February 8, 2008
Welcome to the JOURNAL.
It's been a week since we invited you to nominate the one book you would most like the next president to take to the White House, and we're ready to report on your reading list. You'll also meet a young Hispanic born-again Christian whose organization of 18,000 churches could be crucial to the presidential election in November. And Kathleen Hall Jamieson says this campaign is not only about race and gender but age.
First...Vice President Cheney this week defended how the U.S. treats detainees captured in the fight with terror. "The United States is a country that takes human rights seriously. We do not torture : it's against our laws and against our values."
Maybe, but for a reality check though, you should see a movie opening this weekend that tells a very different story. It's up for an Oscar as one of the most powerful documentaries of the year. Its Director is Alex Gibney, and the story is unforgettable. Go see it. Not in a while has the truth hit so hard. Be forewarne...the images you see may be disturbing.
TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE begins with the disappearance of a young taxi driver named Dilawar in Afghanistan, back in 2002.
Dilawar couldn't work in the fields so he said, "I will take the taxi and bring the family meat and potatoes in the evenings."
Three passengers hired Dilawar to take them home to their village. As the film reports, it turned out to be the wrong place at the wrong time. He wound up in the prison at Bagram Air Base. The filmmakers got inside Bagram for never before seen images of the prison.
The prisoners were kept in these big pens downstairs. And their numbers would be scribbled on the door of the airlock, which was the little passageway that they were taken out of when they were brought up to the isolation cells upstairs.
Detainees were actually chained with their hands above their heads in these airlocks. His number, 421, was something that I could see often because his back was toward me in the airlock. The numbers were written on the backs of detainees in black marker. We all had that as well as on the front.
Dilawar was innocent, just a taxi driver, but that didn't keep him from being tortured to death.
A number of witnesses remember the night before Dilawar died.
Just that one night he got kicked in the leg maybe like 10 times.
Some of the soldiers said they started using the knee-strikes essentially to shut him up because he was yelling and screaming.
The damage that was done was done from multiple strikes, and a lot of that could have been avoided had you known the person before you had fought with him and used that exact technique.
When they eventually came to take him to an isolation cell, I believe his body had become almost limp. One of the reasons why they began punching him was that they felt that he was putting it on.
The film turns to NEW YORK TIMES reporter Carlotta Gall, to find out what had happened to Dilawar.
It took a long time to find the family because the military didn't tell us who they were and we started calling around Governors. They are a very simple farming family. They don't speak English. But they showed me a paper that was given to them with the body. And that's when I opened it up and read it and it was in English, and it was a death certificate from the American military. And it was signed by a U.S. Major who was the pathologist, and there were four boxes and she ticked the box for "Homicide." I said, "my God they've killed him."
But Dilawar and Bagram prison were only the beginning.
Soon after Dilawar's death, the officer in charge of interrogation at Bagram, Captain Carolyn Wood, was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. Following the Iraq invasion, Wood and her intelligence unit were given a new assignment: Abu Ghraib.
"Taxi" follows the trail from Bagram in Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
The only thing I can really remember about Abu Ghraib was the heat. It was like 148 degrees there and it was all concrete. But, Abu Ghraib also had the infamous torture chambers and stuff left from Saddam's era. I remember walking through and seeing like fingernail marks on the walls, and bloodstains and guillotines, and stuff like that. It was a pretty surreal feeling. We went to Abu Ghraib, I believe in July. July or August of 2003, to start that prison.
You put people in a crazy situation and people do crazy things.
Gibney's film makes it clear, the officers and higher-ups knew what was going on.
There were always officers coming and going through the facility. We kind of joked about it as being the greatest show on earth. Everyone wanted to come and look at the terrorists.
Mr. Rumsfeld's office called our office frequently. Very high commanders would want to be kept up to date on a daily basis on certain prisoners there. The brass knew. They saw them shackled, they saw them hooded and they said right on. You all are doing a great job.
The film reports that the encouragement of torture wasn't confined to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Well before the abuses of Abu Ghraib became public, government officials had been quietly raising concerns about harsh techniques in use at Guantanamo.
There were emails back to the Department of Justice from FBI personnel down at Guantanamo saying, you won't believe what's going on down here. We've got to disassociate ourselves as FBI people from what is going on here in Guantanamo. This email says, the DOD has their marching orders from the Secretary of Defense.
Marching orders from the Secretary of Defense, to engage in practices which the FBI finds to be deeply offensive and dangerous. But the emails are what we call redacted, which means there's big holes in these emails. Now some of these emails are totally redacted, so we don't know what they say at all. So that's an example of a lot of the documents that we got here. You know, you can't see anything on these documents. One after another of where there is nothing.
Many of the detainees were caught up by a net of corruption fueled by money, revenge, or just pure chance.
Despite Rumsfeld's and Cheney's and President Bush's allegations that these guys are the worst of the worst, that they were all captured on the battlefield, recent studies of the whole compendium of the government's documents show that only 5% of these people were picked up by the United States. Only 8% of them are accused of being members of the Al Qaeda. Over 90% of them were picked up by Northern Alliance or Pakistani forces in exchange for bounties.
We have large rewards out. We have leaflets that are dropping like snowflakes in December in Chicago.
I was kidnapped, abducted, falsely imprisoned, tortured and threatened with further torture, without charge, without trial. Even many soldiers had said to me afterwards, what the hell, if you weren't a terrorist when you came in here, by the time you leave I'm sure you would be because if the way you've been treated.
TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE. The director, Alex Gibney, also brought us THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, about how Kenneth Lay and his friends in high places produced the Enron scandal. That one was about greed and chicanery. TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE is about depravity and deceit.
I knew Alex Gibney's father, Frank, an accomplished writer and journalist. He had been a navy interrogator of Japanese prisoners in World War Two. At the end of this film he literally comes off his deathbed to warn us that the terrorists have already won...once we reinvent ourselves as their mirror image.