The Worst of the Worst
We conclude that the War Crimes Act does not apply to the interrogation of al Qaeda and Taliban detainees because, as illegal belligerents, they do not qualify for legal protections under the Geneva or Hague Conventions that section 2441 enforces.
—John Yoo, Memorandum, March 14, 2003
The abuse, rising to the level of torture, of those captured and detained in the war on terror is a defining feature of the presidency of George W. Bush.
—Philippe Sands, “The Green Light” (Vanity Fair May 2008)
We would interrogate some of these guys just to interrogate ‘em, and it was ridiculous. I mean, you’d get some of these guys in and you’re like, “This is the wrong man, it’s just not who we’re supposed to have.”
—Pfc. Damien Corsetti
In the “infamous torture chambers left over from Saddam Hussein” at Abu Ghraib, “there were fingernail marks on the walls and bloodstains on the guillotine.” Walking through the rooms, says by Eric Lahammer, a former U.S. military interrogator, “It was a pretty surreal feeling.” Dark shadows intimate the scene, partly remembered, partly repressed, as Pfc. Damien Corsetti corroborates, after a fashion: “Put people into crazy situations,” he says, “and people do crazy things.”
According to Taxi to the Dark Side, Alex Gibney’s extraordinary, harrowing, and Oscar-winning documentary, these “crazy things” were not accidental, deviant, or the work of a “few bad apples.” Rather, the “enhanced interrogation techniques” committed by U.S. troops and civilians has been ordained and conditioned by the Bush administration. Specifically, the abuse and abusers have been granted legal and a perverse sort of moral cover by the twisting of language and concepts, deliberate efforts to “get around” long-held “rules” of war.
The film, which premieres on HBO 29 September, begins and ends its exploration with Dilawar, a 22-year-old Afghan taxi driver who was picked up and delivered to the Bagram Air Force Base prison in December 2002. 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?” 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 had similar injuries, 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.” When most of the charges associated with the cases were dropped, 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.
As Gibney’s film demonstrates, the techniques used at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and other sites have several points of departure, each chilling in its own way. Consider, for one, the admission by Condeelezza Rice that the National Security Council discussed torture by the CIA in 2002 and 2003 (noting this admission on the Huffington Post, Gibney calls the Bush administration “the Torture Team”). For another, the film’s title refers to the pronouncement by Dick Cheney that motivates Taxi’s title (along with the title of Jane Meyers’ book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. Appearing on Meet the Press during the week after 9/11, the vice president also known as Darth Vader 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.”
This working of the “dark side” has been simultaneously 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 John Yoo’s now notorious January 2002 torture memo,” Then deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, Yoo advised 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, because their use 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.” Among those soldiers convicted are Pfc. Lynndie England (sentenced to three years and paroled after 521 days) and Spc. Charles Graner (10 years). As this film and others (Rory Kennedy’s The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure) argue, these soldiers followed directions and insinuations from commanders, however obliquely they were handed down. 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.”
At Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantánamo, the “chain of command” was not subverted by the use of torture; rather, it was reasserted. Rear Admiral John Hutson says, “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). And, as Gibney has recently noted,
The film submits that pervasive imagery of (“successful”) torture 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 (author of Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantánamo, Bagram, and Kandahar). He recalls “one of the strangest requests” made to him during his two years detained, namely, that he identify soldiers who abused Dilawar and 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 documentary 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 blames the “extreme interrogators,” he also alludes to what he 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.” The American refusal even to acknowledge culpability has been costly, in terms of U.S. citizens’ trust and respect elsewhere. To underline, the film closes with Dilawar’s story. 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.