This Week in WikiLeaks Podcast—The US Government Blockade on Information on Investigations into Torture
For the past months, I have hosted a show called “This Week in WikiLeaks,” where I bring a guest on to talk about a WikiLeaks-related story or to talk about the latest news and updates on WikiLeaks, an organization that provides a lens for understanding so much about how the press, policy and politics, the national security state, etc. Sometimes, I don’t have guests on that are part of the WikiLeaks story. Sometimes they simply provide greater context for understanding the US government reaction and the players, who are a part of this story.
This week the podcast continues a conversation with Joshua E.S. Phillips, a writer, journalist and author of None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture. The conversation was recorded after Phillips’ story in The Nation, “Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force,” was published. We discuss the task force that was created after the Abu Ghraib scandal to, as he writes, investigate “abuse cases that occurred in and around Victory Base Complex—a huge area of responsibility that included the heaviest concentration of detainees.” In his story, he highlights a retired officer, who claims it was a “whitewash.”
In Part 2, Phillips and I get into discussion about what it was like to go through the Freedom of Information Act process to try and get details on the military’s efforts to investigate torture. Phillips describes how the media has shaped the debate on torture and even let the tired debate on whether torture works or not continue. And, Phillips outlines what he fears could happen as a result of society not properly confronting the torture policies of the past ten years.
Listen to Part 2 by clicking on the widget below. Or, click on this link and select this week’s podcast “Josh E.S. Phillips (Pt. 2).”
KEVIN GOSZTOLA, host: I’m curious what it was like for you to go through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act process. For someone who doesn’t really understand how that works for a journalist these days, how do you go about trying to find out the information you were trying to find out?
JOSHUA E.S. PHILLIPS, author/journalist: You go through it from a few different angles. I spent a lot of time working on this article and investigating from the perspective of the agents themselves, and it was hard to track down, locate the agents and have them agree to speak on the record about their experiences. I spoke with this lawyer, who is representing the detainees, as well as the detainees themselves, which I did with and without her consent, with other detainees who weren’t represented by her, as well as with the troops themselves. I spoke with military interrogators who were using so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, which they said were not reported because they believed that what they were doing was permissible, as well as grunts—troops that were involved in raids and sweeps and doing kind of ad-hoc detention operations and sometimes even supporting interrogation operations. And doing that I did try to go through the normal FOI protocol, which meant putting together a FOI request and unfortunately it’s become increasingly difficult to gain information through FOI requests.
I think, based on the conversations I’ve had with attorneys that do work specifically on FOI requests, it’s become much more difficult, much more adversarial to engage the government in a FOI request. And, I think obviously part of that changed after September 11th. From what I understand from speaking with attorneys, some of whom are representing me, asking even for the most seemingly innocuous kinds of information proved to be a really serious battle. In short, I drafted FOI requests that were fairly broad in scope and I kept getting denied for various reasons. I narrowed the scope. I reconfigured the requests. And, I even recruited the assistance of lawyers who helped me better frame my requests, who helped instruct me to bring up various legal citations or appellate information that they thought would better frame my renewed requests. I worked with the Nation Institute in particular. They basically underwrote the reporting for this piece, and I believe their attorneys helped advise us on some of this as well. Ultimately, the answer we got back from the military after asking some of them repeatedly for any information about the inception, the operations and the closure of the Detainee Abuse Task Force, just asking for that information through direct questions, very specific information—The answer was there is no Detainee Abuse Task Force. We have no records of such a task force. That’s ultimately what transpired after going through the proper military channels for what should be publicly available information.
GOSZTOLA: And, of course now, I just have to say this because I am recording this show for an audience that is very familiar with WikiLeaks, I just have to say that this is the sort of pressures that lead someone to leak to an independent organization, even if it would be an organization that’s similar, who would just go ahead and publish and break through the bureaucracy. But, it’s not even accurate to call it a bureaucracy because it’s not that it’s not working. It’s that it is intentionally trying to not work. So, what you present shows the dynamic of people just deciding that they are going to go rogue, which presents its own set of problems especially for people who are trying to do legitimate journalistic work.
PHILLIPS: I remember I was working on another story for the Washington Post magazine awhile ago and the attorney that was helping me with FOI requests for that was telling me that he was working on getting what should have been publicly accessible information for the Department of Agriculture on people being present in meetings. That information was summarily turned down, and they had to constantly appeal to get that kind of information. It was maddening.
GOSZTOLA: Now, I guess the other thing that you could try to benefit from is you could try to get somebody in the administration to selectively leak the information to you. I just know in covering the WikiLeaks story we’ve developed a name for it. I think it is actually Marcy Wheeler (Emptywheel) who [possibly] came up with this. She said that there’s this Bob Woodward rule, which is there are officials that give you information but there’s only certain stories that the government officials are going to help you to tell. Though with this story, there’s no incentive for the government to help you tell it.
PHILLIPS: That’s right.
GOSZTOLA: Now let me ask you how you feel about what happened with people coming after Scott Horton for his story on Guantanamo suicides. It’s really disturbing for people who are journalism because of the kind of discrediting attempted here, and I don’t know if it legitimately worked. I don’t know if people now doubt that he deserved the awards he was given, but how do you confront this reality as a journalist that the work you do could be targeted in this way?
PHILLIPS: I actually don’t mind it to be perfectly candid. I think it’s important in a way because there are journalists who play fast and loose. I am not suggesting that Scott Horton has. I am aware of the story and I am aware of the charges that have followed. And, I don’t have enough familiarity with the charges and the counter-charges to give you an informed answer on that particular issue. But, I think, for example, Janet Cooke was a journalist for the Washington Post who wrote a story on children that were involved in heroin use. And, the story was titled, “Jimmy’s World.” And the story won a Pulitzer Prize. Some of her colleagues looked into that story and they found that it was a completely fabricated piece. So, you know there are the Janet Cooke’s and the Stephen Glass.’ I’m in no way impugning Scott Horton nor am I suggesting that he is in any way at all connected to that. But, I do not mind people scrutinizing other people’s stories provided that there is a legitimate cause and the scrutiny they are employing is fair and is not just a hatchet job to discredit another journalist or to tear a piece down because they are ideologically opposed to it. And obviously I think that unfortunately that is certainly the product of the kind of cynical media culture that we occupy these days.
I don’t mind that people are applying the scrutiny, but I do mind the impulses behind them. For example, I don’t mind the people who are involved in applying due diligence to a Janet Cooke manufactured story or a Stephen Glass manufactured story but I do mind a swiftboating of a story, where people are just impugning or slinging mud or casting doubt on a story simply because they have an ideological disagreement and none of the facts they are throwing are even accurate or worth even considering. It’s a tricky—There’s a tension there and there should be a tension there. We should accept there are legitimate questions being raised in certain instances and then there are hatchet jobs in others.
GOSZTOLA: I would like to ask you what you think people should understand and take away from this story. I’m particularly interested in the fact that nowadays the people that I see writing about these stories typically don’t get to be featured in the news programs that are primetime news programs. The good work I see going on is going to be in a niche magazine that goes out to an audience, like The Nation magazine. It’s a very good audience. I am not denigrating it, but it’s going to be for a focused audience rather than a widespread audience. It might even be independently done, such as with Jason Leopold for Truthout. That’s going to live in an independent media sphere that a lot of Americans aren’t going to ever come in contact with. How do you react to where the stories you’ve been reporting on in the military go when they’re picked up and then they reverberate in the media?
PHILLIPS: I wish they would garner a lot more attention. I understand that in a certain sense there are select niches in which people will be more focused or pay more attention. We actually expected that “Inside the Detainee Abuse Task Force” would garner a lot more attention because it is a fairly explosive story. We expose the gravity of many cases that haven’t been reported on before. I mean, case of rape, sodomy, electrocution, all kinds of sexual debasement, electrocution, etc, and none of those cases have been investigated. To me, that is truly shocking. I do wonder why it is that hasn’t captured the imagination of the public more, and that may be in part a product of what you were mentioning before—the sense that the mainstream media narrative has typically framed torture as a select or small group individuals, so-called few bad apples, and that were kind of relegated to those people.
I also think that perhaps—and I was actually just speaking to Jason Leopold about this the other day—That it seems unfortunately that stories that seem to garner the greatest attention in this regard, that is detainee abuse stories or military atrocities, often have a photographic effect that seems to sadly capture the imagination of the public. And, it kind of galvanizes a story in a way that a regular print story or a regular radio story doesn’t do. Having said that, one of the things I’ve noticed with some of the stuff that I’ve reported on with my book is that even though there aren’t photographic effects with the things that I’ve written about elsewhere there has been a slow burn of attention. There is kind of a hunger to know what happened and I think that we are perhaps entering a phase where there is in fact a reckoning, a look back. And I am hopeful that in some ways—There may be a particular story that generates enough attention that enables us to look at these things with greater focus but at the same time we’re competing against things like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love affair or Anthony Weiner’s revelations, things of that nature. And, there is an appetite by editors and by the public to peddle this salacious and sadly that noise drowns out a lot of important media coverage, things that are far more important.
GOSZTOLA: I want to end on this point on what this should mean to people in American society. I’m going to read an excerpt from your piece because I think the description that you have in this very powerful of what some of these people were experiencing—the abuse:
A male was arrested [on] January 5, 2004, and released in June of 2004…. He was taken to [Mustansiriya] where he was hung by his hands and feet and beaten with a stick, kept nude for hours, and made to sleep outside…. He was taken to Abu Ghraib and threatened with the rape of his family, denied the ability to pray, forced to watch military personnel having sex, forced to break fast, forced to view pornography, and forced to masturbate. A female sodomized him with an artificial penis.
The second example is also really appalling too:
A female was arrested with her husband on September 4, 2003, in front of her two daughters…. While incarcerated, she was dragged on the ground, and asked to pick up feces with her hands. When she stopped to vomit, she was threatened by American personnel that if she continued, she would be raped. She was held at gunpoint, hooded, denied prayers, touched improperly. Her hands and legs were tied and she was put in the sun for hours. For 15 days, she did not have food, little water, and was forbidden from going to the bathroom…. She was photographed nude.
Those are just two examples of the many, many examples that are out there. I feel there’s a sense that a lot of people have been desensitized. And I also wonder if in the media the reason we aren’t getting reports is because a lot of the news anchors and journalists feel like they reported this story before. What does it mean to you that people maybe have this crisis of empathy or that they suffer from this idea that they heard this before? I’m inviting you to ponder this question of what happens to a society who says, oh, we heard an example of that already so all the other examples of that injustice should be relegated to a different level. So, we’re not really going to have a serious debate or discussion about what that means.
PHILLIPS: I tell you what, Kevin, I’ve been reporting on this stuff for so long when I read that passage it does not shock me anymore. That’s distressing. And, as you rightly point out those are just two examples that you read. We listed three of them. But, that is from a document that Susan Burke provided us with that details many, many instances that are equally horrific and shocking of terrible physical abuse and torture, debasement, rape—I mean, things that are off the charts horrible. And apart from that it didn’t shock me so much because I had been interviewing detainees as well as the troops themselves who have copped to their involvement in this and all kinds of other abuse and torture. And, you’re right. It’s distressing on a number of different levels.
It’s distressing on the level that we aren’t getting the information in the first place, which really strains the imagination because when you think about what we are hearing about vis a vis the other news coverage and we’re not hearing about the US involvement in atrocities that’s kind of shocking. And as I said before I think a part of that is the result of the kinds of coverage that many in the mainstream media are pumping out there as well as the way in which they’ve spun the entire detainee abuse scandal. The way in which it has been framed is detainee abuse equal Abu Ghraib equals a few guys in the night shift basically doing fraternity pranks, some are horrific, some not so bad. The other torture that the US was involved in was CIA-sanctioned and there was a debate over whether or not that saved lives. That’s pretty much it. Then, we have Guantanamo mixed in there but I don’t think people fully understand what happened in Guantanamo, to the detainees in there, as well as the hundred of thousands of other detainees that were extremely abused and tortured. So, that’s part of the reason why I think there isn’t greater outrage and that there is a sense of apathy and malaise.
What troubles me is how this could reoccur again. As a colleague of mine points out, nothing predicts future torture like past impunity. I worry about that regularly. Even though as I said detainee abuse and torture has greatly diminished since the early part of the war on terror, it could very well reoccur. And one of the things that also concerns me, and is related to that, on how as a society we are apathetic or even to some extent complicit in accepting this stuff as being somewhat normal, is the impact it will have on us not just long term in terms of shaping our society but what would happen if there was another terrorist attack. And, that is something that human rights workers as well as seasoned members of the military intelligence community worry about.
It’s bad enough that we are reliving, “Does torture work?” You know, that tired debate, which will probably rage on for years to come because former administration officials simply want to use it as crutch to preserve the Bush administration’s legacy. That’s it. I don’t think there is many people involved who are making the argument who are really seriously about thinking the effect that torture has on counterterrorism policies. But, as a result of making that argument, they are feeding the perception that torture is necessary and effective. And those beliefs directly affect the application and accepted use of torture. I would hear about it all the time in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in Guantanamo. By the military’s own account, there were military officers and grunts who would say we hear about anecdotal success stories, about torture working in the field by another guy. Or, we hear Dick Cheney saying these methods are effective, that we were able to gain successful intelligence. You think an interrogator or a grunt that is desperate for information, who is undergoing a serious attack on him or his unit is simply going to disregard that? It has an impact and it will have an even graver impact if and, heaven forbid, when we experience another terrorist attack.
GOSZTOLA: I want to get you to further clarify on this point. I’ve run into people that when you talk about what is happening, the injustice or even particularly in domestic society too when you’ve seen the authorities overstep their bounds and perhaps arrested somebody for engaging in—Because there’s a war at home here too against people who sometimes think they should exercise their rights and actually be political activists. We’ve got cases of people ending up on lists, post-9/11. And so, what I think is similar is people think if they were caught up in here they must be suspects. So, there must be some kind of reason for what they did. You should just wait until this comes to an end point and the government has actually decided that a person is innocent. And, that to me seems to be pretty dangerous thinking.
PHILLIPS: In terms of the capturing or the treatment?
GOSZTOLA: I think in this detainee abuse you have a lot of people caught up who weren’t actually guilty of doing anything, who were just interrogated who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I would venture to say close to half of the American population would tell you that we have to be on the safe side because we don’t know what would happen and the things that are being done. Who are we to say what should be done in those situations? We’re not in those situations. We don’t know. It is that willful complicity, but it’s also that sense that we don’t have jurisdiction to have an opinion on what’s going on. That disengagement has a way of perpetuating this.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, but I don’t agree with it.
When we were involved in massive sweeps, nation grab operations, abductions of people’s homes and those sorts of things, the figures on faulty arrests were staggering. By the military’s estimate, it was upward to 85-90%, even perhaps higher than that, in which they believed that the people being caught up were wrongfully arrested. So, that’s bad. But the other issue here is about treatment, treatment and the accepted use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. Seasoned military people, the MPS, military investigators, all sorts of people that I’ve met over the course of time have said okay but you still have to treat these people in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. And, in fact, this is part of the reason why the operations officer, Susan Burke, left the military. She was so distressed by the fact that we have changed the rules of the game in such a way that it is now permissible to abuse people.
Now, I appreciate that there are members of the military who say this treatment represents the accordance of fifty-plus years of military law, in terms of our embracing and applying Geneva Conventions, but apart from that there are all kinds of operational problems with going down the dark road of using torture. And, they have a practical impact on the kinds of information we’re getting in the interrogation booth, because of the damage that you are doing to someone’s brain through using stress and duress. You are basically causing brain damage in certain circumstances. You are affecting their memory and therein you’re getting poor information. Or, you are following poor leads, which would in some cases imperil the troops that are actually following the leads that you are collecting through either a coerced confession or bad information as a result of brain damage. In addition to that, you are also burning a system of public cooperation, which is an essential means of networking and collecting intelligence. So, collectively, I think that the cost of getting involved in enhanced interrogation, coercive interrogation, torture, whatever you want to call it, far exceed any perceived sense that we need to go along with the program or that this is necessary. From my point of view, I just don’t see the perceived successes gleaned from going down this road.