Friday, July 27, 2007

Office Politics

According to George Packer's long article in The New Yorker, "Betrayed," U.S. officials in Iraq have a terrible record of providing security to their Iraqi employees, partly because to do so would be to admit that the war is going badly. E-mail plays a key role in Packer's narrative, not only as a contributing factor to bureaucratic distance but also an avenue for whistle-blowing activities.

One of Packer's central theses is that e-mail and ubiquitous communication devices create distance between U.S. occupiers and Iraqi citizens rather than connection, because they lack face-to-face social relationships like those present during the Vietnam war.

American institutions in Vietnam were just as unresponsive as they are in Iraq, but, on an individual level, Americans did far more to evacuate their Vietnamese counterparts. In Saigon they had girlfriends, wives, friends, whereas Americans and Iraqis have established only work relationships, which end when the Americans rotate out after six months or a year. In the wide-open atmosphere of Saigon, many officials, including Snepp, broke rules or risked their lives to save people close to them. Americans in Baghdad don’t have such discipline problems. A former Embassy official pointed out that cell phones and e-mail connect officials in Iraq to their bosses there or in Washington around the clock. “When you can always connect, you can always pass the buck,” he said. For all their technology, the Americans in Baghdad know far less about the Iraqis than those in Saigon knew about the Vietnamese. “Intelligence is the first key to empathy,” Snepp said.

In Packer's narrative, the Iraqis are shown as unable to accept the bureaucratic rules of electronic discourse enforced by their model of what Foucault has called "governmentality," because it relegates digital communication to a mere record of legalistic notification and response. For example, one Iraqi employee working closely with U.S. authorities is fired because he expects that only actually answering his specific question can be counted as response when military officials would consider the Iraqi to be the nonresponsive one in the discursive exchange.

In April, a Shiite member of the parliament asked Ahmed to look into the status of a Mahdi Army member who had been detained by the Americans. Iraqis at the Embassy sometimes used their office to do small favors for their compatriots; such gestures reminded them that they were serving Iraq as well as America. But Ahmed sent his inquiry through the wrong channel. His supervisor was on leave in the U.S., and so he sent an e-mail to a reserve colonel in the political section. The colonel refused to provide him with any information, and a couple of weeks later, in May, Ahmed was summoned to talk to an agent from the regional security office.

. . .

The interrogation came down to one point: Hale insisted that Ahmed had misled him by saying that the reserve colonel had “never answered” Ahmed’s inquiry, when in fact the colonel had sent back an e-mail asking who had given Ahmed the detainee’s name. Ahmed hadn’t considered this an answer to his question about the detainee’s status, and therefore hadn’t mentioned it to Hale. This was his undoing.

Of course, e-mail also becomes the vehicle for seeking justice in the Packer article, which describes the efforts of Kirk Johnson to get recognition from American policy makers for the desperate situations that their Iraqi assistants were facing as possible "collaborators" in the political violence of their hostile neighborhoods. According to the article, Johnson also uses electronic spreadsheet technology.

First, it was people he knew—former colleagues in desperate circumstances like Yaghdan’s. Iraqis forwarded his article to other Iraqis, and he started to compile a list of names; by January he was getting e-mails from strangers with subject lines like “Can you help me Please?” and “I want to be on the list.” An Iraqi woman who had worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority attached a letter of recommendation written in 2003 by Bernard Kerik, then Iraq’s acting Minister of the Interior. It proclaimed, “Your courage to support the Coalition forces has sent home an irrefutable message: that terror will not rule, that liberty will triumph, and that the seeds of freedom will be planted into the hearts of the great citizens of Iraq.” The woman was now a refugee in Amman.

Packer himself depends on e-mail as a conduit of information from confidential sources, even if he is simultaneously creating an electronic trail that might potentially compromise officials.

A State Department official in Iraq sent a cable to Washington criticizing the Americans’ “lackadaisical” attitude about helping Iraqi employees relocate. In an e-mail to me, he said, “Most of them have lived secret lives for so long that they are truly a unique ‘homeless’ population in Iraq’s war zone—dependent on us for security and not convinced we will take care of them when we leave.” It’s as if the Americans never imagined that the intimidation and murder of interpreters by other Iraqis would undermine the larger American effort, by destroying the confidence of Iraqis who wanted to give it support. The problem was treated as managerial, not moral or political.

Of course, the office politics of e-mail are important much closer to home than the embassies of Baghdad, as a recent radio show about "Who's Reading Your E-mail?" dramatizes. A recent study by the company Proofpoint shows that compromising e-mail is increasingly the cause of on-the-job conflicts and even employee termination.

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Blogger Lupton said...

You quote one official:"Intelligence is the first key to empathy." Surely the reverse is also true.

7:00 AM  

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