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February 8, 2008

Enhanced interrogation. Black sites. Extraordinary rendition. Enemy combatant. These are just a few of the new terms making their way into the American vocabulary.

In 2003, the abuses at Abu Ghraib leaked to the press and the world. Since then, a steady stream of reports has suggested that some American agencies have used a network of secret prison, extraordinary renditions and brutal interrogation tactics on suspected terrorists. And, recently, the CIA has admitted that it has employed water-boarding, a tactic outlawed by U.S. Criminal, Military, and International law. The news has inspired a frank debate about torture. What is and isn't torture? Is it ever okay? If so, when? And how do the interrogators know?

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, the new film from Alex Gibney (ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM), steps right into the middle of this debate. The film explores the death of an innocent taxi driver while in American custody at Bagram Airforce Base in Afghanistan, and, through interviews with interrogators, investigative reporters, and administration officials, a larger story of American detention and interrogation policies in the fight against terrorism. The film graphically portrays the realities on the ground and should complicate legal and moral responses at home and in the legislature.

Americans Debate Interrogation Tactics
In a recent poll, 69% of Americans said they think water-boarding is torture. And, 40% believe that it would be okay for the government to use the tactic some of the time. In another poll, 61% of Americans thought torture was justifiable in certain circumstances.

This circumstance is often the "ticking bomb" scenario, a familiar staple of television and movies. Joel Surnow, the co-creator and executive producer of the popular show "24" summarizes the argument for the New Yorker:

"Isn't it obvious that if there was a nuke in New York City that was about to blow — or any other city in this country — that, even if you were going to go to jail, [torture] would be the right thing to do?"

"24" briefly became the touch point for the national debate on torture when the dean of the military academy West Point, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, visited the producers of "24" to inform them that their show was giving cadets the wrong idea about interrogation. The cadets idolized Jack Bauer's approach to interrogation: a heroic but brutal contest of wills ending with one side (usually an evil-doer) "breaking" and surrendering the information, allowing the hero to defuse the "ticking bomb."

"24" is not an exception in popular culture. Human Rights First, the organization that organized the meeting, has been tracking the increase in instances of torture in prime time television since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

As in prime time, so too the debate percolates amongst the intelligentsia. Robert D. Kaplan summarized a few of the positions in his NEW YORK TIMES review of two books on torture:

"The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz argues for legally sanctioning torture in "ticking bomb" cases. "At bottom, my argument is not in favor of torture of any sort," he says. "It is against all forms of torture without accountability." His rationale is that in ticking bomb cases the idea that torture in some form will not be used is illusory, and the government should not be able to walk away from responsibility for it. That, in effect, would leave the interrogators with all of the legal and moral blame. Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of ethics at the University of Chicago, counters that torture is so extreme that it should remain "tabooed and forbidden," and that any attempt to legitimize torture even in the rarest of cases risks the slippery slope toward normalizing it. Seeking a middle ground, Miriam Gur-Arye, a criminal law professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that in the absence of a concrete terrorist threat, only a specific self-defense argument can justify force in an interrogation: it cannot be justified by the more general and utilitarian — that is, Machiavellian — argument of necessity."

A 2006 report, EDUCING INFORMATION, commissioned by the U.S. intelligence community, points out that the entire debate may be based on a false premise: that brutal interrogations actually illicit useful information.

Steven M. Kleinman, a reserve senior intelligence officer for the Air Force's Special Operations Command and former interrogator, noted the widespread misunderstanding of real interrogation in the report:

A major stumbling block to the study of interrogation, and especially to the conduct of interrogation in field operations, has been the all-too-common misunderstanding of the nature and scope of the discipline. Most observers, even those within professional circles, have unfortunately been influenced by the media's colorful (and artificial) view of interrogation as almost always involving hostility and the employment of force — be it physical or psychological — by the interrogator against the hapless, often slow-witted subject. This false assumption is belied by historic trends that show the majority of sources (some estimates range as high as 90 percent) have provided meaningful answers to pertinent questions in response to direct questioning (i.e., questions posed in an essentially administrative manner rather than in concert with an orchestrated approach designed to weaken the source's resistance).

And last October, WWII interrogators explained that their most successful tactics weren't nearly as controversial. THE WASHINGTON POST reports:

"We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture," said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess.

Review additional voices in the debate below and continue the discussion on the Moyers Blog.

Published on February 8, 2008.

Related Media:
Jack L. Goldsmith on the torture memos
Former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under George W. Bush, Jack L. Goldsmith, discusses the Administration's expanded view of executive power and the now infamous torture memos.

YouTubeArchbishop Desmond Tutu
Bill Moyers sat down with Archbishop Tutu in 1999 discussing his chairmanship of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

YouTubeScott Horton on NOW
David Brancaccio spoke with Scott Horton about the legal underpinnings of the War on Terror and American detention policy. Scott Horton is a New York attorney known for his work in emerging markets and international law, especially human rights law and the law of armed conflict. Horton lectures at Columbia Law School.

License to Spy
Bill Moyers talks with former Congressman Mickey Edwards and ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero about revisions to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

References and Reading:
The Film

Taxi to the Dark Side
Visit the official website for the film.

Alex Gibney talks to Scott Horton
Read Scott Horton's interview of TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE filmmaker Alex Gibney on Scott Horton's NO COMMENT blog.

Cheney on Meet the Press
The full "dark side" conversation between Vice President Dick Cheney and Tim Russert from which the film takes its name.

Torture and the Law

The Geneva Conventions
Explore the history of what's "fair" in wartime.

Summary of International Laws Prohibiting Torture
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH summarizes applicable U.S. and international laws prohibiting torture.

Military Laws
The Amy's field manual addresses what is and isn't permitted in human intelligence gathering. The "McCain Amendment" requires that the Department of Defense comply with these guidelines.

The Torture Debate

Learn more about Guantanamo.

Prisoner Policies
Learn more about the controversy surrounding American treatment of prisoners during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The Truth about Torture"
Charles Krauthammer lays out the case for torture in extreme times.

"Is torture ever justified?"
The first article in a three article series from the Economist about civil liberties after 9/11 explores the morality of torture.

"Normalizing torture on 24"
NEW YORK TIMES reports on the use of torture in "24".

"The CIA's Torture Teachers"
How psychologists helped the CIA develop new interrogation tactics.

"Cheney Defends Use of Harsh Interrogations"
Vice Presdident Cheney defends CIA interrogation tactics as "safe" and "effective."

"CIA needs more taping, experts say"
Steven M. Kleinman and other experts respond to the destruction of interrogation tapes by the CIA.

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Rev. Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, gives his perspective on the role faith is playing in this campaign season and his take on what's happening with the evangelical vote in the primaries.

Bill Moyers on a new documentary that explores America's debate over torture tactics.

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