seem disinterested in power, but I think you need to refer back to earlier posts where I have said that my overarching interest here is figuring out how we can use government documents as evidence of the way power dynamics play out in interrogation settings, and how power and culture are so tightly intertwined in this environment as to be inseparable. That’s the beginning of the critique I think we need to develop. Hence my point above about the agents of the US state – the FBI interviewers – enacting a dominant narrative about the identity of the US, a narrative that is regularly challenged in the counternarratives of detainees. Interrogation isn’t a tea party; it’s an extension of the battlefield into the walls of a prison, and culture and power intertwine in fascinating and complex ways.

    For example, the prisoners come to the setting with a very different message about the United States as an imperial power, and openly challenge the narrative they’ve been presented.

    “Secondly, the records illustrate how detainees under interrogation challenge the official transcript of GWOT internment with complex counter-narratives about such topics as the war in Afghanistan (e.g., 3906), jihad and September 11 (e.g., 3899, 4080, 3845, 3844, 3850), American imperialism and foreign policy (e.g., 3918-21, 3912, 3913, 3916, 3925, 3842, 3861, 4086), and the fact that the detention operation at Guantanamo violates legal rights guaranteed by the US Constitution (3924).”

    Note particularly the last sentence. You say that I ignore the fact that they exist in extra-legal limbo, but as I noted, above, the detainees themselves point out the irony of their captivity, and ask what, precisely, this says about the United States. In that sense, they’re directly challenging the power being exercised over them, as best as they’re able to. Interrogation is a power struggle (didn’t I write that it was the extension of the battlefield?). The detainees don’t have guns; all they’ve got is themselves and their words, and they’re pushing back against their captors as best as they can. Haven’t you read Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance? Weapons of the Weak? Haven’t you read Foucault, who points out better than anyone that power is manifold, not unidirectional, so we should look for power to be exercised in creative and unexpected ways?

    My point is that interrogation is all about the exercise of power, and that’s why it should be compelling to anthropologists. Interrogation is a site in which we can witness the instantiation of empire in the discursive struggles that occur in the interrogation setting. Those struggles frequently entail exchanges about culture, nationality, state identity, religion, and empire. Maybe you missed my earlier post on this:
    “In this regard, I liked Keith Brown and Catherine Lutz’s recent article on “grunt lit,” in which they describe soldiers as the “participant-observers of empire” (2007). They argue that anthropologists should pay more attention to soldiers’ memoirs as a window into the confusing and contradictory microdynamics of empire. In doing so, we might learn a lot about the instantiation of empire and the shifting identity of the American nation-state in the post-Cold war, post 9-11 era.”

    As for Patai, I see that interrogators (and other military personnel) read Raphael Patai, and – as I’ve written before – Lagouranis writes that Patai’s book seems to have fed into the stereotyping of Arabs. There’s your politics of race, my friend, and stereotyping is a step on the way to creating the institutional conditions in which it’s possible for abuse to occur. And actually, your critique of the DLI handbook is exactly the kind of informed critique that I think anthropologists OUGHT to engage in. You’ve obviously read the handbook, you’ve thought about it, and you’ve critiqued it. That’s exactly what I’d like to see more of.

    However, I do wonder why we think ethnography is so special in this context. What is so remarkable about a 36 year old book, written about a single village that Patai probably spent time in during the 1960s? Society evolves, after all, and there’s no reason to assume that the same structures that Patai writes about are relevant today. Why would we assume that this book is so devastatingly powerful that it can be used to shape human suffering across such a wide range of ethnic and linguistic groups as found in Guantanamo?

    It strikes me that you’re confusing anthropology with culture. The plain truth of the matter is that anthropologists don’t have to be present for people conducting interrogations to develop a very instrumental sense of the Other. Nor do they have to read ethnographies, though they might. What I’ve tried to show is that in the interrogation encounter, and after multiple interactions with detainees, interrogators are perfectly capable of developing their own, very instrumental sense of what makes the Other tick, and deploying it as they exercise power over the Other. As ckelty pointed out in an earlier post, interrogators are doing their own ethnography. That was the point of the vignette about the detainee sobbing – not to demonstrate that the guy was guilty. When did I say he was guilty? As I wrote in the paragraph, I found the entire scene very poignant – it drives home the humanity of this individual, stuck on an island prison with no way out, and very frighteningly manipulated by the FBI. It amazes me that such emotion can come through a government document, and drives the point home that this material is ethnographic material.

    Lastly, and here I’m going to be rather sharp – you’ve undermined your own critique by putting a lot of words in my mouth. When, pray tell, did I speak of unambiguous guilt? Or the success of the interrogation? Or the need to “improve” the interrogation model? Or the legitimateness of any detention, or the legitimateness of the war? Or that detainee complaints are “mere”? Or that we should be comforted by the lack of freedom in interrogation? Where did I say any of those things? Go find the quotes. The fact that you’re reading meanings into my narrative is indicated by the way you put so many words into quotations, words that that I don’t use. It makes it look as though you’re quoting me, and it’s disingenuous and unprofessional.

  7. Down Ranger, I’m sorry. If you’ve seen the previous posts, you might understand why I reacted so sharply. I’m kind of surprised that you’re so enthusiastic about anthropologists being involved in the GWOT. Are you an anthropologist?

  8. Also, Down Ranger, I’m not as interested in improving interrogation per se – for example, vis-a-vis its efficacy, than I am in understanding the conditions that lead to the dehumanization and mistreatment of human beings. I guess that counts as improving interrogation? I’m not sure.

  9. Hi Laura,

    How do you get from “arguably cultural” in paragraph 9 to “profoundly cultural” in paragraph 12? Personally I would say ‘vaguely cultural’ with your descriptions pretty much falling into line with what many of us would expect. Othering, obviously, is begun prior to interrogation, and so I for one would certainly expect to see it performed there. But analytically I am not sure dressing up this stuff in fancy anthro-speak gets us very far.

    Also, how is your second case an example of FBI interrogators “strongly emphasiz[ing] rapport-building over coercion”? It reads almost the exact opposite to me!

  10. ps: my comments are about this post – not your work in general, which I think could produce some very interesting analysis.

    Also, another question! How do you consider the redaction of specific parts of the documentation affects the representativeness of your work?

  11. Hey Tim,

    These are good questions, actually, maybe the best I’ve gotten so far.

    It’s easy to handle the FBI one: rapport building seems to be the FBI’s own construction of its approach to getting information from people, and they seem to contrast this to the blatantly coercive stuff that other agencies do (like hooding people, or locking them in rooms with strobelights and loud music for hours on end, or worse). Believe me, when you read about how the FBI handles interrogation, and compare that to some of the stuff that other agencies have done, it does start to look like “rapport.” But I rush to add that, just because they call it “rapport building,” doesn’t mean that this is some kind of an equal process of relationship building. It’s very manipulative, as I note above. But what would any of us expect? This is the FBI, after all.

    As for the culture part, you’re right – the arguable to profound continuum doesn’t work. Good point. I had to work fast to summarize this.

    I see a couple of interesting things for anthropologists here:

    Firstly, as I pointed out above, there’s no reason to assume that people can’t develop their own “cultural” understandings of the Other, without the involvement of anthropologists or even with ethnography. Actually, you make my point better than I do: interrogation isn’t anthropological, but interrogators do seem to be developing what we might call instrumental “folk theories” about the Other. So despite our worries about anthropologists getting involved in interrogation, our thinking about culture might actually be far too nuanced for application in this kind of setting. And – I’ll make what some are going to say is an extreme statement here – why would anyone need anthropology for torture? Anthropology might be able to understand torture in interesting ways, but torture isn’t exactly applied anthropology.

    Secondly, I’m interested in the way narratives of US empire and the GWOT being enacted in this setting. I couldn’t get into all of this in such a short entry – a blog entry is only 1000 words, and this article I’m working on is upwards of 10000 words now. But if we’re to develop an anthropological approach to empire, and get beyond the small-scale village kind of ethnography of the past (PATAI!), I think we need to figure out ways to connect these really big macro structures and processes – like an ostensibly “Global” war on terrorism – to the microdynamics of individual interactions in settings like interrogation, so that we can better understand how individuals enact and communicate empire, and how this might vary across institutional settings (i.e., FBI vs. DoD).

    As for the redactions, that’s a tricky one. It is possible to get some sense of what might be missing in the narratives. Each redaction gets a code attached to it – you can look at the documents and see these – so it’s possible to guess very generally at what’s being withheld. Identifying information is always removed. You’ve hit on one of the methodological challenges of working with this kind of a collection. If you’re game, you might take a look at some of the documents and see what you think. I’ve provided a link above and would love to know what you see in them. So far, I don’t know of anyone who’s gone through these, so – as I said in my first post – this is somewhat lonely work.

  12. Laura asks rather sharply:
    “When, pray tell, did I speak of…the need to “improve” the interrogation model?”

    Answer: Count down exactly 14 lines from where you ask this were you say, “…I guess that counts as improving interrogation? I’m not sure.”

  13. Oh, good heavens, Angle, I was responding to a comment that icmole made about the content in my article. The post to Down Ranger came well after that. In any case, you can read, apparently, so you’ll see that I was responding to what Down Ranger said. He’s the one who talked about improving interrogation, not me (look at my first response to him), and the point was that if he wants to interpret it that way, well, that’s one interpretation, I guess.

    BTW, I asked you in a previous post if you’d done much research on this topic, and I’m still waiting for an answer. You seem to pose a lot of questions, but answer few.

  14. Tim, one ther thing struck me on the way home: yours are exactly the kind of questions I appreciate, because they help me sharpen my thinking. I’m trying to do something that anthropologists don’t really do – work from redacted government documents, in an area we don’t know much about – interrogation, war, and torture. I’m trying to figure it out, and your questions are great thinking material. Thank you.

    I do feel like I’m somewhat clumsy at this, but if all I do in this blog experience is set off a richer and more vibrant debate about interrogation, torture, and anthropology than, “Patai is being used in torture! Interrogators are reading Patai!” then I’ll be satisfied.

    By the way, I think I’m going to start my own blog on anthropology and torture. This has been quite an experience, and it’s only been a couple of weeks.

  15. do you ever worry about the
    ethics of researching prisoners
    who have been denied their civil
    rights and forced to engage
    in the conversations you study?

  16. I did have a look at the documents. I didn’t twig that the letter/number combinations next to the redactions are codes. Is there are key somewhere? In some ways the redaction is an extreme version of the bias anyone working with archives has to deal with or excavate. One strategy is to make that bias evident as an explicit part of your analysis – foregrounding it as much as trying to overcome it. But in another way the problem here is that several of the documents presumably dealing with “method” are completely redacted. The Behavioral Science Consultation Team memos and the Behavioral Analysis Unit assessments are often completely blank – so it must be very hard to evaluate how much different kinds of knowledge are part of the modus operandi (though of course I have no idea how well you can access this via other sources, having only looking in a cursory way myself).

    Another issue, I imagine, is establishing context for the documents. FBI 1329-1333 for example is pretty interesting, but I would want to know who this was written for, and how far it was disseminated, before I could draw firm conclusions. It is fascinating though that the FBI’s discursive style of interrogation seems to attempt to mirror the imagined native viewpoint in providing rationales for co-operation – appeals to logic through parables and the like.

  17. Thanks! There is a key in the last set of documents – I think the hyperlink is ‘FBI Report.’

    One of the things I was going to talk about in my next post was the fact that the BAU-1 documents detailing FBI tactics are blank. However, there are other places, and other sources, where there’s more information on how the FBI’s behavioral experts work. They seem to be psychologists, primarily. Alfred McCoy’s book, A Question of Torture, does a nice job differentiating between FBI and other agencies’ approaches to interrogation – as he points out on page 207, “While the Army, Navy, and CIA are now mired in painful internal inquiries over torture, the FBI has emerged from four years of the war on terror with no charges of human rights abuse.”

    I’ll get a lot of flack for saying this, but in the spirit of Tom’s comment above – about practical alternatives – if you want to point to the least of evils, FBI’s interrogation style is probably the best alternative. But then again, I think that the Army’s Field Manual 34-52 also emphasized building rapport, and certainly emphasize the importance of not violating the Geneva Conventions. They’ve also rewritten their HUMINT (Human Intelligence) collection procedures as a result of the AG scandal.

    My sense is that all of these agencies – all of which grew up during the Cold war – were caught when 9/11 occurred without a set of interrogation practices that spoke to what they perceived as the particular challenges of this category of Other. This starts to get into the institutional culture question, and how the entire national security community is reorienting itself to deal with what what they perceive as new threats, quite different from the old Soviet enemy they were trained to deal with. As Lagouranis points out in his memoir, his formal training focused on things like getting information about Soviet troop formations and tank numbers. This implies that interrogation techniques, at least a few years ago, underwent a rapid reorientation to post Cold war realities – which could be another reason why there was such a proliferation of “new” techniques, particularly among DoD.

    In establishing the BAU, FBI seems to have been marshaling its existing resources to better address its new Muslim interrogees. In this particular collection, for example, you’ll find a couple of memos (e.f., 2743) detailing BAU-1’s establishment as a part of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, talking a bit about the NCAVC’s history in investigating everything from serial murders to child abductions, and listing its capabilities, and talking about the importance of getting new understandings of what motivates terrorist groups.

    As for context, there’s an entire collection of emails in there that indicates who the FBI is working with at GTMO – namely, DoD and DHS. Emails among FBI personnel, as the FBI was collecting its own agents’ allegations of detainee abuse among DoD and DHS personnel, are striking in the way they illustrate the FBI agents contrasting their agency’s ethos of interrogation to what they’re seeing among DoD and DHS personnel.

    Lastly, the transcripts have headers that indicate they were circulating in the interagency world – which, at a gross level of detail, would mean DoD (and most of the FBI interviews do have a DoD person present) and DHS, and probably CIA, too, and maybe even State. But it’s hard to tell.

    Check out 3912-3914 – the interactions in that interview are particularly interesting.

  18. Hello,
    I am a lurker here. I occasionally visit. Anyway, I just picked this little tidbit from another blog. It is slightly off topic, but I just thought I would find the most recent and closely related topic and post this link, and a teaser quote:
    And I apologize if this is old news to bloggers and commenters to Savage Minds.

    “His chief adviser on counterinsurgency is an Australian Lieutenant Colonel named David Kilcullen who has a PhD in anthropology with Islamic extremism in Indonesia his research topic.”


  19. Hey Sheldon,

    Don’t apologize for sharing information. Kilcullen has been working with David Petraeus for some time, I believe. He’s one of a handful of anthropologists who are publicly working with the “Coalition of the Willing,” or whatever the euphemism is for the multinational force currently occupying Iraq. I think the New Yorker ran a profile on him? I can’t remember exactly when, but I believe it was written by George Packer. You will probably be able to find it on the web. Cheers. Laura

  20. Re: Redactions

    I can see how redactions must make your work difficult, but on one level they might make explicit what goes unnoticed in other ethnographic research. People don’t always give you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in any ethnographic encounter for a variety of reasons – you might be treading on sensitive subjects, or people could edit out information that puts them in an unfavorable light.

    When I’ve given incomplete and inaccurate answers in an interview I’ve tended to try to hide that fact, obviously. You talk around things, leave things out, etc. The whole idea is to not let the questioner know that they are not getting the whole truth.

    So, it might not be that your information is less complete than some ideal of typical research. Rather, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s phrasing – whereas many of us have unknown unknowns in our work (things we don’t know that we don’t know) you’ve got known unknowns (things that you know that you don’t know).

    As far as what to do with it, not a clue.

  21. That’s a great observation about the limitations in any research on human beings, even ethnography. As Tim pointed out, the problem of redactions is the same problem anyone doing archival research faces – documents are always somewhat silent. The other thing that’s nice about the FBI collection is that it comes (as I noted above) with a redaction code – so there’s something of a rosetta stone for figuring out what’s redacted and why.

    As to what to do with it – I think the answer is, foreground it, explain how I’m filling in the gaps, be clear on what’s not there, as best as possible. All any of us can do is muddle along.

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