Already nominated for an Academy Award for ENRON: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Alex Gibney’s latest documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) is again a contender in this year’s Best Documentary category. After premiering at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Best Documentary, the film opened theatrically in January. By probing the homicide of an innocent taxi driver named Dilawar at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, Taxi is a powerful film that exposes the Bush administration’s torture practices in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.
The film poses fundamental questions about the myriad ways in which the administration’s “war on terror” undermines the rule of international law. It’s the first film since 9/11 to offer a comprehensive analysis of how the U.S. government has handled and redefined the use of torture and to suggest what consequences those decisions have on the standing of the U.S. in the world. The Rail’s Williams Cole recently spoke to Gibney as Taxi premiered theatrically and as Gibney prepared to take his just completed film about Hunter S. Thompson to the Sundance Film Festival.
Williams Cole (Rail): What was the U.S. government’s position on torture before 9/11, and what changed after that?
Alex Gibney: The official position and the unofficial position was that we weren’t practicing torture. That remained the official position even in the aftermath of 9/11. But at the same time Dick Cheney made his famous remark that “We are going over to the dark side.” The idea was that he felt we had to get tough, take the gloves off and use more forceful, enhanced interrogation techniques in order to prevent further attacks and in order to find out what had happened.
Rail: But while torture was officially banned, surely there were other times in recent U.S. wars when something like it took place?
Gibney: I think you can look at Vietnam and say it wasn’t such a pretty picture. But what’s different about this war is that there was a concerted attempt inside the executive branch to change and fiddle with the laws, to tinker with the footnotes, so that they could create a kind of de facto policy that would allow them to engage in what every other liberal democratic society would call torture. What changed is that it was on a policy level, coming out of the executive branch.
Rail: Once Cheney and others initiated this radical shift, how did their strategy and tactics play out? A powerful part of the film is your interviews with the very interrogators who ended up killing Dilawar. Was the administration partly to blame for what happened?
Gibney: Well, it’s complicated. And it’s not clear, but I think in a way it’s not clear by intention. They did a lot of things in the Office of Legal Counsel, in conjunction with John Yoo and David Addington and then Alberto Gonzales, who was counsel to the president at the time. And then there was an attempt to try to tinker with the law to allow particularly the CIA, but also the rest of the armed forces, more flexibility in terms of conducting interrogation in order to get information quickly. There’s now a pretty good and long trail of records of how that played out. At the same time, while they were doing this, a lot of the folks at the Office of Legal Counsel—which renders decisions on how to apply the law for the executive branch—as well as in the White House were concerned that what they were doing might just amount to war crimes. There were discussions about this and there was a great deal of effort made to ensure that the decisions that were coming out of the Office of Legal Counsel would protect them against any kind of persecution should something go wrong.
Rail: So they created a situation where the soldiers on the ground, the interrogators, and the MPs were under pressure to get information, but there were no clear guidelines that might lead to holding people up the chain accountable.
Gibney: There was enormous pressure put on interrogators to obtain intelligence, but there were very few guidelines on how to obtain that intelligence. Somebody in the film calls it a “fog of ambiguity” because all these decisions were coming out based on questions like: did the Geneva Conventions apply in Afghanistan, or was Afghanistan a failed state? Did the Geneva Conventions not apply because these guys weren’t wearing uniforms? There was a flurry of decisions questioning whether or not the old rules applied and whether we were in a so called “new paradigm.” The general feeling on the ground was: what rules are we following? We have evidence of how this played out on the ground and some of that comes up in the film, where suddenly Military Intelligence Officers were telling MPs how to treat prisoners, which is not the way it’s supposed to work. And they are using techniques which are verboten. They are shackling people from the ceiling of the cell, they are engaging in sleep deprivation programs to soften them up, using dogs, using loud music. What’s interesting is that a lot of it is not a result of an order that came down from on high, that said “In Afghanistan you shall now use sleep deprivation techniques.” Some of it evolved. Some of it spread like a virus from CIA interrogators who were using different methods. But what you see is this kind of a blurring of the lines and a sense that now, anything was possible, and nobody knew exactly what the line was, so they kept crossing over.
Rail: What about the genesis of some of these techniques that are used, such as stress positions and sleep and sensory deprivation?
Gibney: Some of them come out of World War II where the Germans used a lot of these techniques—for which they were prosecuted, by the way, in the Nuremberg trials. But a lot of them came out of the 1950s with people like Donald O. Hebb—a Canadian psychological researcher mentioned in the film—who was studying certain techniques that could be very vicious even while not seeming to be outwardly violent. The thing that Hebb was interested in was sensory deprivation, and he discovered that you could scramble someone’s mind very quickly by depriving them of any sensory input, by hooding them, putting gloves over their hands so they are in total silence and dark— you can see this done now in video now of prisoners being walked outside in Guantanamo and other places. Other researchers also discovered that forced standing, where you have to stand in one position, is something the human body is not built for and that it can become excruciatingly painful. If you read the Kubark interrogation manual, in which some of these techniques were compiled and introduced for use by the CIA, one of the things discussed is how forced standing is particularly effective because it’s self-inflicted pain. In other words, it’s not something that somebody’s doing to you and it’s almost more psychologically debilitating because you’re standing there and your body is breaking down. Now, a lot of these things are designed under laboratory conditions—but when you have something like the case of Dilawar, you can see how it gets out of control so quickly. They were certainly using stress positions in interrogation with him and others. There’s no question about it. They were putting people up against the wall, and forcing them to sit without a chair. But I think they were probably under-manned, and they were trying to keep these guys awake. So they shackle them to the ceiling of an isolation cell to keep them awake and blood runs to the legs and then when poor Dilawar starts to scream and moan, possibly because of health problems, possibly because he’s young and scared, they start beating him in the thigh repeatedly—a massive amount of blood results, something that contributes to his death.
Rail: Why does it seem there is not as much shock and outrage among the American public as there should be? Is it because these techniques seem softer, perception-wise, to people?
Gibney: Yes, I think that’s partially it. And the military and the administration do a pretty good job, aided by people like Rush Limbaugh and others, of mocking people. Even Giuliani recently laughed about sleep deprivation—“Hah!” he said, “You should try campaigning for a while. That’s sleep deprivation! I should be accused of torturing myself.” So that’s the kind of thing that plays well on the campaign trail. It suggests that critics of torture are liberals who coddle people in interrogation. And it’s hard for people to understand that actually there are many career military officials who are arguing forcibly for not using these techniques. In terms of public perception, I think there was outrage after Abu Ghraib, but someone being forced to stand in one place for 48 hours doesn’t cause a similar reaction. Waterboarding has assumed a lot of importance because most people see it as abhorrent. In any case, I think that the other thing the administration has been terribly good at is convincing people that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” need to be practiced in order to protect us. So, why would anybody object to that? If we have to get tough to save a lot of lives, if we have to make a few people stand a little longer than they might otherwise do, why should people care? I’ve talked to very rational people about these issues, and you can give them all the rational arguments as to why torture is a bad idea, but they’ll still say “Yeah, but sometimes you have to do it, right?” It’s a peculiar human blind spot where it’s like people are saying, “You just gotta do it…but don’t tell me about it.”
Rail: That brings us to a central point of your film, how the use of these techniques is like a virus, an infection that can spread. How has this changed, maybe sullied, the way that we, as Americans, look at ourselves?
Gibney: I think it has badly damaged our national character and the sense of how the rest of the world views us. Some cynics might say, “Look, Americans have always done bad stuff.” But the point is, this time we’ve actually taken steps to go into the boiler room and actually change the fundamentals of who we are as Americans. Of course, in the past we have had pernicious policies born out of fear—the detention of Japanese Americans in WWII, for example. I think that this is always a tension in a liberal democratic society: when there is a threat—and 9/11 was a blow—how do you respond? Usually we rely on professional military people who understand fear pretty well, because they deal with issues of fear and aggression all the time. I mean, that’s their stock and trade, after all. If you’re in the military, you are there knowing that you might die, and you are going to have to kill people. So they deal with these issues all the time and think about them all the time. But clearly this leadership didn’t think about it very much and they weren’t very much steeped in military traditions. I think they were peculiarly willing to sacrifice core values for political gain. The big story here is that this was not a policy that was carefully directed. In some ways it was put together by people who were arrogant, ignorant and maybe panicky. And there was the idea that if we get tough—meaning if we get violent or cruel—good things will result. But instead there were a lot of unintended consequences. There are people who believe that this was all intentional. I think it was reckless but not always intentional. It’s a tough-guy stance, but what people haven’t really uncovered is how weak that stance is. This is really the stance of weak men. It’s a bully stance. Bullies are always weak men, or weak boys, who parade as tough guys. And it’s that illusion of tough that really carries the day.
Rail: So what’s the next step to try and reverse these practices?
Gibney: I think the only way to go forward into the future is to hold people accountable for what’s been done in our name. We’ll see whether or not the investigation into the destruction of the CIA tapes leads to a broader understanding of a criminal conspiracy. But I think somebody needs to look at how these policies were developed and how people seemed to fly in the face of the law to accomplish them. It’s an old story on some level: bad stuff happens that the American people might get upset about and so they prosecute a few “bad apples.” But in this story it’s particularly pernicious because so much work went into it by top officials to protect themselves legally, either by pure decisions of the Office of Legal Counsel or by ramming through the Military Commissions Act to make sure the guy at the bottom gets punished. So the only way to move forward in the future, I think, is to prosecute. Of course, there are a lot of problems with that, particularly with the Justice Department that’s been so badly corrupted itself, and with the Congress that seems so weak. But if we did it I think the world would admire us, and I think we would feel better about ourselves. The rule of law, after all, is what we’re supposed to stand for.