Category Archives: Politics

The two psychologists at the center of the CIA torture report

Today’s Senate Select Committee on intelligence (SSCI) report on CIA’s use of torture in interrogation provides plenty of new details about the two psychologists at the center of the CIA program. But I suspect there is much more coverage about them to come.

But already by 2007 and 2009 there were reports by Katherine Eban (Vanity Fair) and Scott Shane (NYT) on these two PhD credentialed scholars that should give pause to academics everywhere, and raises important questions about the weaponization of knowledge.

In addition, see the discussion in James Risen’s new book Pay any Price. The role and actions of professional academic organizations (such as the APA) on the application of SERE to CIA prisoners “has never before been fully explained” he says (p. 178).

The two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, get their own main finding in the SSCI report:

#13: Two contract psychologists devised the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. By 2005, the CIA had overwhelmingly outsourced operations related to the program.
The CIA contracted with two psychologists to develop, operate, and assess its  interrogation operations. The psychologists’ prior experience was at the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise. On the CIA’s behalf, the contract psychologists developed theories of interrogation based on “learned helplessness,”^^ and developed the list of enhanced interrogation techniques that was approved for use against Abu Zubaydah and subsequent CIA detainees. The psychologists personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA’s most significant detainees using these techniques. They also evaluated whether detainees’ psychological state allowed for the continued use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, including some detainees whom
they were themselves interrogating or had interrogated. The psychologists carried out inherently governmental functions, such as acting as liaison between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, assessing the effectiveness of the interrogation program, and participating in the interrogation of detainees in held in foreign government custody.

In 2005, the psychologists formed a company specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the CIA. Shortly thereafter, the CIA outsourced virtually all aspects of the program. In 2006, the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.

(The reference to “inherently governmental functions” by the way, indicates activities that contractors are not supposed to do at all, by law, in any context.)

As an academic myself, this is the part of the report that comes closest to my day job. And note that these academics did not just assist in the interrogation process, they actually helped define and create it (SSCI fn.138). The report continues that CTC Legal department actually drafted a letter promising them immunity from prosecution for what they were doing (p. 33/59 pdf).

But this is not about two individuals, but rather the larger academic community in which they worked, as well as their national organization, the APA. (For some reason, and rather horse-boltingly too late, Mitchell and Jessen’s names are given pseudonyms in the report, SWIGERT and DUNBAR.)

As academics we bear a special responsibility to be aware of what went down here. Eban:

Mitchell and Jessen, Sifton says, offered a “patina of pseudo-science that made the C.I.A. and military officials think these guys were experts in unlocking the human mind. It’s one thing to say, ‘Take off the gloves.’ It’s another to say there was a science to it. sere came in as the science.”

The use of “scientific credentials in the service of cruel and unlawful practices” harkens back to the Cold War, according to Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. Back then, mental-health professionals working with the C.I.A. used hallucinogenic drugs, hypnosis, and extreme sensory deprivation on unwitting subjects to develop mind-control techniques. “We really thought we learned this lesson—that ambition to help national security is no excuse for throwing out ethics and science,” Rubenstein says.

(The reference here is to the MKULTRA program.)

This appeal to scientificity, scholarly expertise and the triumph of belief over evidence that the techniques even work, is a salient lesson for we academics.

What is neoliberalism?

robinjames (@doctaj) on neoliberalism:

I want to hone in on one tiny aspect of neoliberalism’s epistemology. As Foucault explains in Birth of Biopolitics, “the essential epistemological transformation of these neoliberal analyses is their claim to change what constituted in fact the object, or domain of objects, the general field of reference of economic analysis” (222). This “field of reference” is whatever phenomena we observe to measure and model “the market.” Instead of analyzing the means of production, making them the object of economic analysis, neoliberalism analyzes the choices capitalists make: “it adopts the task of analyzing a form of human behavior and the internal rationality of this human behavior” (223; emphasis mine). (The important missing assumption here is that for neoliberals, we’re all capitalists, entrepreneurs of ourself, owners of the human capital that resides in our bodies, our social status, etc.) [3] Economic analysis, neoliberalism’s epistemontological foundation, is the attribution of a logos, a logic, a rationality to “free choice.”

I particularly like the way she enrolls Big Data and the algorithmic in her understanding of neoliberalism:

Just as a market can be modeled mathematically, according to various statistical and computational methods, everyone’s behavior can be modeled according to its “internal rationality.” This presumes, of course, that all (freely chosen) behavior, even the most superficially irrational behavior, has a deeper, inner logic. According to neoliberal epistemontology, all genuinely free human behavior “reacts to reality in a non-random way” and “responds systematically to modifications in the variables of the environment” (Foucault, sumarizing Becker, 269; emphasis mine).

This approach ties to what others have been saying for a number of years now on the algorithmic (I’m thinking of the work of Louise Amoore on data derivatives, among others) and the calculative (eg., Stuart Elden’s readings of Foucault and Heidegger). I’ve just completed a paper on Big Data and the intelligence community which tries to make some of these points, and Agnieszka Leszczynski and I have a cfp out for the Chicago meetings next year which we certainly hope will include these issues.

(Via this excellent piece on NewApps)

CFP: Spatial Big Data & Everyday Life (AAG 2015)

Call for Papers: Spatial Big Data & Everyday Life
American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting
21-25 April 2015

Agnieszka Leszczynski, University of Birmingham
Jeremy Crampton, University of Kentucky
“What really matters about big data is what it does” (Executive Office of the President, 2014: 3).

Many disciplines, including the economic and social sciences and (digital) humanities, have taken up Big Data as an object and/or subject of research (see Kitchin 2014). As a significant proportion of Big Data productions are spatial in nature, they are of immediate interest to geographers (see Graham and Shelton 2013). However, engagements of Big Data in geography have to date been largely speculative and agenda-setting in scope. The recently released White House Big Data report encourages movement past deliberations over how to define the phenomenon towards identifying its material significance as Big Data are enrolled and deployed across myriad contexts – for example, how content analytics may open new possibilities for data-based discrimination. We convene this session to interrogate and unpack how Big Data figure in the spaces and practices of everyday life. In so doing, we are questioning not only what Big Data ‘do,’ but also how it is they realize particular kinds of effects and potentialities, and how the lived reality of Big Data is experienced (Crawford 2014).

We invite papers along methodological, empirical, and theoretical interventions that trace, reconceptualize, or address the everyday spatial materialities of Big Data. Specifically we are interested in how Big Data emerge within particular intersections of the surveillance, military, and industrial complexes; prefigure and produce particular kinds of spaces and subjects/subjectivities; are bound up in the regulation of both space and spatial practices (e.g., urban mobilities); underwrite intensifications of surveillance and engender new surveillance regimes; structure life opportunities as well as access to those opportunities; and/or change the conditions of/for embodiment. We intend for the range of topics and perspectives covered to be open. Other possible topics include:

• spatial Big Data & affective life
• embodied Big Data; wearable tech; quantified self
• algorithmic geographies, algorithmic subjects
• new ontologies & epistemologies of the subject
• spatial Big Data as surveillance
• Big Data and social (in)equality
• “ambient government” & spatial regulation
• spatial Big Data and urbanisms (mobilities; smart cities)
• political/knowledge economies of (spatial) Big Data

We welcome abstracts of no more than 250 words to be submitted to Agnieszka Leszczynski ( and Jeremy Crampton ( by August 29th, 2014.

Crawford K (2014) The Anxieties of Big Data. The New Inquiry.

Executive Office of the President (2014) Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values. The White House.

Graham M and Shelton T (2013) Guest editors, Dialogues in Human Geography 3 (Geography and the future of big data, big data and the future of geography).

Kitchin R (2014) Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts. Big Data and Society (1): In Press. DOI: 10.1177/2053951714528481.


Talk by Ambassador disappoints

Heather Hodges, the former US Ambassador to Ecuador, who was made persona non grata and expelled from Ecuador over information revealed via Wikileaks visited the UK campus yesterday. It might have been an opportunity to engage with many of the security issues that are going on right now, and to join the national debate on intelligence, leaks and the nature of whistleblowing that President Obama has said he welcomes.

Instead, her talk consisted of platitudes and half-truths. More remarkably for someone at the center of events relating to Wikileaks, she seemed unfamiliar–or chose not to mention–facts pertaining to events she was caught up in. For example, in speaking of the risk to sources who speak to the State department, she failed to mention that when the Guardian, NYT and Le Monde were initially publishing the cables that personal names were redacted. It was only after a Guardian journalist, who had fallen out with Julian Assange, published the secret pass phrase to the cables (therefore making them available in full to anyone) that they were released in unredacted form by Wikileaks. She also personally insulted Assange and noted how difficult it must be for the tiny Ecuadorian embassy in London to host him, since it has no guest bedrooms “and only one bathroom.” Assange, she said, wanders out on to the balcony from time to time “to make speeches.”

She also claimed that PVT Manning was not a whistleblower (and that Assange is not a journalist). She did not give the grounds for this assertion, nor mention that the USG defines whistleblowing as the reporting of abuse, fraud and waste (emphasis added). She further stated that there was “no way” that Manning could have known what he was passing on to Wikileaks because he could not have read that many cables. She did not mention the so-called “Collateral Murder” video, nor mention in any way Manning’s motivations as published in the well-known chatlogs that he had with FBI informer and former hacker Adrian Lamo. She left her audience, which appeared to include many students, with the impression that Manning irresponsibly acted without motivation or knowledge of the material he leaked.

Finally, she repeatedly stated that the leak of the State department cables had not caused any damage: “no wars had broken out” and no-one was killed. While she did lose her position as Ambassador to Ecuador she was still employed by State, and  she finished her career as an adviser to a military commander in Europe, who was a personal friend of hers. She did not mention any of the information from Manning’s trial, nor reconcile these claims of little damage with Manning’s 35-year sentence.

Perhaps her most telling comment was her bewilderment about why Ecuador (or anybody else) should hate America. Everybody she met in Ecuador, she claimed, liked Americans and didn’t understand Correa’s position (who she nevertheless characterized as a “popular and populist” president who was elected twice with majorities). When she left after being expelled, she was put on first in business class, and everybody greeted her as they came on the plane (she’d requested to be put on last but there was a mix-up, she stated). “We’re very interested in working with Ecuador,” she stated “even if they are not interested in working with us.” She added, “We don’t do coups.” Her comments brought to mind the similar bewilderment of Present Bush after 9/11. While she did not say “they hate us for our freedoms” her lack of political acumen as a senior member of the diplomatic corps was disappointing.

Overall this was a big missed opportunity to learn more about the region and US foreign relations, as well as the role of whistleblowers in a democracy.

Security and resilience


The journal Politics which is published by the Political Studies Association, has a new open access issue on resilience and security. The issue was edited by three people at Warwick University, James Brassett, Stuart Croft, and Nick Vaughan-Williams with whom I was not previously familiar.

I look forward to perusing this in detail soon, but it’s worth noting one thing here. The editors open by claiming there’s a kind of gap or slippage in how “resilience” as a concept is put into play (a productive gap they claim). As I noted earlier this year in reply to Mark Neocleous’s anti-resilience piece (with an open access follow-up in Society and Space here), if we are to make anything useful with the concept of resilience, then we need to understand how it can improve human well-being (as well as the related question of well-being for whom).

It looks on initial inspection as if the issue is more concerned with resilience than security, but it is good to see the two terms being put together. Pete Adey, Klaus Dodds and I have a cfp on (post)-security and sustainability that is relevant here. Despite the prevalence of “critical security studies” these three terms are rarely placed in conjunction.

(Via Stuart Elden)

Bolivia, Snowden, and the Politics of Verticality

The extraordinary events of the last day–blow-by-blow live blog here from the Guardian–have certainly raised plenty of legal and diplomatic issues. What is the legality of diverting a head of state’s official plane, or even refusing airspace, despite the plane reporting being low on fuel? Did the US pressure European countries, especially France, Portugal, Spain and Italy to refuse landing rights on the suspicion that Edward Snowden was on board the Bolivian president’s flight?

Bolivia has labeled this an “act of aggression” and if the head of state’s plane counts as sovereign territory–in the way an embassy does–then they may well be justified in seeking some satisfaction (RT is reporting they will complain to the UN).

In not unrelated news, as the Guardian puts it, Ecuador will today announce who they think is behind the “bug” they found in their embassy in London last month. This is the embassy where Julian Assange has been granted political asylum for fears the US will extradite him to face charges of publishing leaks.

As several people have pointed out, this refusal of overflying airspace is in marked contrast to the extraordinary rendition permissions:

But I think this presents a great example of what several people, including Pete Adey and Stuart Elden, are calling the “politics of verticality,” a term attributed to Eyal Weizman in 2002. See this paper by Adey, Mark Whitehead and Alison J. Williams in Theory, Culture & Society for example. They ask specifically what is the nature of an “air target” (on the ground, but after last night’s events presumably also a target in the air); what cultural practices make up the air target; and finally what are the affective rationalities involved?

If their paper is more about targeting (from the air), last night’s events prompt us to reverse that and also enquire about aerial targets and vertical geopolitics.


Transparency and secrecy

I’d like to consider in more detail some papers published in Theory, Culture & Society last year. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, these papers represent some very interesting inroads into a better understanding of secrecy, transparency and ultimately perhaps even truth.

Clare Birchall’s article, which introduces the special section, makes some sensible suggestions already in her abstract:

Despite common demands to support either transparency or secrecy in political and moral terms, we live with the tension between these terms and its inherent contradictions daily.

She sets up the terms of the debate as opacity and openness, but goes on to say that “we must work with the tension between these terms” rather than choosing one or the other. There is a tension between them.

This is a good start, but we need to go even further. Obviously the relations between privacy, secrecy, transparency are not symmetric. We can know very little about the state, but it can know a great deal about us, as I’ve said many times before. This is to say only that there are power dynamics at work.

Some of her remarks about a perceived love of transparency, or at least transparency talk, are widely off the mark a year and a half later. “Open government is the new mantra” she writes, “a sign of cultural…authority” (pp. 8-9). Today, this reads like little more than government talking points, but even in 2012 (post sealed indictments against WikiLeaks and the imprisonment of Bradley Manning) they are more than a little optimistic. She does note that some Obama administration transparency efforts have been “compromised” but relegates this to a footnote instead of a central problem to be taken into account. Are there really “countless copycats” of WikiLeaks (p. 15)? I don’t think so.

Also optimistic is her partial history of transparency, at least in the US. Her examples (Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, FOIA, etc.) could all be rebutted by pointing out that often, these were hard won, partial concessions, and that they permitted many other activities to go on in secret. That is, these transparency moves are covers; a kind of secret themselves.

The most striking of these in recent years, for me, was what happened to the government’s transparency website, Unveiled with some fanfare at the tail end of the Bush administration, it was meant to provide a public, user-friendly and authoritative source to government spending on outsourced contracts. In fact, intelligence agencies almost immediately gained exemptions to it (including the NGA and NSA), while others (such as the NRO) just never took part in it. We tell the story of this a bit more in a forthcoming paper “The New Political Economy of Geographical Intelligence” for the Annals. Nowhere on the site does it mention any of this–you have to read obscure GAO documents, and CRS articles that are not directly released to the public.

(Ironically, I recently emailed the NGA press office to inquire if they were still exempt, but have not received a reply or even an acknowledgement. So much for transparency!)

Birchall argues, following Derrida, that the state is placed into an “infinite hesitation” in the face of transparency. It cannot be too transparent, because then it allows no room for personal privacy, and it cannot not be transparent because then it is also hegemonic and clandestine, if not covert.

But could the issue not be resolved by splitting apart the object of analysis and instead of arguing for all-or-none transparency, see citizens as in a relation with the state? To citizens go the choice of privacy-transparency, but to the state goes no choice but the requirement of transparency (and not just the state, but corporate actions).

Ah, but how much choice to the citizen? Well, that’s up for debate, but in my view it’s a better one that debating all-or-nothing transparency/privacy. Here I like what she has to say about the need to resist going “beyond” either term, and get used to inhabiting it strategically (p. 12). I think this is absolutely correct.

One thing to be mentioned here is the role of corporate America. If oversight of government activities is bad, try business, especially intel businesses. These often operate with even less transparency than government (what really does Booz Allen Hamilton do? That $15m intel contract–what’s it for?) As Birchall notes, this can give rise to “lip-service transparency” in the neoliberal context.

There are lots of provocative questions here, and it is surprising that more people have not considered the relations between secrecy, lies, truth, and transparency. (Birchall does give examples of these.) One angle that continues to intrigue, is that between secrecy and knowledge.

Isn’t it interesting that one of the great foundational stories of western religion is that of the tree of knowledge. This tree is forbidden because it has dangerous knowledge (not all transparency is good). So here we enter forbidden knowledges, arcana, Pandora’s Box, the occult, secret societies. The “will to knowledge” then, in Foucault’s words, becomes something both highly problematic and yet compelling.

So in some ways this could be read as another consideration of truth, and the difficulties of truth. Knowledge is about getting the truth. But I do think there’s still a lot to be worked through about secrets, and the relationships between knowledge and truth. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the articles in the TCS special section.

Does the US generate violence?

Andrew Sullivan (among others):

 I do think the US – mainly since 9/11 – has been generating violence on a large scale, most recently by invading and occupying Iraq and not providing minimal security for its inhabitants, leading to a sectarian bloodbath bigger even that Syria’s current horror.

OK. And how can we know (rather than just assert, argue, claim, deny, avoid, suspect, politicize, etc) this? By “we” I mean that this is mutually agreed upon as a fact if it is true?

Or is this just an unknowable?

How not to talk about resilience?

Radical Philosophy has recently been the venue for a short exchange of views on the topic of resilience. Let’s see what was said.

Mark Neocleous led off with a piece on “resisting resilience.” In his view, “resilience is by definition against resistance. Resilience wants acquiescence.” He is, therefore, against resilience. In response, David Chandler, who is editor of a new journal called Resilience argues that critique is not best served by equating resilience to neoliberalism. And in response to that, Neocleous says that Chandler didn’t engage with his critique and only wants to defend his new journal and that resilience blunts socialist and feminist thought (p. 59).

Not much of this helps us get anywhere. If the agenda is to make something useful from resilience (eg., by critiquing its support for the production of neoliberalism) then we need to use the concept to get at the primary question of ensuring human well-being. What if resilience, or our ability to withstand shocks and stresses in the long-run, could be used to say that shocks and stresses from financial crises of capital accumulation need to be eliminated? Or that sustainable human well-being requires a military a third of its current size?

In other words why don’t we start with human well-being (democratic, just, equal society, etc.) and identify in a consensual manner how to sustain that, with built-in resistance to attempts to take it away (ie., resilience)?

Purcell’s democratic delight

Mark Purcell:

Defending the welfare state, or even trying to reinvigorate it, is a perfectly understandable way to respond to neoliberalism and austerity…. However,  I want to argue that we can aim at more…we can aspire to and achieve a much more democratic form of life (p. 10)

From his new book The Deep-Down Delight of Democracy. Currently reading this, but a good beginning.