They’re a very frail people and I was surprised it had taken that long for one of ‘em to die in our custody.
—Pfc. Damien Corsetti, Military Intelligence, Bagram
If the FBI had felt that there was a case to answer for, they wouldn’t have taken me into Bagram where I was held, heard the sounds of a woman screaming next door, had me hogtied and threatened to send me to Egypt in order to get me to sign this.
—Moazzam Begg, Now 2006 July 28
In December 2002, a 22-year-old Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar was picked up and delivered to the Bagram Air Force Base prison. Five days later, he was dead. Sgt. Thomas Curtis, one of the Military Police at Bagram, remembers, “There was definitely a sense of concern because he was the second one. You wonder, was it something we did?”
As detailed in Alex Gibney’s devastating documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, Dilawar’s demise was officially termed a homicide, like the first detainee to die at Bagram, Habibullah. Captured by a warlord and handed over to the U.S. just days before Dilawar, Habibullah as deemed “an important prisoner,” hooded, shackled, and isolated, periodically beaten for “noncompliance.” Autopsies showed that Dilawar and Habibullah suffered similar abuses, including deep bruises all over their bodies; according to the Army coroner, Dilawar suffered “massive tissue damage to his legs… his legs had been pulpified.” And yet, despite initial concerns among the guards and interrogators at Bagram over an investigation, instead, the officer in charge of interrogation at the prison, Captain Carolyn Wood, was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor and, following the Iraq invasion in 2003, she and her unit were sent to Abu Ghraib.
Methodically, relentlessly, Gibney’s Oscar-nominated film assembles stories, evidence, and testimony from witnesses and experts (its deliberate structure recalls that of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, both films suggesting that, if the Bush Administration had not already put in place legal protections, more than one member might be subject to criminal charges). The many decisions and oversights that produced the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that would be used at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and other sites have several points of departure, each chilling in its own way. Not least among these is the pronouncement by Dick Cheney that motivates Taxi‘s title, made during an appearance on Meet the Press during the week after 9/11. Describing imminent changes in interrogation policies, the vice president asserted,
We have to work sort of the dark side, if you will, spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in. It’ll be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.
This working of the “dark side” would be both notorious and secret, planned and haphazard, illegal and, in some instances, calculated to toe a seeming legal line. Above all, the film argues, the work was instigated and often overseen by military officers and administration officials, who created a “fog of ambiguity, coupled with great pressure to bring results,” such that young, untrained soldiers were following orders that were not spelled out. Chief among these sources of confusion is the January 2002 torture memo” written by John Yoo, then deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, advising the suspension of the Geneva Conventions in cases deemed appropriate by the president. Taxi describes the memo as giving “legal cover for the CIA and Special Forces to embark on a secret program of previously forbidden interrogation techniques,” including the use of dogs, nudity, stress positions, sleep deprivation and waterboarding. This even as military lawyers disputed such methods, especially as the use of such “extreme acts” left soldiers vulnerable to criminal charges—though, as it has turned out, those who directed them have not been subject to prosecutions.
Working the “dark side” demands such hierarchy, so that the U.S. can continue to put on a show of “justice” and fairness; as Donald Rumsfeld declared following the exposure of photos from Abu Ghraib, “The world will see how a democratic system a free system functions and operates, transparently, with no cover-ups.” The trials that resulted, however, have covered up all kinds of responsibility, what with Pfc. Lynndie England sentenced to three years imprisonment (paroled after 521 days) and Spc. Charles Graner to 10 years. As the film notes in one of its resonant section titles, England and Graner were not only “bad apples.” As Spc. Tony Lagouranis, of Military Intelligence in Iraq, puts it, “Obviously what they were doing in those pictures was not sanctioned by the military rules of engagement, and they weren’t interrogators. So yes, I did think that they were bad apples. However, I also think that they were taking cues from intel.”
While most charges associated with the Dilawar and Habibullah cases were dropped, several soldiers pled guilty or were convicted, including Pfc. Willie Brand, Spc. Brian Cammack, and Sgt, Anthony Morden (who notes in the film that this process allowed the Army “to get a public opinion that they were policing their soldiers”). But such cases, the movie submits, are only covering up broader policy. At Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantánamo, the “chain of command” has not subverted by the use of torture; rather, it has been reasserted. (here it’s worth noting that, even as some experts and even some politicians are calling for Guantánamo’s closing, Bagram is expanding.)
As Rear Admiral John Hutson describes it, “What starts at the top of the chain of command drops like a rock down the chain of command, and that’s why Lynndie England knew what Donald Rumsfeld was thinking without actually talking to Donald Rumsfeld.” All interviewees in Taxi assert that torture does not produce useful intelligence (the most egregious case noted here is that of Abi Faraj al-Libbi, whose coerced and inaccurate “confession” of ties between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda found its way into Colin Powell’s infamous speech at the United Nations in 2003). The film suggests that its pervasiveness in popular culture (exemplified by scenes from 24) has led to what Alfred McCoy (A Question of Torture) calls “a constituency for torture that allows the Bush White House to get away with the way it twists laws and treaties.” Such twisting is denounced in the film by lawyers for detainees and former detainee Moazzam Begg, who recalls “one of the strangest requests” made to him during his two years detained, namely, that he identify soldiers who abused Dilawar and agree to testify against them in court (this while he was unable to get access to a lawyer or court proceedings for himself; he was released in 2005, under pressure by the British government).
The film includes examples of other, frankly astounding twists, including the designation of detainees as NEC (Not Enemy Combatants) or later, NLEC (No Longer Enemy Combatants), patently senseless labels that turn time and logic inside out. As Begg’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, says, NLEC means “We want to say they were guilty to begin with, but now we’ve had a change of heart, so they’re not guilty anymore, but we were right in the first place.” Detention hinges on lack of information: according to Rear Admiral James McGarrah, of the Office of Administrative Review for Detained Enemy Combatants, “[Detainees] may not ever know [the evidence against them], but that doesn’t eliminate the opportunity they have to make a case for why if they were returned in the future, why they would not continue to pose a threat.”
All this twisting lays ground for future problems. According to Jack Cloonan, FBI Special Agent from 1977-2002, “We don’t know what revenge is coming down the road.” Indeed, he says, the most effective way to “incite the faithful” would be to show the photo of England holding the dog leash, “and just point to that, and look at the young brothers and say you’re duty-bound now to get revenge.” While Cloonan here casts blame on the “extreme interrogators,” he also alludes to what he later calls “a certain level of prejudice, that this religion and the people who have hijacked it have such a disregard for life that we turn around and say if they think so little of life—and clearly, 9/11 exemplified that—screw them. Anything goes.”
Taxi to the Dark Side insists on an accounting for this “anything.” And for all its brilliant dissecting of U.S. policy, practice, and cover-up, it closes with an effort to make Dilawar visible once again. Effaced from the trials in which some of his torturers were named, he is represented here by his family, embodiments of the “human dignity” and commitment to “inalienable rights” lost during this long, slow, ongoing journey to the dark side.