Friday, February 8, 2008

Filmmaker Alex Gibney spent part of his Christmas holiday in Cambodia, where, in the capital city of Phnom Penh, he toured what was once the interrogation center of the Khmer Rouge communist regime.

“In the third building I went to, I saw the instrument of interrogation it was a waterboard,” Mr. Gibney says of a pleasure trip that sounds anything but merry.

“Now, with a waterboard,” he goes on, “they managed to obtain confessions of crimes against the state from all 14,000 people they interrogated. What does that tell you about intelligence? Does that tell you that all 14,000 of those people were guilty? Or that they got exactly the result that they wanted?”

Waterboarding is unambiguously a form of torture, say many critics; a “harsh interrogation technique,” say wary defenders. Whatever you label it, the method, which has its roots in medieval religious conflict, is only the tip of the iceberg in Mr. Gibney’s Oscar-nominated documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side,” a methodical, unflinchingly graphic indictment of the treatment of terror suspects by U.S. military and intelligence services.

Measured though its anger may be, the movie, opening today in the District, spills into an excess of its own, painting torture not as an isolated outrage that ensnared an unfortunate few, but as a systemic betrayal of values that colors the entire American justice system.

The director sees torture as a “28 Days Later”-like virus that was incubated by a portentous statement by Vice President Dick Cheney on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” days after September 11, 2001. U.S intelligence services would have to journey to “the dark side” and “use every means at our disposal” to defeat the enemy, the vice president said.

Eventually, Mr. Gibney believes, torture became its own perverse circular justification: The Bush administration, consciously or not, got what it needed from its policy of harsh interrogations: namely, intelligence that bolstered the case for wider war.

He cites the faulty evidence supplied by Abu Zubaydah, an al Qaeda lieutenant who turned out to be mentally ill and possibly exaggerated his role in the terrorist network, and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the source of much of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s discredited 2003 testimony at the United Nations leading up to the Iraq invasion.

“You begin to see the danger of torture,” Mr. Gibney says on the phone from his office in New York. “Suddenly, a lot of false information creeps into the system, and, lo and behold, a lot of that false information just happens to be absolutely consistent with the political aims of the Bush administration.”

He cautions, however, that the thrust of the movie isn’t about Iraq. (He’s opposed to the war there but supported the Afghan campaign.) “It’s about how we behave as Americans, what respect we have for the rule of law and ultimately what respect we have for our own fundamental character,” he says.

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Mr. Gibney, whose last film, “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” sought to illuminate pre-September 11 corporate malfeasance, had been approached about doing a documentary on the torture debate. What clinched it was the experience of his father, journalist and Asia expert Frank B. Gibney, who died in April 2006.

The elder Mr. Gibney left Yale University during World War II to attend the U.S Navy’s Japanese Language School at the University of Colorado. He interrogated Japanese prisoners in Hawaii and later on Okinawa.

“One of the things he was doing as an interrogator was not only getting information that was going to help his fellow soldiers, but also upholding the rule of law and a sense of pride in our principles,” says Mr. Gibney. “The Japanese weren’t abiding by our rules. But our response was not, ‘OK, they’re not following them, so we’re not going to follow them either.’

“We had a more high-minded and ultimately far more effective response — one of the reasons, I think, that the occupation of Japan went so well,” he continues, adding that the Japanese imperial army was “every bit as bad as al Qaeda.”

Born of “ignorance, arrogance and fear,” Mr. Gibney says the anti-anti-torture virus flowed through legal opinions proffered by John Yoo, a former aide in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and a memorandum by Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general.

He says the logic of such reasoning proceeded as follows: “This is a war, not a civil action. Therefore, the rules of jurisprudence no longer apply. But guess what, this is a special kind of war, and the Geneva Conventions don’t apply either. So what does apply? Nothing. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want — no law.”

That message, or something like it, made its way down the chain of command. What was and was not permissible came down to a loose interpretation of adjectives like “inhuman,” “degrading” and “humiliating.”

The new methodology — “stress positions,” sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation among them — migrated from the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to an internment complex in Bagram, Afghanistan, and finally to the Iraq theater, most famously and grotesquely at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Mr. Gibney places the blame for maltreatment squarely on civilian leaders. Torture’s fiercest critics, he says, are not merely human rights watchdogs, but military men such as Vietnam veteran and torture victim Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and the former Navy general counsel Albert Mora, who appears in the film.

“Many of the complaints about torture have come from the military,” Mr. Gibney says. “There’s a longstanding body of evidence that shows that intelligence obtained from torture is unreliable. I won’t say it’s always inaccurate. I’m just saying it’s unreliable.”

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The dramatic thread of “Taxi to the Dark Side” is the story of a 22-year-old Afghan taxi-driver known simply as Dilawar. Turned over to U.S. forces in December 2002 by Afghan militiamen on suspicion of involvement in a rocket attack on an American base, Mr. Dilawar, almost certainly innocent, was chained to a cell for the bulk of four days and struck repeatedly by interrogators. The blows to his legs aggravated a heart condition and eventually led to his death.

The incident was a startling wake-up call to senior military officers.

According to a New York Times report, in the wake of the death of Mr. Dilawar and another Afghan inmate, “interrogators were prohibited from any physical contact with the detainees. Chaining prisoners to any fixed object was also banned, and the use of stress positions was curtailed.”

Also, in a recent letter to Congress, Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said waterboarding hasn’t been conducted in several years — though he did not rule out the authorization of its future use.

In addition, 1st Lt. Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 3rd Brigade of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and on a security mission with the National Guard at Guantanamo Bay, says that while “I can’t speak for what went on inside those rooms,” torture was “never a policy as an infantry unit.”

He calls documented instances of abuse “deplorable” and stresses that it was the military itself that uncovered them.

“Have we made mistakes? Have bad things happened? Sure, and I don’t defend any of that,” Lt. Hegseth, now the executive director of Vets for Freedom, a group formed to counteract anti-war groups like Code Pink and, says.

“We bent over backwards to make sure these people were treated well.”

Mr. Gibney came away from “Taxi to the Dark Side” with unexpected sympathy for those convicted of wrongdoing in the Dilawar case. While they were hardly victims, he says, they were scapegoats for an atmosphere of moral uncertainty they didn’t create.

The movie perhaps presses its case too far when, in its closing frames, it follows a taxicab in the shadows of the U.S. Capitol complex. The implication: You, too, might meet the same fate as Mr. Dilawar.

The possibility that ordinary Americans will be affected by interrogation practices that have been exposed and suspended (to the best of our admittedly limited knowledge — only a few know for sure what the CIA is currently up to) is as remote as the “24”-esque, ticking-time-bomb scenario so often served up by proponents of harsh interrogation techniques.

However, the damage — a propaganda coup for the enemy, the undermining of America’s moral standing in the world, ruined lives — may have been bad enough as it was.

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