Confronting Documentation of the US War on Terror


Legal Memos  |  Non-Legal Memos  |  Medical Documents  |  Judicial Documents
Oversight Reports  |  Investigative Files  |  Combatant Status Review Tribunal  |  Court Martial/Other Proceedings
Letters  |  Cables  |  Emails  |  Interviews  |  Other Documents


The Project:

This project re-presents data from the ACLU's Torture FOIA Database in alternate formats in order to generate new ways of being confronted with what the records document: US government documents related to actions during the War on Terror. Inspired by the artist Jenny Holzer's work with many of these same documents, such as in her "Redaction Paintings" series, where she presents reproductions of the documents at different scales and rendered in different mediums, enabling viewers to confront the documents and think about what their content has meant to human beings and recent history in new ways, this project also seeks to provide different ways for viewers to encounter this information. This project, however, focuses on the metadata added to the documents by the ACLU as part of building their Torture FOIA Database - the document summaries written as part of that process are the focus of these online exhibitions.

The document summaries are presented in near isolation in order to focus the attention of the viewer on the ACLU's interpretation of document content, with a link to the full ACLU database record provided for potential futher investigation by the viewer. This documentation, comprised of over 6,000 records, has been grouped into subsets by primary document type (based on ACLU metadata) and each subset is cycled in random order using a Drupal Slideshow module. For the smaller subset groups, an alternate slideshow is offered that displays the original digitized document along with the summary (slideshow load time was found to be prohibitive for rendering this format for the larger document sets).

My goal for this project, and for my other ongoing work with the ACLU's dataset, is to explore archivist/collector contributions to both record searchability/discoverability and the generation of meaning, particularly in the context of government records related to state violence. Ultimately, I’m interested in how archival document metadata itself can facilitate more access to government information and create a kind of narrative (Ketelaar 2001; Duff and Harris 2002) about state power, state actions, and state violence.


The Source Data:

The ACLU Torture FOIA Database is an independent, non-governmental archive of US government documents related to the War on Terror. It is a collection of digitized documents originally developed through FOIA requests and lawsuits made by the nonprofit organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The original intention of acquiring the documents was to research possible abuses for direct advocacy efforts/potential legal actions. The ACLU now makes digital versions of these government records available to the public online, along with document metadata added by ACLU staff that powers a searchable online database. Their website currently offers a large amount of data (over 6,700 records) and excellent filtering and searching functionality via its ACLU-added metadata and OCR’d document text. They also offer an API, which was utilized for this project to call individual record nodes via python scripts and generate stand-alone, downloadable files, later converted to CSV format, so that this project would not overtax the original server on an ongoing basis. The metadata added by the ACLU allows for new forms of access to these government records.