The Book of Torture: Turning the CIA's Dark Language Into Literature

A very late night with Brooklyn's Melville House as it races to publish the Senate report

At 11 p.m. on Thursday night, an office-wide call for coffee went out at the Melville House, a small independent publisher based in Brooklyn.

There was a problem, though. Actually, there were two. The first was that there really wasn't time for a coffee break; the team had only 10 hours to finish formatting the Senate's report on CIA torture to meet the printer's deadline. There were still hundreds of pages to line-edit and plenty of the report's countless footnotes to arrange. The second problem was that no one entirely understood how to use the coffee machine.

The Melville House sits a block off the East River in a Brooklyn neighborhood known only somewhat recently as DUMBO—Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. The publisher's presence there predates the surge of boutique stores and condos that have made the area an unlikely venue for a literary outfit. As the office toiled away, transcribing and arranging the report's dark language, an overnight guest at the Cheeky Dog daycare next door carried on an endless bout of barking.

In a statement earlier this week, co-publisher Dennis Johnson explained why the Melville House, which boasts two Nobel Prize winners on its catalogue, would issue a report that documents one of the most unsettling chapters of the country's recent history. “Our fear was that, with all the distractions of the holiday season, the report would fade quickly from the news cycle,” he said.

Since the report is in the public domain, Melville House didn't have to pay for the rights. The urgency to publish it quickly was in part to capitalize on the awareness about the issue as well as beat potential competitors to the punch. Nevertheless, the importance of the Senate report as a document of this era was also a major factor in the decision to release the report as a book.

There's more to it than just that. Place the material before a group of literary minds, and a discourse begins. The report's reference to Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar, the pseudonyms of the CIA's contract psychologists who were paid $81 million to help create the interrogation program, recalled "Thomas Pynchon names," according to some of those gathered.

Other passages in the text were reminiscent of "a John le Carré novel," "an Oscar Wilde story," and "a really boring porno." (The delirious team of about 15 employees and volunteers, which had been working on the project more or less without rest since Tuesday, found this last remark hilarious.)

The report's linguistic flourishes were noted. "He sang like a tweetie bird. He opened up right away and was cooperative from the outset," one quote read. One official repeatedly referred to the detainees as "yahoos."

Around midnight, a new volunteer arrived. Senior Editor Mark Krotov led him to a table strewn with pages of the report and falafel sandwiches. The report had been scraped from a PDF, which meant that some of the words had been jumbled and had to be fixed. The most onerous task, though, was approximating the space in the text for the endless redactions in the report.

Each space would be filled in with "TK," the editorial abbreviation of "to come" in journalism and publishing. "We're doing our best to preserve the size of the breaks," Krotov wearily explained.

As the night wore on, there were still plenty of other details to iron out. Under which genre would the book be categorized? What about the italics? Shortly after the new volunteer settled in, another question came from the room. "Are we normalizing the spelling of al-Qaeda or going with discrepancies from other publications in the report?"

At around 1:30 a.m., one volunteer flagged a section where it was determined that former CIA Director Michael Hayden had lied to Congress. This revelation produced an extended conversation over the overarching "stylistic choice of 'inaccurate' to indicate lying" in the report. It was time to go.