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Taxi to the Dark Side: Oscar-Nominated Documentary Film Explores U.S. Abuses in “War on Terror”

StoryFebruary 01, 2008
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Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney joins us to talk about his Academy Award-nominated film Taxi to the Dark Side. The documentary investigates some of the most egregious abuses associated with the so-called “war on terror.” Gibney also directed the award-winning Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: Human Rights Watch released its annual report on Thursday. It accuses the Bush administration of deliberately undermining human rights around the world. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the New York-based rights watchdog group, said that the United States’s “sordid human rights record” makes it embarrassing to criticize abuses in other parts of the world.

    KENNETH ROTH: The Bush administration very deliberately doesn’t promote human rights. It promotes this soft fuzzy concept of democracy. And the reason it does that is because it’s too embarrassing to talk about human rights when it’s been responsible for so many human rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. So it falls back on this feel-good concept.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, speaking out against abuses perpetrated and condoned by the Bush administration. Taxi to the Dark Side

is a new documentary by Alex Gibney that investigates some of the most egregious abuses associated with the so-called “war on terror.” It has just been nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature section.

    NARRATOR: On December 5, 2002, Dilawar, a young Afghan taxi driver, was brought to Bagram. Five days after his arrival, he was dead.

    CARLOTTA GALL: A US major checked the box for homicide. I said, “My god, they’ve killed him!”

    COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: It became plausible to me that this man wasn’t even guilty of anything, and he was murdered in detention.

    PFC. DAMIEN CORSETTI: You put people in a crazy situation, and people do crazy things.

    SGT. KEN DAVIS: People were being told to rough up Iraqis that wouldn’t cooperate. We were also told they’re nothing but dogs.

    SPC. TONY LAGOURANIS: Interrogators were telling the guards, strip this guy naked, chain him up to the bed in an uncomfortable position, do whatever you can.

    TIM GOLDEN: You had these young soldiers, very little training, just as the rules were changing, and they weren’t told what the new rules were.

    SGT. KEN DAVIS: You start looking at these people as less than human, and you start doing things to them you would never dream of. And that’s where it got scary.

    GEN. RICHARD MYERS: It was only the night shift. There’s always a few bad apples.

    PFC. DAMIEN CORSETTI: The brass knew. They saw them shackled and hooded, and they said, “Right on! Y’all are doing a great job.”

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: There were emails from FBI personnel down at Guantanamo saying, “You won’t believe what’s going on down here. We’ve got to disassociate ourselves.”

    CLIVE STAFFORD SMITH: You have no right to a lawyer. You have no right to witnesses. You don’t really know what the charges are. And you certainly don’t know what the secret evidence is against you.

    SCOTT HORTON: They saw an intentional decision taken at the height of the Pentagon to put out a fog of ambiguity.

    VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: We have to work the dark side, if you will. We’re going to spend time in the shadows.

    REAR ADM. JOHN HUTSON: What starts at the top of the chain of command drops like a rock down the chain of command.

    NARRATOR: American values are premised upon the notion of human dignity.

    JACK CLOONAN: We don’t know what revenge is coming down the road.

    PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There will be no outrages upon human dignity. Is it like — it’s very vague.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the Taxi to the Dark Side, the Oscar-nominated film. Alex Gibney is with us now. He wrote, produced and directed, as well as narrated, Taxi to the Dark Side, also directed the award-winning, Oscar-nominated documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ALEX GIBNEY: Thanks, Amy. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this metaphor but also very real taxi, how you began your film.

ALEX GIBNEY: Taxi, the real taxi, it’s an Afghan taxicab driver named Dilawar who was apprehended. He had never spent a night away from home in his life, and he was apprehended first by Afghan militia, then turned over to American troops. Five days after he got to the Bagram prison, he was dead. And it was learned that he was killed, he was murdered, by troops there.

AMY GOODMAN: And he had simply gotten a taxi to make some money for his family.

ALEX GIBNEY: That’s right. He was taking three people back to a small village in Afghanistan, a village called Yakubi, and he was just on his way home and picked up. He was accused of being involved in a rocket attack against an American base. In fact, later on, it was learned that the very people who arrested him were responsible for that attack.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The amazing thing about the film is how you were able to talk about some of the soldiers and their — the powerful way that they describe the impact of these policies from on high on the way that they did their job. Talk about how you got them to open up and be willing to be interviewed.

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, I think part of the reason was that some of them felt scapegoated. I mean, some of them admitted to me that they had done things that they regret that were very wrong, and yet, at the same time, they didn’t understand why they were being punished and the people who either condoned their actions or ordered them were not even investigated, much less prosecuted. So I think there was some sense of that. I think also the word spread after I began to talk to a number of these guards and interrogators that I was trying to do something much more probing than you normally see on the nightly news.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play an excerpt from the film. It features Sergeant Ken Davis — he was stationed at Abu Ghraib – attorney William Cassara, and Specialist Damien Corsetti, who was in Bagram, Afghanistan.

    PFC. DAMIEN CORSETTI: My interrogation training consisted of — basically they taught us some approaches, you know, how to get people to talk. And then, here, go. Go watch these guys interrogate, which were the people that we were replacing, for about five, six hours before I did my first interrogation.

    WILLIAM CASSARA: Damien was picked for this job, because he’s big, he’s loud, and he’s scary. That was his qualification.

    PFC. DAMIEN CORSETTI: “Soldiers are dying. Get the information.” That’s all you’re told. “Get the information.”

    SGT. KEN DAVIS: People were being told to rough up Iraqis that wouldn’t cooperate. We were also told that they’re nothing but dogs. Then, all of a sudden, you start looking at these people as less than human, and you start doing things to them you would never dream of. And that’s where it got scary.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpt of Taxi to the Dark Side. Tell us about these men, tell us about Damien Corsetti, tell us about these soldiers that go through your film, what happened to them, how they got there.

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, the soldiers that I interviewed were interrogators and also military police from Bagram. And some of these people were the guys who were responsible for killing the taxi driver, Dilawar. Others had interrogated him. And they were the beating heart of the film, because initially, I think, one is not terribly sympathetic, considering what happened to poor Dilawar, and yet, over the course of time, you see the horrible position that these kids — and many of them are just kids — were put in. They had no training, and they were forced to do things that ultimately they’ve come back and are deeply haunted by. It’s not something that they ever signed up for. And so, you see how that process worked. As one person says in the film, they were engulfed in what was called a fog of ambiguity, tremendous pressure to get intelligence but almost no training and no guidelines. In fact, the guidelines were purposely removed, Geneva Conventions and so forth.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, the idea, the word was spread down low, and that’s one of the interesting things about talking to these guys, is that they were told that the rules, the old rules that used to apply, the Geneva Conventions, are no longer in effect. This was in Afghanistan. And there were a number of rules coming out of the Department of Justice through the Office of Legal Counsel that tried to indicate that perhaps in Afghanistan the rules no longer applied. Afghanistan was a failed state. And that ambiguity continued, even on into the war in Iraq, when — at least according to some people like John Yoo — you know, the Geneva Conventions should have been in effect. So in the field, the message was clear: the gloves are off, do whatever you need to do to get information. And a lot of military people were deeply upset by this, because there are, you know, very clear rules and guidelines that the military has in place in order to forestall and prevent these kind of abuses that we’ve seen, but the administration, the civilian administration, was taking a very different attitude toward these rules and regulations.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what happened to the men involved in the actual beating and death of this Afghan driver?

ALEX GIBNEY: Some were acquitted, some were convicted, some pled guilty, some served prison time, some were demoted. No officers were ever charged, only the enlisted men. And it’s interesting, at the end of the film, you know, there’s a law that our Congress passed with the urging of the President called the Military Commissions Act. One of the things in that law is a —- what amounts to a “get out of jail free” card for members of the administration who may have condoned or enabled some of the things that these lower-down soldiers were convicted for.

AMY GOODMAN: You have John Yoo in your film, the University of California, Berkeley law professor. Explain his significance.

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, John Yoo worked for the Office of Legal Counsel, and I would say that in the days after 9/11, when Dick Cheney said it’s time to go over to the dark side, which is the other part of the title, John Yoo was a very can-do guy. He was the guy who had a lot of theories about executive power and the idea that the President, at a time of war, as the commander-in-chief, can do virtually anything. And so, he began to churn out opinions in the Office of Legal Counsel that governed what the executive branch in its totality can and can’t do. But these opinions went way over the line, as many people are recognizing now. One of them was the so-called torture memo, in which he basically defined torture out of existence, pulling obscure language from medical statute to try to come up with a rationale for why the only thing that could be considered torture was something that intentionally resulted in death or organ failure. Well, that doesn’t leave much room for anything else.

AMY GOODMAN: And his position at the time?

ALEX GIBNEY: Office of Legal Counsel. He was in the Office of Legal Counsel.

JUAN GONZALEZ: For a while then he became a favorite commentator on the Lehrer News Hour, until more of the information on these memos came out. We haven’t seen him around on the Lehrer News Hour too often lately.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by your nomination for the Oscar for this film?

ALEX GIBNEY: I was elated, let’s put it that way. I mean, this was a very difficult film to make. It also became very personal to me. You know, I included a clip of my father at the very end of the film, to whom I dedicated it. He was a Naval interrogator in World War II, and he was really deeply upset about what was going on at Abu Ghraib and the news that was coming out about other abuses, because he felt, as a Naval interrogator in World War II, that he was standing up for a higher ideal. He got good intelligence. He didn’t have to waterboard anybody. And so, I included him in the film, and I dedicated it to him. So after a long, long struggle making this film, it was a tremendous pat on the back, if you will, or tremendous vindication to have it nominated for an Oscar.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you have any plans to make any strong statements if you win the Oscar?

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, we’ll have to see. I mean, there’s the Oscars up, you know, in the air at the moment because of the Writers Guild strike. But I certainly intend to make my presence felt if I get up there on that podium.

AMY GOODMAN: How long did it take you to make the film?

ALEX GIBNEY: About a year and a half.

AMY GOODMAN: Throughout the film, there is this sense of the connection between the deaths, the Afghan driver, you talk about the pulverizing of his body. They told these young soldiers to what, soften him up?

ALEX GIBNEY: In effect. I mean, part of the problem is what Alberto Mora, the former general counsel of the Navy, in the film calls “forced drift.” Once you take away rules and regulations, there is a well— known and documented process that goes on in the human mind, where you go further and further and further. When you don’t get information from somebody, you apply greater and greater levels of force. These kids were taught one control measure called a perennial strike, which was a knee to the thigh. They did this on poor Dilawar over and over and over again until his legs were literally pulverized. In fact, the medical examiner said that his legs almost certainly would have had to have been amputated had he lived. So, you know, you can see how one thing leads to another.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex Gibney, thank you very much for being with us. Congratulations on your Oscar nomination. Let’s just hope that the writers’ strike is resolved happily so that the Oscars can go on, but more importantly so that the writers can have their respected position. Thank you so much.

ALEX GIBNEY: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Alex Gibney is director of Taxi to the Dark Side.

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