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Fighting words

The ‘War on Terror’ in Jenny Holzer’s declassified documents
By GREG COOK  |  May 29, 2007
I HEARD MANY RUMORS (PINK): The familiar story is re-energized by these enlarged dispatches from the horse’s mouth.

Imagine that suicide bombers have just blasted three American shopping malls. A fourth attack is thwarted: the suspects are caught and taken to the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay. American intelligence believes a larger attack is imminent. How aggressively do you interrogate those being held at Guantánamo Bay about where the next attack may take place?

“I’m glad they’re at Guantánamo,” former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said when asked this question during the May 15 debate of Republican presidential candidates. “I don’t want them on our soil. I want them on Guantánamo, where they don’t get the access to lawyers they get when they’re on our soil. . . . Some people have said we ought to close Guantánamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantánamo. . . . And there’s no question but that in a setting like that, where you have a ticking bomb, that . . . enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used — not torture, but enhanced interrogation techniques, yes.”

“Archive,” which is up through Wednesday at Barbara Krakow Gallery, exposes the dark underbelly of this “War on Terror” bluster and euphemism. Jenny Holzer is best known for her LED broadsides of the ’80s: “Protect me from what I want”; “Your oldest fears are the worst ones.” Here the New York artist screenprints enlarged copies of declassified US government documents that recount the errors and crimes of our fight against al-Qaeda and our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The familiar story is re-energized when you get it from the horse’s mouth.

Holzer reproduces White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s warning to Condoleezza Rice in January 2001 — as she became national security adviser for the Bush administration — of the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Next up is CIA director George Tenet’s memo of September 16, 2001: “Subject: We’re at War,” which Holzer prints in warning red. Defeating al-Qaeda and other terrorists, Tenet writes, “will require our absolute and total dedication as a leadership team. . . . There can be no bureaucratic impediments to success. All the rules have changed. . . . We must be passionate and driven — but not breathless. We must stay cool. We must keep our heads.”

This is the Sunday after September 11, so throwing some rules out the window is understandable, but at the very time Tenet was writing this memo, according to Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was talking up an Iraq attack to President Bush and the gang at Camp David. It brings to mind two early Holzer slogans: “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” and “The beginning of the war will be secret.”

Holzer’s work has long explored the language of authority, power, and control. “I tend to go to the dark subjects,” she said during a talk at Rhode Island School of Design last October. “I think the good stuff will take care of itself. The dark things need attention.” Often her voices are anonymous and her tack is indirect; here she names names and uses her art to keep our exhausted attention focused on the facts. Her primary source is documents obtained by George Washington University’s National Security Archive through the Freedom of Information Act. The result brings to mind Brazilian human-rights activists’ efforts to expose government torture in their country in the ’60s and ’70s by publishing a 1985 book of the government’s own trial records.

Holzer presents an Army translator’s report in which Special Forces troops are alleged to have shocked a prisoner with electricity in Afghanistan in 2002. A military medical examiner’s report concludes that a dead Pakistani man was most likely kicked to death in American custody in Afghanistan later that year. An Iraqi high-school student and his uncle report that he was beaten by the American troops who arrested him in May 2004, only to be released two days later. FBI agents report that Guantánamo prisoners were kept from sleeping with strobe lights and loud music and “baptized” by an interrogator posing as a Catholic priest. When an agent sees a prisoner on a cell floor crying, his nose apparently bleeding, American interrogators claim that he “had become upset with them and threw himself to the floor.” An agent reports: “I had heard previously that one of the female military personnel would wet her hands and touch the inmates as part of their psych-ops to make the inmates feel ‘unclean’ and upset them.” It all reads as if the lunatics had taken over the asylum.

This is the kind of shameful behavior Romney is supporting when he promotes “not torture, but enhanced interrogation techniques.” The kind Bush promoted when, last September, he praised the results of the CIA’s “alternative set of [interrogation] procedures.”

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Jenny Holzer , George W. Bush , George Tenet ,  More more >
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