On October 7, 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all documents related to post-9/11 detention and interrogation practices. The request was filed simultaneously with the Defense Department, the State Department, the Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. By the following May, no response had been issued, so the ACLU filed a second request, and in June took the government to court in hopes of forcing it to comply. Three months later the ACLU prevailed, and by the end of 2004 the documents were beginning to flow. Since then, well over 130,000 pages have been released and posted to a searchable database on the ACLU website.
The database contains, of course, the now infamous “torture memos”: the arguments, crafted by George W. Bush’s closest legal advisers, that waterboarding and the like were neither torturous nor illegal—and that such considerations didn’t apply to US presidents (or indeed anyone else in government, so long as the infliction of pain was not provably his or her “specific intent”). But these were only a small handful of documents among thousands: interrogation and torture logs, prison administration memos, courtroom transcripts and minutes from policy meetings. Several such documents known to exist have still not been released: in regard to one, the government has argued that not only is its existence classified but so too is the font in which it may or may not be written. Other records have been destroyed, including at least ninety-two videos of CIA interrogations. Of the material that has been released, much has been significantly redacted.
Despite these gaps (and in part because of them), this vast forest of paper comprises a sprawling, fragmented alternative literature on post-9/11 torture—one that lacks the coherence and pacing of many useful books on the subject, but which is not without other values. To spend an afternoon clicking through the ACLU database is to make some acquaintance, in a way that only primary documents allow, with the fact that behind every US act of torture is a massive, globe-spanning and poorly organized bureaucracy. Like all bureaucracies, it has a language peculiarly its own, shot through with jargon, euphemism and tics: empire whispering to itself in memo form.
In 2009 the ACLU hired Larry Siems, a poet and PEN American Center program director, to head a website called The Torture Report. His charge was to write about post-9/11 prisoner abuse, relying as exclusively as possible on the primary documents. Siems posted sections of the report as he finished them, and they received running commentary from a set group of people with relevant expertise, including lawyers, civil rights bloggers and a former military interrogator. There were links to all documents referenced. The site went live in September 2009, and Siems posted his final installment in March 2011. Now the full report has been released as a book, with the commenters’ suggestions and insights incorporated into the text.
For much of The Torture Report, Siems focuses on a few particularly well-documented and egregious cases. By his own admission, he barely touches on large swatches of the post-9/11 torture project; there could easily be another fifty volumes of The Torture Report. Thankfully, he is also willing to roam freely through the document wilderness, straying far from his central cases in search of context or common themes, and quoting liberally along the way. The result is a compromise between the tidiness of most narrative reportage and the chaos of the primary texts: a story shaped by Siems, but very much co-narrated by his subjects.