Rory Kennedy Reveals the Ghosts of Abu Ghraib

The images burn like a scar on the moral face of America: naked Iraqi prisoners placed in humiliating positions by taunting American soldiers; a hooded Iraqi prisoner forced to stand on a box, arms spread wide, with electric wires attached to his hands; an Iraqi prisoner with both his arms and feet manacled to the bars of his jail cell.

These are the images from Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison that scandalized America and the world when they emerged in May 2004.

For documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, those photographs produced more than anger and disgust. They inspired her to make a film about Abu Ghraib and the wider question that the abuses raised about U.S. policy and torture.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and aired on HBO the following month, was released last Tuesday on DVD (HBO Video, $24.98, not rated).

Kennedy, the 11th child of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy — she was born in December 1968, six months after her father was assassinated — has built an acclaimed career making documentaries about modern social problems. She produced and directed such award winners as 1999’s American Hollow, about a family in Appalachia; and 2002’s Pandemic: Facing AIDS, a miniseries about the global AIDS crisis.

These and other works by Kennedy aired on HBO, and the cable network has had a relationship with the filmmaker for nearly 10 years.

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib started out as a film about genocide — in particular, understanding the perpetrators of genocide, says Nancy Abraham, vice president of documentary programming at HBO.

But during the course of Kennedy’s research, Abraham says, “the situation in Abu Ghraib came to be interesting enough to warrant doing a film on just that subject.”

Abraham says she was not concerned about financing and airing a film that is critical of the Bush administration’s policies on the use of torture and the interrogation of prisoners.

“We consider it to be a bipartisan film,” she says. “Torture is an issue that transcends the individual parties.”

Kennedy’s film provides a history of the Abu Ghraib scandal and places the events that took place there within the context of the Bush administration’s attempt to redefine torture.

It looks at what has taken place at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who was transferred to Baghdad shortly before the abuses at Abu Ghraib began.

It cites U.S. government memos and congressional testimony that expand the notion of what is permissible in the interrogation of prisoners of war and enemy combatants. And it interviews experts on the psychological and physical impact on detainees of using such “enhanced interrogation techniques” as stress positions, sensory deprivation and hooding, forced nakedness, the threat of electrocution, “waterboarding,” barking dogs and sleep deprivation.

Most strikingly, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib includes interviews with some of the American soldiers charged with committing those notorious abuses, other soldiers who revealed what was going on, and Iraqi prisoners who were abused or witnessed abuses.

We recently talked to Kennedy on the phone from her New York office.

When did you first learn about Abu Ghraib prison?

I learned about what happened at the time everybody else did, when the images first came out in the media, on 60 Minutes and in the New Yorker article (by Seymour Hersh).

What was your reaction when you saw the photographs of naked prisoners and laughing American soldiers?

I was horrified and shocked and disgusted. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this was part of U.S. policy. I really thought, “Who were these people who could have done such horrendous things? How could Americans treat somebody else so inhumanely? What would motivate this type of action?”

Why did you decide to make a film about it?

Those same questions continued to haunt me. I wanted to understand the psychology of the people who were behind it. … I was able to interview a number of people who were at Abu Ghraib when a lot of these abuses had taken place in fall 2003, and people who were directly involved in the abuse. And when I asked them why they did what they did, they all said the same thing, which is, “I did it because I was told to do it by people higher up the chain of command, and this was standard operating procedure at the time.” I think the film maintains that kind of psychological lens but also expands into more of an investigative film.

Having interviewed some of the military police and members of military intelligence who committed these abuses, did you change your opinion of them?

When I had the opportunity to meet them and sit down and interview them, I actually felt that they were very humane and very much like me and probably you. I was able to see their humanity and connect with them emotionally. They, in fact, were not monsters.

How did you find the Iraqis for on-camera interviews?

I went through an organization in Pennsylvania that is representing many of the Iraqis in a class-action suit against some of the independent contractors. They had relationships with a number of people who had been in Abu Ghraib and trusted us enough to provide introductions to the Iraqis after identifying three or four, and ultimately six, who might be willing to speak with us.

Was John Yoo (the UC Berkeley Boalt Hall law professor who was in the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003 and the author of a memo that attempted to redefine the meaning of torture) the only defender of U.S. policy who agreed to be interviewed on camera?

Yes. We approached the vice president. We approached the president, Gen. Miller, Secretary Rumsfeld, but (Yoo) was the only person in the administration who was willing to speak with us on camera.

When Yoo says there is no evidence of any higher-up authorizing the actions taken by the night shift at Abu Ghraib, is he telling the truth?

I don’t think that is a truthful statement. Maybe he’s unaware of all the evidence. It’s hard to imagine somebody in his position — and he’s very, very smart — to have not looked at all the evidence. … But that is an inaccurate statement, based on everything I learned and know about what happened at Abu Ghraib. I think it flies in the face of … (interrupts herself). You know, part of the issue is that there are holes in the investigation, in terms of saying, “Did George Bush know exactly what happened? Did Cheney know exactly that happened? Did Rumsfeld know exactly what happened?”

I can’t say definitively that any of them knew, but there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that they did. We have not had a proper investigation to find out, (one that) really looks up the chain of command. … So part of the film is to say we don’t know definitively all of these answers. I think there is enough evidence that really indicates that Gen. Miller put these policies into place. But for some of the others in the chain of command, I think there’s still a lot of question marks.

Your film puts forth the opinion that the Bush administration has changed the historic U.S. policy toward the treatment of prisoners of war or enemy combatants. Yoo argues that al-Qaida represents a different sort of enemy than we’ve ever encountered before — they’re not a state or a country, they abide by no established rules of warfare, they aren’t signees to the Geneva Conventions and hence do not have to be governed by them. How do you respond to that argument?

I would say that throughout different times in our history, in various wars, we’ve always felt that the enemy was a new type of enemy and a new challenge. Throughout all of these times, as a country we have stuck to our principles. … The quote I use from George Washington is very relevant because at that time, during the Revolutionary War, the British soldiers were beheading American prisoners of war, they were torturing them, they were killing them. And George Washington said, treat (captured British soldiers) with dignity and respect.

I’m sure you saw or heard about the recent Republican presidential candidates’ debate and the answers of some candidates to moderator Brit Hume’s hypothetical question about interrogating a suspected terrorist. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said: “My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo. … And enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used — not torture but enhanced interrogation techniques.” And another participant, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, said, “I’m looking for Jack Bauer at that time,” referring to a fictional TV character who does repeatedly violate the Geneva Conventions. Only Arizona Sen. John McCain called enhanced interrogation techniques “torture.”

It’s just mind-boggling to me that people look at what happened at Abu Ghraib and say that there have been different times in our history where we have abused and tortured people, and this is destined to happen in a time of war. But the enormous departure here is that for the first time in our history our leaders are arguing for torture.

But they say it’s not torture. President Bush says, “We do not torture.”

But that definition of torture is so narrow that nothing is torture unless you kill somebody. And even there, you have to intend to torture them (to death). It’s a remarkable departure and, again, I think it diminishes us as a people. It’s unstrategic in the war on terror. We used to be a nation that was known for its moral values and respect for human dignity, and now we’re known as a nation that tortures. I think it has positioned us very differently in the international community. … If you maintain the moral high ground, that allows you much greater freedom and integrity to pull the world toward your side, which is what you need to do in the war on terror.

Do you view your work as carrying on the tradition of your father, Robert Kennedy, in terms of his fighting for social justice?

I don’t think of it as a continuation of his work, but I certainly think I was influenced by the person that he was and have made a range of choices because of what he contributed to the world. I have enormous respect for all that he accomplished in his short life and how much he was able to move people and touch people. I’ve certainly been inspired by that.

Finally, what are you working on now, and what’s in the pipeline for you?

(Laughs) I have a baby in the pipeline, due July 6.

I’m going on maternity leave. I’m also doing a project on (reporter) Helen Thomas for HBO. It’s a very different film from this one, and a welcome departure.