Date of Degree

2-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Anthropology

Advisor

Victoria Sanford

Committee Members

Karen Strassler

Michael Blim

Subject Categories

American Studies | Civic and Community Engagement | Critical and Cultural Studies | Digital Humanities | Library and Information Science | Social and Cultural Anthropology

Keywords

Archives, Human Rights, State Violence, Digital Materiality, Evidence and Documentation, Information Studies

Abstract

This dissertation is about access to information.

It examines the different ways that access to U.S. government records related to the “War on Terror” is generated through the intersection of law, bureaucratic policy and procedure norms, and the everyday work of archivists and transparency advocates. I argue that, both through their labor pushing for access to government records via complex records searches, Freedom of Information Act requests, and legal action, and also through their labor layering those records with new forms of metadata in public digital circulation platforms, these individuals, in the context of their organizations, generate new forms of visibility of U.S. actions, including key evidence of state violence. Through their actions they support our Right to Information and Right to Truth. Although the new forms of visibility they generate may not result in immediate prosecution of “War on Terror” human rights violations by the U.S., such as torture and indefinite detention, they do fundamentally alter the possibility of citizen knowledge about these state actions, increasing the possibility of potential future accountability for individual government officials, as well as state agency policy reforms, by facilitating earlier, easier, and more complete access to key information. It is access to the truth that opens the possibility for action.

My dissertation research is centered on two axes in this dynamic: one, the individuals engaged in this work and their multiple, complex actions that result in new forms of access; and, two, the new information structures these persons are generating and the ways in which those new structures then create a different landscape of access to government information for the rest of us. Thus, this dissertation has a dual subject, the loosely networked community of people who were my interlocutors and also the new digital archival forms that they are creating. Influenced by interdisciplinary and intersecting fields of archival studies, the anthropology of violence, memory studies, and human rights scholarship, I work with key concepts including: the afterlives of documents; translucency; “the FOIA effect”; metadata as narrative, dimensional form, and visibility; digital materiality and the materiality of redaction; document re-activation and re-composition; the presence of absence; and information/archival labor; engaging with these concepts as they relate to questions of power, technology, temporality, and transparency.

The research centers on two projects: the ACLU’s Torture FOIA Database and the National Security Archive’s Torture Archive, along with the people, organizations, legal frameworks, and practices shaping these projects. In addition, U.S. records-related law and policy, particularly the evolution of the Freedom of Information Act and the National Archives and Records Administration’s impact on the definition of government records and records retention, are key in understanding access to U.S. government information. This dissertation highlights how the information labor of the document collectors at the two nongovernmental organizations works to “activate” not only individual documents but also government information access law and policy. I argue that, through gathering and interacting with documents, these archives break government records out of their original relationship to temporality, allowing them to move more easily into alternate relations with other documents, organizations, and events—relations that can make U.S. policy on torture and detention and incidents of abuse more visible and work toward undoing obfuscation of violent state actions. The proliferation of digitized government document copies through these projects highlights how reproducibility itself, as a digital-material property of the document when activated through the act of multiplying copies on publicly accessible platforms, can strengthen access to information. I also closely examine the metadata applied by these archive projects and how these metadata allow us to interact with the original government records in new ways, strengthening discoverability of the records and becoming a structure though which the document is accessed and understood by others. Extending the document access through metadata, echoing the documents, proliferating them across different contexts, audiences, and geographical scopes, acts as reverberation and amplification of the evidence of human rights violations—a kind of archival power. If the tendency of government records is to lie dormant until the evidence of human rights abuses is less likely to be acted upon or less likely to be incorporated into public understandings of government culpability, disruptions into that temporal pattern, such as the disruptions produced through these kinds of projects, are pivotal interventions.

I approached this project as a researcher and a scholar. However, the subject matter of this research is one with which I also have a relationship as a citizen and an activist—as one interested in the potential of document access advocacy and information technology work to contribute to visibility of human rights violations, understandings of accountability, and action. How different technical and formal structures shape human interaction with information touches on exactly this question. The database structure, the search engine, the metadata category, and the keyword tag that attach to an archival government document become a part of our comprehension of the items in the archive themselves and shape the conditions of possibility for knowledge of the past. When such an archive consists of government documents that show evidence of human rights violations by the state, the projects and technologies through which we access and interpret those documents become a crucial site of the struggle for our understanding of our history, as well as for what we will do with that knowledge now.

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