Deleting torture with a pen

Solid blocks of black obscure official reports

Imagine my disappointment. Two long-awaited Pentagon reports on detainee policy had finally reached public view: the Jacoby report on Afghanistan and the Formica report on Iraq, available as a result of Freedom of Information Act suits, like thousands of other pages of government reports on the war on terror. As co-editor of “The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib,” a collection of the memos, reports and interview logs related to Bush administration detainee policy, I was naturally eager to see those parts of the story that were unfortunately still classified at the time of the book’s publication in December 2004.

Both reports promised to contain new information about detainee policy. In June 2004, Brigadier General Charles H. Jacoby Jr. had submitted the results of his investigation into detainee operations and standards of detainee treatment in Afghanistan. In November of that year, Brig. Gen. Richard P. Formica had delivered his findings on questions of command and control and allegations of detainee abuse in Iraq. Lt. Gen. Richard Sanchez, commander of the Multinational Force in Iraq and the military officer connected to the interrogation unit at Abu Ghraib, had commissioned Formica to determine whether U.S. forces in Iraq were in compliance with Department of Defense guidelines on detainee treatment.

The USA and Torture

The record shows that America has both promoted and used torture, that the US government has fought against international anti-torture conventions, and that the USA in fact consistently violates international rules and conventions on a whole range of human rights issues.

Now, a mere two years or so later, I began skimming through the introductory matter and the boldface headings of the Jacoby report. I stopped first at “Detainee Operations Standard Operating Procedures.” Here it was in black and white, or so I thought. But, as it happened, I was only half right. Startling amounts of the report were blacked out. Where there should have been text against white space, there was section after section filled with nothing but solid, black blocks. Even some subsection titles were missing. Pure ink. Meant not to be read.

For example, when, in my haste, I reached the subsection titled “Interrogation Techniques,” there was a black blot of ink two pages long. I couldn’t help myself: I almost automatically lifted the paper to see beneath the overlay of ink. But, of course, that was a hopeless thought. Whatever information had been there was gone, eradicated, tossed down the public memory hole that has eaten so much of the detail that I, along with many others, have been trying to find for two years now.

Still, I plowed doggedly on, ever deeper into both of the reports, as the redacted sections only increased, leaving me with two “reports” that lacked, by my rough estimate, at least 50 percent of their contents.

Blackened page followed blackened page, introductory sentences led nowhere, subsection titles introduced nothing, and elaborating details were rendered invisible along with most of each report’s conclusions. If one were to treat these pages like a flip book, visually the story line would be a solid mass of black.

When it came to informational value, the offerings were slim indeed. And yet, the Pentagon has touted these very documents as yet another sign “that the department is committed to transparency,” echoing President Bush’s recent remarks, delivered in Europe, that “we’re a transparent democracy. People know exactly what’s on our mind. We debate things in the open. We’ve got a legislative process that’s active.”

But there is nothing transparent about these reports. They are, quite literally, opaque documents, and in this respect they differ from earlier releases such as the Taguba report, the Schlesinger report, the Fay-Jones report and the Mikolashek report, all dealing with detention policy and all made public in 2004.

The 11th and 12th Bush administration reports on detainee policy, the Jacoby and Formica reports, held until now, are in a league with other recent administration releases notable for the information they hide rather than reveal. Witness, for example, the Schmidt report, the Inspector General’s report on Guantanamo released in April of this year. More than 50 percent of it, too, is redacted.

And only days ago, the long-awaited Church report appeared. Like Jacoby and Formica, Naval Inspector General Vice Adm. Albert Tom Church III had completed his report on Defense Department interrogation policies in Afghanistan, Gitmo and Iraq back in 2004. Though a brief summary was released, the report itself was held for two years and, like its most recent predecessors, its tale, though tantalizing, had been largely reduced to blackened page after blackened page.

The Pentagon claims that these widespread redactions occur for technical and legal reasons, as cited in code numbers placed in the margins where text is missing, each representing a category of explanation for a deletion. Facts need to be deleted, for example, if they reveal installation locations or intelligence gathering unit names, or if they come from parts of interagency or intra-agency memos. Apparently justified by these code numbers, here is some of what you can’t learn from the Jacoby and Formica reports.

On the Jacoby investigation into detention in Afghanistan, the birthplace of the war on terror’s interrogation policies, you cannot learn the full definition of the category “detainees,” detention criteria, interrogation techniques used, approved interrogation strategies, guidelines on the protection of detainees from harm by a third party, full guidelines for the use of force and much more.

What you cannot learn from the Formica report investigating prisoner treatment in Iraq: its assessments of policies regarding “command and control,” what processing guidelines for detainees are or what their average length of detention is. Also hidden from sight are the discussion sections on the “adequacy of facilities and treatment of security detainees” and “interrogation methods and procedures,” among many other matters.

Withdrawal of information has been a deeply rooted tactic of the Bush administration. The urge not to tell, never to reveal, has been at the heart of its approach to government, whether what’s at stake is court records, statistics on Iraq or information about detainees. Until 2001, about 8 million government documents were classified per year. That number has now expanded to 16 million. Moreover, the rate of declassification has decreased significantly. On average, only one-sixth as many documents are declassified each year as during the Clinton administration.

As the current administration endlessly reminds us, we are in a time of war, and information that could actually harm national security does need to be classified. But the nature of what appears in the Formica report, for example, might make us wonder about what it is, exactly, that the Pentagon is hiding in the blacked-out half of the document. For instance, you can still read — between the nonlines, as it were — about allegations of abuse and torture that proved (according to the report) unfounded in American facilities in Iraq. These include sodomy, electric shock, dog bites and more. If what we can read are the “unfounded” charges, we can only wonder whether those solid black areas of the report contain allegations of abuse and torture that simply turned out to be accurate.

Given a blank space, the mind has a tendency to fill it in — and these latest reports in their blankness are nothing but invitations to invent details based on what is already known. There is little question that censorship produces rumors, while secrecy keeps the swirl of rumor alive and unchecked.

…withdrawal of information has been a deeply rooted tactic of the Bush administration…

Although the Formica report insists repeatedly that “detainees generally make false statements,” the Jacoby report points out, in a readable passage, that “training in detainee operations as opposed to EPW (enemy prisoners of war) is a relatively new concept for the Army” and that military personnel have apparently been regularly placed in circumstances that lead to abusive behavior. “If a TIC (troops in contact) results in detention, an opportunity for abuse arises as a result of the stress and emotion.” It looks like training and expectations for the holding of detainees didn’t match the grim reality in the field.

The odd thing about the increasing rate of deletions is that they come at a time when there have been signs from elsewhere in the administration that a change of policy is needed and, at least when it comes to Guantanamo, might be limping its way toward us. President Bush has finally said that he’d like to find a way to close Guantanamo. The Supreme Court has called the classification of its detainees into question by stating that the Geneva Conventions apply even to al Qaeda. Only days ago, the Department of Defense revised its Guantanamo detainee policy to adhere to the Geneva Conventions.

Meanwhile, the detainees are being cleared of accusations and released at a more rapid rate than previously. Two weeks ago, for instance, 14 Saudis were released from Guantanamo and sent back to Saudi Arabia, bringing the number of prisoners cleared and released from Guantanamo to nearly 300. Internal military concerns for making Gitmo a humane and legal prison have grown. In the past several months, the military has instituted a ban on the use of dogs and a new policy of religious sensitivity with regard to the detainees.

And yet, as in so much else with the Bush administration, if it weren’t for angry, frustrated or horrified leakers from within the military, the intelligence community and the federal bureaucracy generally, we might truly be plunged into informational darkness. Part of the aura of secrecy the Bush administration has created around its own behavior involves the insistence that only agreed-upon administration officials can tell their story and only in the administration’s way — and often only as a last resort.

It’s not surprising that the more reports on treatment (or mistreatment) of detainees around the world appear, the less they bother to offer us the light of day; the more all-black pages that enter the world, the less the public knows — except perhaps about the nature of the Bush administration itself. Shrouded in secrecy, adamant about its right to not reveal, the administration stands defiantly behind its darkened pages. And so here we stand, too, the text of our world increasingly unreadable as words turn into massive inkblots and as the black spaces overcome the white ones. The dark, it seems, continues to swallow the light.

Karen J. Greenberg is executive director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security, co-editor of “The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib” and editor of “The Torture Debate in America.” A version of this piece also appears on

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
July 23, 2006 Opinion
Karen J. Greenberg

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 24, 2006.
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