Confronting Documentation of the US War on Terror:
highlighting document metadata from the ACLU Torture FOIA Database

About the project

This project was born out of a deep appreciation of the information tools generated by archival metadata and a concern for the visibility of human rights violations by the US government under the War on Terror.

This project re-presents metadata scraped from the ACLU’s Torture FOIA Database in an online visual exhibition, generating a new form of confrontation with records of state violence by the George W. Bush administration and US government actions related to rendition, detention, abuse, and torture during the “War on Terror.” The exhibition highlights short document summaries written by ACLU paralegals who reviewed each original document for content related to possible government abuse. The viewer can access slideshows of these summaries by document type to explore court martial proceedings, legal memos, letters, and other materials, some of which show evidence of the state’s complicity in human rights violations. Links to the full document PDFs and the full ACLU database records are provided below each summary. The project aims to provide a sense of the scope of these human rights abuses and help viewers easily access primary source evidence. Simultaneously, the project aims to highlight the crucial significance and utility of metadata in providing meaningful access to information.

Notes on the Project Development: This project uses data scraping to highlight metadata written by document collectors/archivists, focusing viewers’ attention on what that metadata can convey about records of government activity in the context of state violence. Data was scraped from over 6,000 records from the original ACLU Torture FOIA Database source repository using Python, then parsed using Python to draw out specific document description elements in the repository metadata in order to re-present them to viewers as highlighted information. A Drupal website was customized with slideshow modules to display the results to viewers in a loop. A minimalist visual design approach was maintained to focus on text elements. Code developed in the course of the project was fully commented and preserved on GitHub so that others interested in scraping data from the source collection could use the code as a resource.

View all documents’ metadata in the full project website