Without a trace: Policies of unaccountability

… A number of what can only be described as ‘policies of unaccountability’ will also be released. One such document is the 2005 document ‘Policy on Assigning Detainee Internment Serial Numbers’. This document is concerned with discreetly ‘disappearing’ detainees into the custody of other U.S. government agencies while keeping their names out of U.S. military central records – by systematically holding off from assigning a prisoner record number (ISN). Even references to this document are classified “SECRET//NOFORN”. Detainees may be disposed of in this manner without leaving a significant paper trail.

Another formal policy of unaccountability is a 2008 Fragmentary Order that minimises the record-keeping surrounding interrogations. Following revelations of torture tapes and pictures from Abu Ghraib and the political scandal over the destruction of Central Intelligence Agency interrogation tapes, the FRAGO eliminates “the requirement to record interrogation sessions at Theatre Internment Facilities”. Although the FRAGO goes on to state that interrogations that take place at Division Internment Facilities and Brigade Internment Facilities must be recorded, it then states that these should be “purged within 30 days”. This policy was subsequently reversed by the new Obama administration. [1]

Repressive regimes are good at recordkeeping. Repression requires administration. Witness Nazi Germany, the Stasi, the Khmer Rouge.

So how to characterise the absence or subversion of recordkeeping seen in the policies of subsequent US Administrations in the detention of ‘terror suspects’ in Guantanamo Bay?

Can it be explained by the distinction between being an overt repressive regime as opposed to a covert one? Regimes with a need to confirm their power over citizens publicly, as part of creating the climate of fear in which they thrive, make elaborate recordkeeping a deliberate and widely known trait of their particular brand of power. The recordkeeping of surveillance, of blacklists, of executions. But when the prevailing power has a reputation to protect while it secretly carries out acts that contradict this, or where there are influential voices that interfere with its mission, recordkeeping can become a danger. As Chris Hurley has observed:

We cannot forget that Trotsky was airbrushed out of a photograph or that Winston Smith was an archivist. [2]

And so where it threatens to contradict a country’s reputation as a liberal democracy with respect for individual rights and the rule of law, recordkeeping must be carefully controlled so the traces of abuses of process and power are not permitted to exist let alone be revealed. In the case of the policies of the United States Government’s detainee management in places like Guantanamo Bay this extends to the recording of people. Not included in official registers, they are simply ‘disappeared’.  So, much in the way that Stalin ‘disappeared’ troublesome individuals such as Trotsky and Kamenev from official photographs, the United States disappears detainees from their system and into another’s, without a trace.

Layered on top of specific instances of authorised failure to make and keep records we see the special secrecy that is afforded policing, intelligence and military operations compounding the problem, and providing an even more fertile ground on which systematised abuses may thrive. As former Australian politician and anti corruption advocate John Hatton put it in a recent interview:

And the ability to contain information because the police have more power against the Freedom of Information laws than a normal department does in that they can argue that somehow it’s going to affect their investigations or their ability to prevent a crime or prosecute.  Consequently they can selectively withhold evidence and selectively present the evidence. [3]

In ‘The Detainee Policies’ media release, Julian Assange notes:

The ‘Detainee Policies’ show the anatomy of the beast that is post-9/11 detention, the carving out of a dark space where law and rights do not apply, where persons can be detained without a trace at the convenience of the US Department of Defense

Rather than being a haphazard breakdown in adequate recordkeeping systems which can eventually encourage corrupt practices, this is (hidden) policy which is very carefully conceived and deployed through what might be labeled ‘anti-recordkeeping’. So that rather than resulting in a robust body of evidence against which those with unusual power can be held to account, like a photographic negative, these practices achieve the opposite; unaccountability.


[1] Wikileaks, Press Release: The Detainee Policies 25 October, 2012

[2] Chris Hurley ‘The Evolving Role of Government Archives in Democratic Societies’ Plenary Address delivered to ACA Annual Conference, Winnipeg, 9 June, 2001

[3] ‘A Conversation with an Australian Living Treasure (Part II)’, interview by Kellie Tranter with John Hatton

About Cassie Findlay

Digital recordkeeping, archives and privacy professional, co-founder of the Recordkeeping Roundtable. @CassPF on Twitter.
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2 Responses to Without a trace: Policies of unaccountability

  1. chris porozny says:

    Excellent analysis … I make no apologies for those who resort to terror to push an extreme religious view, be it Muslim, Christian or Jew … but the true evil here is the American response, the evidence being their inclination to abuse over restraint, to torture over interrogation, to hide their actions through vague and secret rules and laws … the final nail in the coffin of my argument is the fact that the Americans do not dare face the legality of what they do within their own constitutional framework, but rather move their prisoners to places outside their own jurisdiction.

    America, you are a disgrace to every definition of ‘democracy’, ‘great’ and ‘superpower’. You are in fact less than those you abuse, because you know better and still do it …

  2. Pingback: Without a trace: WikiLeaks as unperson | Recordkeeping Roundtable

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