Tortured data

In an earlier post I wrote about the recent settlement of the Salim v Mitchell lawsuit. It was brought by the ACLU against the architects of the CIA’s torture program under the Bush administration and is the first lawsuit of its kind to make it to discovery. This is highly significant because, in addition to the deposition videos attained by the New York Times, the CIA, other government agencies, and the two key psychologists who supported the torture program turned over a litany of documentary evidence. While the details of their out of court settlement with the survivors of the program of abuse – and the family of a dead victim – might remain confidential, a substantial archive of evidence is now out in the open.

The ACLU has made their ‘Torture Database’ available to the public. It’s not for the fainthearted, around 5000 documents stretching back to the very beginnings of the War on Terror. Even in a copiously redacted state, they shine a light on a network of extralegal ‘black’ torture sites and secret prisons that would eventually span the globe. These records are some of the first illustrations of what went on inside some the torture rooms. They also sketch out new features of the bureaucratic networks that administered them.

The Guardian has recently put together a brutally clear interpretation of some of the key documents.

‘Inside the CIA’s black site torture room’ at The Guardia

Particularly important are several internal CIA reports following the death of Gul Rahman in 2002 in the nightmarishly jerry-rigged prison code-named ‘Cobalt’ outside of Kabul. Rahman died on the concrete floor of an uninsulated cell after being kept almost completely naked and shackled for at least two weeks. One of the target’s of the ACLU’s lawsuit, the psychologist Bruce Jessen, told a CIA investigator that in Cobalt, “the atmosphere was very good…Nasty, but safe”. But two months earlier, Jessen had submitted Rahman six times in a two week period to ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’. These including cold showers as as deprivation technique and Jessen later told an investigator that he had seen Rahman ‘shaking [and] showing the early signs of hypothermia’. At the same time, in his own words, Jessen continued to believe that:

[Rahman] is physically strong, hitting him isn’t going to do any good. You have to wear him down physically and psychologically … It would take one to several months to get him to a level of cooperation.

The reference to ‘wearing down’ is vital here. Jessen and his business partner, James Mitchell, accrued significant authority in the early months of the War on Terror by confidently collapsing together a long list of characteristics and actions – bodily, interpersonal, cultural, and psychological – displayed by those interrogated into the the catchall of ‘resistance behavior’. In my research I am trying to understand how both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ interrogation programs, their practices, expert knowledges, and physical encounters have been continuously mediated by the idea that interrogatees hold some fundamental truth inside their bodies that can be – eventually and scientifically – ‘extracted’.

Rebecca Lemov has delicately shown how the subject of structured interrogation changed through the Cold War and into the War on Terror. Her account is part of Modes of Uncertainty, an important 2015 collection edited by Limor Samimian-Darash and Paul Rabinow. In it she traces the uneven but discernible transformation over several decades of military interrogators’ underlying ‘search’ – from the ‘search for ideological control’ to the ‘search for data’. Through this transformation the subject of interrogations seems to undergo a transformation from a site and source of ideological struggle to a ‘storehouse’ of information. The aims of interrogation have transformed in a corresponding fashion and an emphasis on data management is now a salient feature of wearing down as an expert process:

…the goal has been different in important ways. The aim is no longer to rewrite the self and to work with subjectivity as if it were a material substrate, but to sidestep subjectivity and get access to information stores. Nor is honor, whether of one’s own side or the other side, seemingly at the imaginative core of programs in rendering, rendition, and questioning. Instead, what was the end is now the means … An unlawful combatant, moving through the current series of six Guantánamo camps, each corresponding to a different degree of docility, is effectively engineered to emerge as a cooperative and useful subject for the purposes of gathering intelligence … To extract “actionable intelligence” has been the goal since 2001. The prisoner-detainee becomes a data mine.

Rebecca’s words eerily reflect those of ‘Chris Mackey‘, the pseudonymous Army interrogator whose 2004 co-written memoir, The Interrogator’s War, I have been reading recently. Here’s how he describes the role of his unit:

The early story of the war in Afghanistan was one of frustration and failure for us. Many Al Qaeda prisoners had been trained to resist, and our schoolhouse methods were woefully out-of-date. But by the end … our small group of “soldier spies” had engineered a break-though in interrogation strategy, rewriting techniques and tactics grounded in the Cold War. By the time of our departure from the baking, arid plains of Bagram, we could boast that virtually no prisoner went broken … Broken does not mean that we uncovered all that there was to know. In the movies, one key evil genius knows all and conveniently spills the pertinent information in a quick two-minute stretch. Real espionage doesn’t work that way. Interrogators find tiny bits of the truth, fragments of information, slivers of data. We enter a vast desert, hundreds of miles across, in which a few thousand puzzle pieces have been scattered. We spend weeks on a single prisoner, to extract only a single piece – if that. We collect, and then we pass the pieces on, hoping that someone can assemble them.  

Details of interrogations of Abu Zubaydah. Available at the ACLU’s Torture Database

For Lemov, the notion that interrogatees must be gradually attrited in order that psychological barriers to information can be broken down has seen prisoners in the CIA’s network become ‘long-term experimental subjects’. Indeed The Guardian’s Larry Siems, describes how many of Mitchell’s teams’ communications with CIA headquarters ‘have a test lab feeling’. And it’s the metaphor of psycho-mechanical extraction that seems to have been so powerfully deployed by Jessen and Mitchell as they drew up the list of CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and became surely the most financially successful interrogators of all time. Possibly most shocking – if it’s still possible to be shocked by these accounts – is their unwavering faith that a combination of medical supervision, psychological assessment and techniques like waterboarding could deliver to agencies a subject in a ‘compliant state’ as they also recorded their descent into permanently damaged states. Mitchell, for example, participated in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah at a black site in Thailand in 2002 where he was waterboarded 83 times.

And yet I can’t help thinking that the forceful metaphor of data extraction has a longer genealogy than a simple Cold War-War on Terror arc might suggest (and to be sure Rebecca makes this very clear in her piece). Chris Mackey describes how his army training in the 1980s and 1990s was very much focused on extracting ‘bits of truth’. And through my research on US Air Force mass interrogation in post-war Europe (more on this in future posts), was founded upon both technoscientific disciplines of data management and behavioural science in the quest to reconstruct an industrial-economic geography of strategic targets in a closed-off USSR. In Vietnam, through a number of large interrogation programs, many involving depressingly familiar torture techniques, sheer information was most certainly preferred over ideological reform in Provincial Interrogation Centers and the National Interrogation Center in Saigon, often to identify specific human targets. The role of data in the constitution of interrogatees as experimental subjects is obviously a complex one. At least for now we have access to a new tranche of crucial ‘bits of truth’ in a kind of dark desert of redactions and continued evasion by those responsible. More to be found out surely in James Mitchell’s evidently unrepentant new book on his techniques.



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