All posts by Laura

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Well, thanks to Savage Minds for hosting my one month of posting, and for putting up with a lot of controversy and – er, heated discussion. I had a great time.

If I’ve ruffled some feathers, well – I’m sorry. Oh, not really. Maybe I’ve drawn some attention to the intensely complicated problem that interrogation and torture represent, and pushed people to think beyond Patai, Hersh and Lagouranis. There are so many dimensions to this problem, and even though I’ve only been digging into this for a few months now, I’ve come to believe that anthropology can have something unique and compelling to say about cultures-of-torture/culture-in-torture. Our perspectives can (and should) add nuance to the rapidly expanding body of rock-solid critique being done by psychologists, journalists, lawyers, and human rights activists. The starting material for developing that critique is just a mouse-click away (or several thousand, depending on how much time you want to spend on this). I expect there are SM readers who would be far better at doing this work than I am, and who could generate some stunning research.

Because I am not over my obsession with torture and interrogation, I was inspired to start my own blog to help me sort through my thoughts and, hopefully, to get feedback. I’m posting a couple of times a week – so far, it’s mostly overview and general thoughts about working with the torture documents – but I’ll start digging into specific topics in the coming weeks, and posting short essays about what I’ve learned about detention, torture, interrogation, prisoner abuse, and other such issues.

So long, and thanks for the soapbox. It’s been real.

Fear and Othering in Iraq: The Lagouranis Account

I was planning to use the same collection I’d used for last week’s post and blog about differences in the DoD and FBI approaches to interrogation at GTMO. However, at the risk of setting off another firestorm of criticism (or maybe I’m a masochist), I’m going to use this post to present my reading of Tony Lagouranis’ Fear Up Harsh, his first person account of his experience as an Army interrogator in Iraq. This seemed to be something that posters a couple of weeks ago were interested in, so I’ll share some excerpts from a review article that I’m polishing, in which I read Lagouranis against some of the official DoD investigation documents, such as the <a href=”””>Fay-Jones Report. I’ve amended the language to sound more casual, I’ve kept the anthrospeak to a minimum – and please note that while this is way too long, it’s also drastically shortened, and is still choppy. Sorry.

Keith Brown and Catherine Lutz’s review essay “Grunt Lit” urges anthropologists to pay attention to the voices of the subaltern, represented in the firsthand accounts of soldiers back from the battlefield. In Tony Lagouranis’ remarkable Fear Up Harsh, the obliquely bureaucratic prose of the thirteen investigations DoD has completed begins to make more sense, while the DoD findings help illuminate the institutional dynamics that shaped Lagouranis’ experience.

Lagouranis describes himself as a drifter with a passion for ancient languages. He signs up for service in Army intelligence in the summer 2001 with no expectation of going to war, yet “…I recognized that war was something I longed to see. If I wanted to be in places where I was not in control, what more could I ask for? The swirling chaos of a combat zone was a place stripped of all rationality” (12). This is prescient. Chaos emerges as a repeated theme in Lagouranis’ account, and as such it illustrates one of the key findings of several of the DoD investigations: a near total absence of coherent planning and preparation for interrogation operations in Iraq, setting the conditions for torture to emerge.

Lagouranis describes receiving anachronistic training, “designed for war with the Soviet Union, all based on the idea that we would be questioning uniformed POWs, maybe Russians or East Germans… Our courses in interrogation were based on doctrine established in the late 1940s” (35, 37). As Lagouranis was learning about interrogating East German POWs, DoD personnel were developing their own approaches to interrogation in the midst of confusing and contradictory policy directives. As the DoD’s Fay-Jones report pointed out, “By mid-October [2003], interrogation policy in Iraq had changed three times in less than thirty days” (42). In this atmosphere, it is perhaps not surprising that coercive approaches approved by the Secretary of Defense for use with “enemy combatants” at GTMO migrated to Iraq. As the Fay-Jones report notes, “these practices were accepted as [standard operating procedure] by newly arrived interrogators” (63).

Here again, Lagouranis’ account vividly illustrates what Fay-Jones hints at: a marketplace of techniques, in which experienced interrogators exchange ideas about how to “break” detainees as novices listen and learn. Faced with demands to get information about IEDs, from Arabic-speaking insurgents, Lagouranis learns that interrogators in Afghanistan “tried anything that had a chance of working – stress positions, dogs, sexual humiliation, and worse” (35). This hints at how knowledge flows laterally through the Army, across theaters and contexts, to be appropriated and put into practice. Interestingly, the military’s lack of preparedness for interrogation operations in the Middle East is mirrored in Lagouranis’ own inexperience. He describes one of his early interrogation performances: “Lots of yelling, lots of intimidation… My team was impressed and full of praise. All my novice skullduggery and liberal use of Fear Up Harsh had looked to them like magic. They were as green as I was and we didn’t see that I had performed a bad interrogation” (55).

Lagouranis’ story also foregrounds issues that are largely absent from DoD accounts: for example, the existence and perptuation of racially charged constructions of an Arab Other, and the way that torture dehumanizes both prisoner and interrogator. It’s in his discussion of Othering that Lagouranis introduces us to Raphael Patai. He arrives at Abu Ghraib in early 2004, just as the Army is realizing something is terribly wrong. “Something very bad happened here,” a colonel tells a group of interrogators assembled for their introductory briefing, adding defensively, “We’re not doing anything wrong” (16). This is the rather unnerving introduction to what’s supposed to be an introductory briefing by an Army psychologist on Arab culture and psychology, largely informed by – you guessed it – The Arab Mind. As the psychologist presents bits and pieces of Patai’s ideas to his audience, Lagouranis learns that,

“Arabs, apparently, can’t create a timeline. The don’t think linearly or rationally. They have a different relationship with truth than we do… they think through association, not logic or reason…. Lying is not taboo or dishonorable to Arabs… so you can’t trap them in a contradiction or force them to admit they’re lying. They’ll consider you impolite and uncultured.”

The audience seems ready to accept simplistic stereotypes the trainer is feeding them. To Lagouranis’ dismay, his fellow novice interrogators were “nodding in understanding and agreement.” Later, he sees them referring to Patai “as a definitive guide, and interpreting its sweeping statements as practical advice,” though he does not elaborate as to what that means. (17-18). Interestingly, Lagouranis denies ever seeing sexual humiliation occurring, though he confesses that he probably would have joined in if he had.

There’s some irony in Lagouranis’ desire to be put in a situation over which he has no control, and the fact that he winds up doing interrogation in a war zone, where he is expected to take control of other human beings and extract information from them. Walking through Abu Ghraib, he realizes that he has never interacted “with anyone on such unequal footing, and here I held pretty much sovereign power over them.” At the same time, the setting exerts a tremendous power over Lagouranis: “Prison has, like the army, its own culture, structure, and mores… I watched other guards and interrogators, followed their cues, and retained a little envy over how easily they seemed to accept that some men are free while others are in cages” (30). He quickly learns the importance of burying empathy under a veneer of toughness. When he mentions that he sometimes feels sorry for the prisoners, two of his fellow interrogators round on him. “‘You have no business feeling that way’, Eliza told me. ‘You’re not their psychiatrist. You’re not their friend’” (42).

It isn’t long before Lagouranis begins to enjoy the power. Realizing that “torture victims… break on the fear of more and worse pain to come,” Lagouranis wants to “go further.” He shackles detainees and forces them to spend the night outside, kneeling, in the cold. He uses dogs to threaten and frighten detainees – playing on what his superiors tell him is a cultural “Arab fear of dogs” (108). In a shipping container outfitted with a strobe light and a boom box, he interrogates hooded detainees by screaming questions over the music. At one point, Lagouranis is so caught up in the interrogation that he imagines cutting off a detainee’s fingers (127).

It is about this time that the Senate hearings into Abu Ghraib begin, inspiring a crisis of conscience for Lagouranis, who realizes,“The mission was a failure. We were ruining the lives of thousands by the day. The institution was rife with incompetence, from top to bottom, and I couldn’t escape the fact that the incompetence I hated was my own as well” (149). Lagouranis develops a brief friendship with a prisoner, Hakeem, who shows him the “huge cultural chasm between Americans and Iraqis” (177). Reading Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Lagouranis realizes how well the story sums up the American experience in Iraq: “It seemed to me like everything we were doing here went back to that perception of the “Arab mind,” and the notion that all they understand is force. Here, our display of force made us look weak” (178).

Not surprisingly, Lagouranis has been torn apart by military personnel for his abuse allegations, particularly those involving Navy SEALS. However, after reading so many of the sworn statements of DoD personnel who’ve testified for the various investigations that DoD has conducted, I doubt that Lagouranis’ account is unique.

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.

Some general thoughts about anthropology, interrogation, and torture

A few months ago, in a November 2006 post reflecting on the twin Gonzalez-Lin resolutions against the war in Iraq and the use of anthropological knowledge in torture, Rex asked whether anthropologists might be in danger of generating more heat than light. I’ve asked myself the same question. Ever since Sy Hersh published his three-part series on Abu Ghraib in 2004, anthropologists have been worried about the involvement of their counterparts in torture, or the use of ethnographic information in torture. But aside from a lot of people quoting Sy Hersh, over and over and over again, I’ve come across no corroborating evidence of a link between anthropology and Abu Ghraib – or even in plain old GWOT interrogation, for that matter.

As I discuss in an upcoming short piece in Anthropology News (likely to be published in October), I wrote Hersh a letter and asked him to comment on the link between Patai and torture. He actually called me back in July to tell me that he doesn’t think that Patai’s book played a role in Abu Ghraib (yes, you read that right). When I told him that anthropologists took his claims in “The Gray Zone” very much to heart, and that we’d even put forth resolution against the use of anthropological knowledge in torture, Hersh seemed genuinely surprised, and pointed out that he’d never actually written any such thing. Which, strictly speaking, is true. Read the piece here.

So here’s my plea: don’t point to Hersh as evidence of ethnographically informed torture, and when people do point to Hersh’s article as evidence of such, question whether or not there’s anything to corroborate the claim. If you want to go the extra mile, then dig into the documents yourself. There’s plenty of documentation out there that supports research into the problem of ethnographically informed torture. Several organizations, including the Center for Public Integrity, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, and the ACLU all maintain extensive electronic archives of FOIA’d documents around interrogation and detention operations involving the DoD, the intelligence community, and the FBI. In 4000-plus pages of reading, I’ve seen no evidence of anthropologists being involved in torture or interrogation. In fact, I’d have to characterize anthropology as conspicuously absent from detention and interrogation operations.

But that doesn’t mean culture isn’t important. Indeed, the Global War on Terrorism constitutes a cultural encounter of some kind – we just haven’t figured out what, precisely, that means. There’s an opportunity for excellent critique, but making our critique relevant requires some new thinking about our own “sources and methods,” to borrow a term from the intelligence community.

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.

I’ve come to think of the thousands of pages of memos, emails, depositions, forms, reports in the FOIA collections as the electronic precipitates of the Global War on Terrorism. As such, they offer a glimpse into the nature of American empire – which is, among other things, a bewildering conundrum of personnel, agencies, policies, procedures, acronyms, directives, rosters, and the like. In detention and interrogation operations, this Gordian knot of bureaucracy is unleashed on enemy combatants and prisoners of war, most of whom seem to hail from Arabic-speaking regions of Central Asia and the Middle East.

This is where anthropology comes in, but not as instrumentally or formally as many anthropologists seem to have assumed. It’s not that the military-intelligence-security apparatchik systematically sought anthropologists (or even ethnography) to play the role of cultural seer in interrogation. 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. I’ll be writing more about this topic for my next post, using a couple of examples from a collection of FBI observations about detainee treatment at Guantanamo, and talking a bit about Robert Rubinstein’s ideas about culture in peacekeeping operations in a forthcoming book of his.

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.