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Week of 3.7.08

Transcript: Torture Tactics: Interview with Alex Gibney

BRANCACCIO: "Taxi to the Dark side"—the documentary that won this year's Oscar—is a gripping story about how American soldiers killed an innocent man—an Afghan taxi driver who was being interrogated. The film is also an exploration on how Americans in and out of uniform view civil liberties and human rights in an age of fear and anxiety. The film's director has some thoughts on what this means for the race for president and the future of this country.

Alex, saw you at the Oscars the other night. Congratulations.

GIBNEY: Thank you, David.

BRANCACCIO: Was it tough talking about torture in such fancy company?

GIBNEY: Oh. It's not exactly what you wanna talk about. But I did feel that I needed to mention a few things, you know. I—I did say the words "Guantanamo"—extraor—"extraordinary rendition," "Abu Ghraib." So, I got it out. But yeah, it wasn't easy.

BRANCACCIO: You win the Academy Award in the middle of this great flurry of democracy that's going on right now. This very intense Presidential primary campaign. Is your film gonna have an effect on that? Is this issue of harsh interrogation, torture going to be an issue in—in politics this year?

GIBNEY: I think it should be. And I think it probably will be. Because what my film goes to the heart of is how we fight the war on terror. Not only how we did fight it, but what are we gonna do about that in the future?

And indeed, are we gonna allow terrorists to provoke us to undermine our own fundamental principles? And are we going to work to preserve or recapture our status in the world community? These are big issues.

BRANCACCIO: You actually can foresee a candidate for President speaking out vigorously against torture or at least engaging the issue?

GIBNEY: I think so. Because torture or the abrogation of human rights ultimately becomes a fundamental issue when you're talking about fighting the war on terror. And I think that McCain will confront it. And he'll confront it from some experience. The question is whether or not he's willing to ride against the more extreme elements of his party to really tell the truth on this issue. And I think both Hillary and Barack Obama have shown the—the ability to confront this issue.

BRANCACCIO: It's not gonna be a contest of who can be more macho? I mean, that's typically what you do when you're trying to run for President.

GIBNEY: Well, the whole macho thing has to be reexamined. Because in my view, the Bush administration was weak, not strong. To engage in a policy of torture is a weak policy. Because ultimately, it encourages the terrorists. It undermines our own values. It corrupts our system. And it doesn't get good intelligence.

BRANCACCIO: But pop culture's against you on this. You turn on—well, your film points out, shows like 24 that almost embraces torture.

CLIP—"24" Jack Bauer: "You're gonna tell me what I want to know or you're gonna start losing your fingers one by one."

GIBNEY: 24 glamorizes torture. I don't think there's any other way of putting it. But—and it does have a real impact. I know that Jane Mayer wrote an interesting piece about how—

BRANCACCIO: Jane Mayer, the New Yorker reporter.

GIBNEY: That's right. Key professors from West Point actually went out to Hollywood to beg them to please stop. Because they were having such a powerful influence on the cadets that no matter how much at West Point they taught them that rapport-building was a far better and far more effective technique for obtaining true information—nevertheless, the kids were like, "Oh man, that's old-school. Let's look at how Jack Bauer does it." And there's a tremendous emotional resonance to that. I mean, when you're hit, you wanna hit back. It's just natural.

BRANCACCIO: Just on this point about the way so many Americans seem to think, "Well, look. Time-a war, gotta use some-a those harsh interrogation techniques because we gotta stop further mayhem." Since that seems to be the view of so many Americans, makes it tough for you as a filmmaker.

GIBNEY: Well, part of what I have to do in the film is to take people through the process so that by the time they get to the end of the film, they may question some of their preconceptions. Because the fact is that—torture or cruelty, official cruelty—doesn't make us safer. It makes us less safe. It provokes a—a kind of thirst for revenge that the FBI and other people have told me about in al-Qaeda, that is certain to focus more attacks on us.

BRANCACCIO: I wanna continue to conversation about what torture does for America, what it does to America. But let's get a piece of this narrative here from the film. Taxi to the Dark Side starts out with the story of an Afghan taxi driver. His name is Dilawar?

GIBNEY: That's right.

BRANCACCIO: And he gets busted for what?

GIBNEY: Dilawar gets busted by Afghan militia for allegedly having masterminded a rocket attack on an American base. They found some kind of electric stabilizer in his car, or claim to. He's turned over to American forces, flown to the—prison at Baghram Air Force Base.

VO: It was later discovered that the young taxi driver had not been a terrorist at all. In fact, he'd been turned over to the coalition forces by the very people who carried out the rocket-attack.

GIBNEY: And he's interrogated for three days. After the third day, they pretty much—conclude that he's innocent.

BRANCACCIO: And one of the soldiers that you interview in your film is getting that impression. He's talking about just that interrogation.

CLIP—Glendale Walls: I was yelled at for being too nice to him by Sgt. Loring. That I needed to put more pressure on him. As he liked to say, I needed to take him out of his comfort zone.

BRANCACCIO: Well, they did get Dilawar, the taxi driver, out of his comfort zone. What'd they do, shackle him with his hands over his head?

GIBNEY: What they did to Dilawar is really appalling. I mean—as part of a sleep-deprivation technique which was becoming ever more prevalent in Bagram, they shackled him—to the ceiling of his—interrogation cell, his—his—his—his isolation cell. And then over a number of days, guards, as a control member, begin to knee him in the upper thigh over and over and over again.

BRANCACCIO: As a way supposedly of controlling him?

GIBNEY: That's right. But over time, they became so—you know, he became such a hated figure because he kept calling out. He apparently had asthma and couldn't stand to have this hood over his head, which he had constantly. And so, he was screaming out for his mother and father. They couldn't understand him. They wanted him to shut up. So, they kept kneeing him in his legs over and over and over again. One guard kneed him so many times, he had to change legs because one of his legs got tired. What that did to him was that—ultimately, his legs, according to the Army coroner, who classified his death as a homicide, said that his legs had become pulpified. And that caused a pulmonary embolism—which rose to his heart and killed him.

BRANCACCIO: Coroner. So, he died?

GIBNEY: That's right.

BRANCACCIO: Now, a lotta these soldiers who talked to you served time for the killing of the taxi driver Dilawar. Justice served?

GIBNEY: Justice served in part. The problem was, I mean, I think some of these guys did do stuff that they should've been punished for. They felt, I think properly, though, that they were scape-goated. Because their superior officers, the people who stood by and watched while they did some of these things like shackle Dilawar to the ceiling and rain blow after blow upon his legs, weren't really properly investigated, much less convicted.

BRANCACCIO: In the film, you used the phrase, "force-drift." What is that?

GIBNEY: Force drift refers to a kind of tendency in soldiers that when they have a prisoner —in their control, and I should add it's totally in their control, the person is helpless, that when you try to get information outta them, there's a kind of natural tendency when they don't give you that information, to kinda ramp up the violence, to get tougher.

LAGOURANIS: You feel sort of morally isolated and you lose your moral bearings. And you're frustrated because you're not getting intelligence from a prisoner that you believe is guilty and has intelligence to give you. And so, of course you want to start pushing the limits and see how far you can go.

GIBNEY: As one guy—Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson says in the film, you know, you have a dog. And according to the manual, the dog is supposed to be muzzled. Well, you don't get the information, "Take off the muzzle." Then the dog gets closer and closer and closer. And then who knows what? So, I think the problem which the military has known about for some time is that when you're out on the battlefield or near the battlefield and your—fellow soldiers are dying in battle, there's a natural tendency to wanna strike back. That's why the Army had hard and fast rules and regulations about how to conduct these interrogations. It was the civilian administration that began to remove to restrictions.

BRANCACCIO: Because when you talk to some of these soldiers who were involved in what was ultimately the killing of Dilawar, they tell this to you about the rules as they saw them.

CLIP—GLENDALE WALLS: We were all worried about not having that written guidelines. They kept reassuring us that it was coming.

DAMIEN CORSETTI: We knew exactly why we weren't getting the clear guidance, just in case something like this happened.

GLENDALE WALLS: If I had to do it again I'd probably say no... just. I'd be, like, I'm not doing anything until I see something in writing.

AG: And do you think, I mean, looking back, you think you were misled?

WALLS: I think we all were.

GIBNEY: There were times when people like Donald Rumsfeld gave explicit instructions for coercive interrogation. But there were other times when the way it worked was, the administration was removing all the restrictions and confusing people.//

TONY LAGOURANIS: All of those things that I did that I would consider harsh techniques, or violating the Geneva Conventions, I was told to do. So we were told to do that to these people by our superiors.

GIBNEY: And you just saw it at Abu Ghraib. It was like, you know, rumbles underneath the ground. And suddenly there's a volcano which shows that there are huge seismic shifts going on.

BRANCACCIO: And for Americans who are very focused on preserving national security, being tough against terrorism, those images that came out of Abu Ghraib —undermined, in your view, our security?

GIBNEY: I think in the view of most Americans, those images coming out of Abu Ghraib undermined our security. But I think the images out of Abu Ghraib became recruiting posters for al-Qaeda and for other terrorist organizations that said, "See? The United States doesn't stand for—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It stands for torture." That it became a kind of recruiting poster against the United States of America, which after all, look, the stated goal of Osama bin Laden and the goal of most terrorists is not to capture territory. It's to use violence to provoke an overreaction by liberal democratic societies, to force us to undermine our own principles. In this case, you would have to say in the words of George Bush, mission accomplished.

BRANCACCIO: As we move out of your film just for a moment and talk about the present day, a lotta this stuff is right smack in the headlines again. We have a new-ish attorney general, Mukasey, neither for nor against this process of interrogation that apparently we've inherited from the Spanish Inquisition. It's called waterboarding?

GIBNEY: Well, waterboarding—is clearly torture. And it's clearly illegal. And the fact that our most senior law-enforcement officer, Michael Mukasey, refuses to —call it what it is, which is an illegal technique of torture, is just mind-boggling to me. And I think it—it shocked some of his supporters, even some of the Democratic supporters like Charles Schumer, you know, who said that he was gonna be a fair-minded official.

BRANCACCIO: Now, the head of the CIA, Hayden, he says they're not doing the waterboarding anymore. They did some back in 2002, 2003. But not anymore. That not good enough for you?

GIBNEY: Well, it's possible that he's telling the truth. But then how long did it take it for —take us for the CIA to admit that they had done it in the first place? And now, lo and behold, the—the—videotaped images of waterboarding are missing. Oh, they've been erased and what also—Hayden isn't telling us is how often—CIA officials looked on while other authorities, either contractors, civilian contractors, or—authorities from other governments, were performing waterboarding while they watched on. And the CIA may not have done it themselves. But they authorized or encouraged other people to do it. So, there's a lot more to be investigated. The question going forward, and I —I think right now the CIA is probably not using waterboarding —But for some bizarre reason, the administration is intent on preserving its flexibility in this issue, so that perhaps they can use waterboarding in the future.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, it's argued that this is part of the legal view that during a time of war, and apparently we are at war, the President should have absolute discretion to do what he needs to do to fight that war.

GIBNEY: Absolute discretion and total authority. He should be able to do whatever he needs to do. And this was the argument of David Addington, the general counsel to Vice President Cheney. And also, John Yoo, that for a long time, their view had been that in a time of war, the Commander in Chief should have absolute authority to do whatever, including torture. In my view, in my humble opinion and the opinion of many legal scholars, the President should not have the ability to break American law. He is not king. Yet, presumably, some of these officials feel that when it's a Republican President in charge, that it's okay to ride —ride roughshod over the American Constitution.

BRANCACCIO: These trials that are now planned for Guantanamo of senior suspected Al Qaeda members, there's a sense that the Bush administration is really doubling down on this issue. Last summer, there was talk of maybe shutting down Guantanamo. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell called for the shutting down of Guantanamo with the view that it's doing terrible damage to America's image abroad. And now, they're gonna set up the type of tribunals that will attract more media attention than in practically the history of the world.

GIBNEY: That's right. They're determined to show the world and the American public that they were always right. And that these were the worst of the worst and they're gonna get them. Well, some of these guys are bad guys. Let's face it. But what we want I think and what the victims of 9/11 want is true justice. We don't want railroading of people who may or may not have been guilty or who may have been innocent. And yet, William Haynes, this guy who recently stepped down from the Pentagon, said, told one of the prosecutors in the military commissions that he would not allow any acquittals. Well, what does that tell you about what kind of justice this is? Is this a real tribunal or is it a kangaroo court?

BRANCACCIO: You went to Guantanamo. You went to Afghanistan. You went to a lot of places for this film. My team and I myself went to Guantanamo.

GIBNEY: Sure.

BRANCACCIO: And when you sit down with the commanding officer at the time, you met the same guy, General Hood. He makes a very vivid point. Take a look at this.

CLIP—GEN. JAY HOOD: We're holding enemy combatants here, men that were taken off the battlefield in the Global War on Terror, many of them who posed a significant threat to the United States and our allies and many of whom possessed intelligence information that would be valuable to us in that conflict.

BRANCACCIO: Do you wrestle with yourself over this issue? That if—if your—if your crusade here to bring this issue of harsh interrogation and torture in front of audiences, could it aid and abet the really bad guys that the general's talking about?

GIBNEY: No, I don't think it aids and abets them at all. I think what we're doing or what the Bush administration is doing in Guantanamo in terms of abridging human rights and also its—its stated policies of—of cruelty and interrogation, that's what's aiding and abetting the terrorists. And you know, if—there are some bad guys in Guantanamo. But there are also a lot of innocent people or people, if they're not innocent, there are no charges that you could prove against them. But the process of justice has been so perverted. You know, 93 percent of the people who are in Guantanamo were not picked up by US or coalition forces. And many of them were sold to us for a bounty of up to five thousand dollars. Now, in Afghanistan, five thousand dollars is a lot of money. You'll throw overboard almost anybody, maybe your own mother, in order to get some cash. So, there are a lot of people who are in Guantanamo who shouldn't ever be there. So, you have to ask yourself, what is the purpose of creating a rigged system of justice that is not intended to get at the truth?

BRANCACCIO: It's gonna take some leadership, whether or not it's Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama—

GIBNEY: John McCain.

BRANCACCIO: John McCain. There needs to be some kind of leadership to produce a profound shift towards that kind of thinking in this country. That's not where American heads typically are at.

GIBNEY: No. I think it goes back—leadership going forward, I think will have to embrace a new definition of what strength is. And that I think remains to be seen. I don't think any President who's gonna take over in 2009 is going to suggest that we dismantle our military forces. But the question is, are we gonna engage the rest of the world or tell the rest of the world that we're now the top dog and we're gonna do whatever we want. In the long run, I suspect that that's not a very good policy.

BRANCACCIO: Director Alex Gibney, or I should say Oscar winning director Alex Gibney, "Taxi To The Dark Side", thank you very much.

GIBNEY: Thank you, David.

BRANCACCIO: The NOW team's been running around the country for months working to really understand this year's historic campaign. As part of our "Adventures in Democracy" series, we've been asking folks: "What is the biggest threat to our Democracy?" Here some of the threats we're hearing: starting with the persistent urge of politicians and the media to please.

BAI: In my mind, the greatest threat to democracy we face now is this impulse to want to confirm for people what they believe rather than to challenge their preconceptions or to tell them difficult truth. The more uncertain things become, the more people want to tell you what you want to hear. We've left the age of persuasion and we've entered the age of confirmation where people don't listen to an argument and maybe change their mind anymore. They hear an argument, and if it's not what they already agree with, they go somewhere else.

BRANCACCIO: It may also be about what politicians do with the power we hand them.

FOLKS: I was at a Barnes and Noble the other day, pickin' up a book. And—the lady behind the counter—asked me that very same question. "What is the greatest danger to Democracy?" And I think it's—it's corruption. It boils down to not bein' able to trust, you know—people to, A) keep their word—but B) do the right thing when they're in office.

BRANCACCIO: One congressman worries about where America's core values have gone.

FEENEY: The greatest threat to American democracy is failing to educate our children on the traditional values that Americans stand for. A democracy can only function with a highly literate and educated electorate that shares a common creed and common values. I don't think we're doing enough in that regard.

BRANCACCIO: There is the concern that in a dangerous world it's not only our security that's at risk.

WYNN: In the age of fighting terrorism we are going to have to—to constantly find the proper balance between protecting our civil liberties and protecting our security. Both in how we treat American citizens and how we treat people who are called enemy combatants. I think that's the biggest challenge. Finding that right balance.

BRANCACCIO: Others believe that it's the problem of getting the real info.

FOLEY: Think the greatest threat to democracy is having a public that thinks it's fully informed but really isn't very well informed at all. Too often—in this digital age we jump right to the debate without having the facts. We need good quality journalism so that—the citizens—of the United States who live in a very complex world now are able to say, "These are the facts. I know what the facts are. They've been presented to me in a way that I can trust that information. And then I'm gonna make my decision as an informed citizen."

BRANCACCIO: Let us leave you this week with a gentle reminder.
If you like what you see here. And on other PBS programs including Bill Moyer's Journal and Frontline, and want to see more programs like it, this is the time to cast your vote by giving generously to support your local public television station.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.