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“The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”–Doc Traces Path to Torture of Prisoners at Infamous Iraqi Prison

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“The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” a new HBO documentary, traces the political and legal precedents that led to the torture of prisoners at the infamous Iraqi prison. It includes numerous interviews with U.S. soldiers directly involved with torture at Abu Ghraib, Iraqi torture survivors as well as experts, legal scholars and former government officials. We speak with acclaimed filmmaker Rory Kennedy. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Support for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is eroding on Capitol Hill as more lawmakers from both sides of the aisle join the chorus of voices calling for him to step down over the U.S. attorneys controversy. If Gonzales resigns, his legacy will forever be tainted by the Justice Department scandal, but his most infamous act was not the U.S. attorneys’ firings. Was it his role in paving the way for torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay?

As White House counsel, Gonzales advised President Bush in a 2002 memo that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to the treatment of enemy prisoners in the so-called war on terror. Many say that helped lay the legal groundwork for the torture of prisoners. Another memo sought by Gonzales provided a narrow definition of torture so as to allow very severe interrogation techniques. This is John Yoo, a formere Justice Department official at the Office of Legal Counsel.

JOHN YOO: Our office eventually issued a memo in August of 2002 to the White House. “Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt from the HBO documentary The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. The film traces the political and legal precedents that led to the torture of prisoners at the infamous Iraqi prison. It includes numerous interviews with American soldiers directly involved with torture at Abu Ghraib.

SPC. SABRINA HARMAN: They were stripped one by one and then stuck into a pyramid. If I saw something, I took a photo of it. The first thing I think of is to take photos. That probably sounds really sick, but I’m always taking photos. I mean, that’s just me.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Army Specialist Sabrina Harman. Those photos she is talking about and many others depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners were eventually leaked to the press and revealed to the world. Horrific images showed Iraqis with bags over their heads, beaten, set upon by dogs and forced into sexually humiliating acts. This is Javal Davis, another U.S. guard at Abu Ghraib.

JAVAL DAVIS: What’s going on with the nakedness? It’s like, why are all these people naked? You know, I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life—you know, naked prisoners with panties on their heads, in compromising positions, you know, locked up. And so it was, what’s going on with that? I didn’t understand that.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to interviews with former prison guards, HBO’s The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib also features the voices of Iraqi torture survivors. In the film, former Abu Ghraib prisoner Mohammad Faraj Mohammad describes his treatment at the hands of U.S. forces.

MOHAMMAD FARAJ MOHAMMAD: [translated] They would make us listen to weird sounds, either through a loudspeaker or a headphone. Every day, they wouldn’t let us sleep. At times, they would get a few inmates, torture them, and keep them screaming until morning. That was on a regular basis. Fifty nights with no sleep at all. Just hunger, abuse and harassment.

AMY GOODMAN: The film, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, includes interviews with numerous legal scholars, experts and former government officials. Alfred McCoy, author of the book A Question of Torture, is among those featured.

ALFRED McCOY: The part of this that we don’t understand is the powerful appeal and enormous destructiveness of torture, why when you give an order, you know, and you give a signal for a little bit of torture, why it spreads like wildfire. There is no such thing as a little bit of torture.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpts from the documentary The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Rory Kennedy is the producer and director of the film. She is one of the nation’s most prolific independent documentary filmmakers, focusing on issues such as poverty, human rights and AIDS. She is the co-founder of Moxie Firecracker Films. Rory Kennedy joins me now in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

RORY KENNEDY: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: A powerful film. Talk about why you took on this subject and especially its relevance today with heat on the White House and the attorney general.

RORY KENNEDY: Well, I, like so many other people in this country and abroad who were struck by these photographs when they came out, was really horrified by what I saw. And the question that kept haunting me was, who were the people who engaged in this level of abuse? Why would Americans do this? Were these psychopaths? Were these monsters? Or were they the kid next door thrown into a situation? And so, a concept of the film was really to try to do kind of a psychological analysis of understanding what would motivate somebody to abuse another person in such an extreme way.

But what I found when I was ultimately able to get access to a number of the guards who were involved in the abuse, when I asked them, “Why did you do this?” they all said the same thing, which is, “I did it because I was told to do it.” And so, the film becomes not just a kind of psychological profile, but also an investigative piece to understand who told them to do what, when, and what were those circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: You had quite a showing on Capitol Hill, when you had both Janis Karpinski there, who was demoted, and also the South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Talk about what happened.

RORY KENNEDY: Well, we did have a screening. And Senator Kennedy was there, as well. There was a panel.

AMY GOODMAN: Your uncle.

RORY KENNEDY: Yes. Senator Kennedy and Senator Graham, and Senator Graham had — when he was asked by Jeffrey Toobin, who was moderating the panel, “Who was really responsible for what happened at Abu Ghraib?” he, you know, mentioned a number of different organizations and kind of groups of people, but the person that he really targeted was Janis Karpinski. Unfortunately, Janis Karpinski — he didn’t realize that Janis Karpinski was in the audience, because he had arrived a little late. And so, Jeffrey Toobin then gave her an opportunity to defend herself, and she really went in on the attack. One of the things that he had said was, you know, she should have been court-martialed, and she rebutted, “You know, I wanted to be court-martialed. I wanted to go to court, but nobody would let me, because they didn’t want me to tell the whole story of really what happened.” So it got pretty heated.

AMY GOODMAN: She called Senator Graham a coward.

RORY KENNEDY: She did, she did. And, you know, he stood his ground, but it was — you know, I think it’s telling. I think this continues to be an issue that touches a lot of people and brings a lot of issues to the surface. It’s an important issue.

To me, the film is not just about what happened at Abu Ghraib. It’s about who we are as Americans. And, you know, are we going to be a country that says it’s OK to torture, to treat some people inhumanely? And I think that touches on a point which is very sensitive to a lot of people. And so, we’ve had a number of screenings that have been quite emotional.

AMY GOODMAN: Right now, the scandal that’s going on in Washington, you also have the Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit that’s been brought in Germany, because they have universal jurisdiction. That is a suit against Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, Generals Sanchez and Geoffrey Miller, and it’s around crimes against humanity, it’s around torture. Janis Kapinski is one of those who will be speaking, making the complaint in that CCR lawsuit. Alberto Gonzales is being talked about now, but not so much around torture. You go into it deeply with John Yoo and others. Can you talk more about Alberto Gonzales’s role and the White House’s role in authorizing this, if you will?

RORY KENNEDY: Well, what I found in making this film is, to date, eleven low-ranking soldiers have served time for what happened at Abu Ghraib, but unfortunately nobody up the chain of command has faced any significant penalties. And that is despite an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests that not only were people up the chain of command aware of what was going on in Abu Ghraib, but, in fact, in many cases they authorized it. And I certainly think that Alberto Gonzales played a significant role in that process by creating the legal justification for a lot of what was ultimately carried out, not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout other Iraqi prisons that were run by the United States, as well as in Afghanistan and, of course, Guantanamo.

You know, it’s easy to look at the photographs and say, “OK, this soldier is abusing this detainee. Let’s throw him in prison.” But there is a very direct line to people who were up the chain of command who are absolutely responsible. And, you know, the chain of command is in place in order to hold people accountable who are in that chain of command and who are — in fact, there’s a law, a chain-of-command law that says if you are up the chain of command and either knew what was happening down the chain of command or should have known, then you should be responsible for what happened. And, unfortunately, that law has never been implemented in the war on terror.

AMY GOODMAN: As the daughter of another attorney general, Robert Kennedy, and the filmmaker who did this piece, do you think the current attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, should be held accountable for this, should be found guilty of crimes against humanity?

RORY KENNEDY: You know, I think that the other thing I found in making this film is that we really haven’t had a kind of 9/11-style commission report on what happened at Abu Ghraib. To date, there have been a number of different reports that have been done, but they have all either been financed by the military or have been so narrowly focused that we really haven’t been told the real story of what happened.

I certainly think there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests that Alberto Gonzales was a significant player in terms of what happened in the ground at Abu Ghraib, and I think that there’s enough evidence that we should go to trial on it, that we should hold him accountable and get to the bottom of exactly what happened, not only with Gonzales, but there were a whole range of other players, many of whom you just mentioned — Miller, Sanchez — where there are direct links, you know, to the decisions that they made and to documents that we show in the film, which really approve a lot of what we see in these photographs, a lot of the images.

And there has been really no investigation. You know, Congress has heard eleven hours of testimony on what happened at Abu Ghraib, and this is in contrast to the 300 hours we heard in the Clinton postcard scandal, right? So there really isn’t, given the, I think, significance of this event, there really hasn’t been an appropriate focus on exactly what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the role of, well, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and then Bush?

RORY KENNEDY: Well, again, you know, I think there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that people very high up, and certainly Rumsfeld, knew what was going on. But in order for us to really get to the bottom of it, we need an independent prosecutor who can ask all these questions and hold people accountable. I approached all of those people, asked them to be in my film, so that I could ask them these questions, and, of course, they just said, “No, we’re not going to be in your film.” So I don’t have the authority to say you have to be in this film and you have to answer these questions, right? But an independent prosecutor would have that authority. And that’s why it’s so important.

But, to me, the film is also not just about what happened at Abu Ghraib, but it’s also looking at the policies that were put into place that I think contributed to what happened at Abu Ghraib. And, unfortunately, a lot of those policies are still in place today. And we continue to be a nation that says it’s OK to treat another group inhumanely, it’s OK to torture. And I think we need, as Americans, to understand what the implications of that kind of policy are, including the Abu Ghraibs of the world, because they’re going to continue to happen if we have a policy where we say it’s OK to torture.

AMY GOODMAN: You have these rare interviews, Rory Kennedy, with both the soldiers who engaged in it and also the torture victims. I want to start with the soldiers. Why did they agree to talk to you? Who were you most struck by in what they told you?

RORY KENNEDY: Well, the soldiers were striking, I think, for me, because I, like so many other people, I think, had preconceived ideas of the type of person who would commit these types of acts, that they had to be, you know, violent, have violent tendencies, that they on some level were not like me or you, that they were monsters at their core. And what I found was that they were, in fact, very likable, and that I could see their humanity in looking at their eyes, and was able to connect with them. And it was very hard to reconcile that experience with the reality of what I was seeing in the photographs and the images.

But what it says to me is that, you know, most of us, when we’re told to do something by somebody in a position of authority, tend to follow those directions, and that’s why I open the film with the infamous Milgram study, which showed that 100 percent of people, when they were brought in and asked to shock somebody who they knew to be innocent, were willing to do so simply because somebody in a white coat in a position of authority asked them to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Briefly explain the Milgram, as we’ve passed the anniversary of it?

RORY KENNEDY: This was a study that was done in the early 1960s in New Haven by a man named Stanley Milgram. And basically he asked a number of people in the community to come in, a range of professionals, working-class people, sat them in a chair, and across from them was a man who they knew to be innocent, and they were asked to shock this person every time he got a question incorrectly answered. And what the study found was that 100 percent of the participants were willing to shock this man, and over 50 percent were willing to do so at 450 volts, which was the maximum amount.

AMY GOODMAN: They just kept increasing the voltage.

RORY KENNEDY: Yeah, exactly, and is arguably a lethal amount. And what he concluded from this study was that people really do what they’re told to do by people in a position of authority. And in large part, I think that’s what happened at Abu Ghraib, is that, you know, we saw an overwhelming amount of evidence that really said that the people on the ground were absolutely told to do most of what we saw.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s end with the prisoners, the people who were tortured. How did you track them down?

RORY KENNEDY: I worked with a group in Philadelphia, a legal group, Susan Burke, who was representing a number of the prisoners in a class-action suit against independent contractors. And she ultimately was able to put me in touch with a number of the prisoners who were willing to speak with us on camera. And they were not willing to be filmed in Iraq, because they felt the situation there was too precarious, too dangerous, so we ended up flying them to Jordan and filming them there.

And, you know, I think that they offer a dimension to the film that is really important and a dimension to this story, because we’ve seen the photographs, but we haven’t really heard the voices of those who were most directly involved. And it really made me feel, in talking with them and interviewing them that the photographs were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the level of abuse, the constancy of it, and the degrading nature of it and the horror of it, really. They were so dignified in their telling of these horrific events and, I think, so courageous in their willingness to even speak with me. And I think their voices are essential. And as, you know, we know that in this war in Iraq, in general, we really haven’t heard from the Iraqis, right? We’ve heard a lot of people talking about the Iraqis, but we haven’t heard from them directly. And so, it was important to me in this film to hear from the people who are most directly involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Rory Kennedy, thank you very much for being with us.

RORY KENNEDY: Thank you.

ANY GOODMAN: The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is chilling, it is unforgettable, and unfortunately it is all too real.

RORY KENNEDY: Yes, and it’s on HBO for the rest of the month, so I hope people will tune in.

AMY GOODMAN: Rory Kennedy, producer and director of The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, co-founder and co-president of Moxie Firecracker Films, thanks for joining us.

RORY KENNEDY: Thank you for having me.

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