By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007; C01
In 2002, a young Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, who'd never spent a night away from his dusty little village, got lost in the fog of war and took a wrong turn into an abyss from which he would never return. It was a detention center at Bagram Air Base, where he was grilled on suspicion of being a Taliban fighter. Military interrogators hung him from a cage in chains, kept him up all night and kicked him senseless, turning his legs into pulp.
He lasted only five days. The Army initially attributed his death to natural causes, even though coroners had ruled it a homicide. Low-level soldiers were punished. It turned out that Dilawar (who, like many Afghans, used only one name) was not an enemy fighter, had no terrorist connections and had committed no crime at all.
"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was the wrong man," says filmmaker Alex Gibney, whose latest documentary, "Taxi to the Dark Side," puts the fate of one hapless, ordinary Afghan into a larger and more disturbing context. Its focus is torture, and whether torture became a deliberate component of U.S. policy at places like Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Researchers at Human Rights First have categorized more than 70 detainee deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as homicides linked to gross recklessness, abuse or torture. The findings are based largely on the military's own records, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, according to Hina Shamsi, an attorney for the organization.
"Murder's torture," Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel and former Colin Powell aide, says in the film. "Murder's the ultimate torture."
More than 250 service members have been "held accountable for their roles" in detainee abuse cases, according to a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros. But official inquiries have basically exonerated the brass. Indeed, a dozen such reviews found no evidence of "a government policy directing, encouraging or condoning abuse," Ballesteros says. "I can tell you that, in general, humane treatment of detainees is and always has been the Department of Defense standard."
Gibney's 2005 Oscar-nominated documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" explored corporate and personal corruption. "Taxi," he says, explores corruption of the rule of law and American principles. His conclusion, supported by Wilkerson and several other experts in the film, is unflinching: Those truly responsible for the detainee deaths are the top Pentagon and Bush administration officials who set the detainee policies in motion.
"Taxi," which premieres tomorrow at the Tribeca Film Festival, is part of a long tradition of documentaries that tell the Unofficial Story, revisiting and synthesizing media coverage of events, then probing further. They posit conclusions or lead viewers to them through well-grounded arguments, saying, essentially, Take another look. Forget the trees, here's the forest. Among those that have won accolades: "Hearts and Minds" (1974), "The Panama Deception" (1992) and "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" (1997).
"The film becomes a sort of agent provocateur," says Gibney. "Part of my brief is to make a hopelessly complicated and arcane subject comprehensible to the average viewer."
The movie borrows its title from Vice President Cheney's observation not long after 9/11 about intelligence gathering: "We also have to work sort of the dark side, if you will. . . . It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena."
Shedding light into that shadowy zone, "Taxi" puts a human face on the complex "unlawful enemy combatant" court cases and legislation of the past few years. It focuses sympathetically on grunts who were court-martialed in connection with Dilawar's death. Much of the narrative is constructed through interviews with these interrogators and the New York Times reporters who suspected a whitewash after Dilawar and another Bagram detainee died within a week. Avoiding political polemic -- a flaw of many anti-Iraq war and anti-Bush documentaries -- the film instead illuminates characters we can relate to, both the 22-year-old victim Dilawar and his victimizers, people such as Spec. Glendale Walls. He believed the taxi driver was innocent, but says he was told by a superior to take Dilawar "out of his comfort zone."
Then there's Spec. Damien Corsetti, nicknamed "Monster" by his peers, who took to screaming out the ingredients on a box of Frosted Flakes to keep captives awake. Yet he knew full well that when it came to gleaning intelligence through sleep deprivation, "past two days they begin to just be bumbling idiots. Three days, they're just worthless."
Acting on ambiguous, wink-and-a-nod guidance from the top, the soldiers say they worked Dilawar over so harshly because that's what their jobs demanded of them. Officers wanted results in the war on terrorism, Geneva Conventions aside, and word came down that the gloves must come off.
Who gave the word? Well, that's the problem: The accountability trail up the chain of command is obfuscated by carefully parsed legalese, willful blindness and butt-covering.
* * *
Gibney's film shares many of the themes and conclusions of another documentary, "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," directed by Rory Kennedy (the youngest child of RFK) and released by HBO in February. Next up: An Errol Morris documentary on Abu Ghraib, "S.O.P: Standard Operating Procedure." Still in production, it's about "the soldiers and the role of photography in misleading the press and the public about what happened there," Morris says in an e-mail. In 2004, the director's examination of Robert McNamara and Vietnam in "The Fog of War" won an Oscar.
Watching "Ghosts" and "Taxi," it's hard to believe that young enlisted men and women -- mainly unseasoned members of military police and military intelligence units -- suddenly became sadists, inventing new harsh and dehumanizing tactics on their own.
Some tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to stem from interrogation practices at Guantanamo Bay, which the films conclude had mutated like a virus to other sites. These included sexual humiliation specifically meant to affront Muslim taboos, such as forced nudity, the draping of women's underwear on Arab men, or sexual come-ons from women soldiers; the menacing use of dogs (which are considered ritually unclean animals in Islam and rarely kept in homes); and sensory and sleep deprivation.
Both films contain unpublicized, highly explicit photos and videos from Abu Ghraib that leave the viewer queasy. Were those naked human pyramids really akin to fraternity hazing, as some conservative commentators suggested? Was it just a matter of " 'Animal House' on the night shift," as James Schlesinger, the former defense secretary, said after turning in his Abu Ghraib report?
If a man is forced to masturbate in front of his captors, is that not torture?
The Pentagon reaction after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke can be summed up as "blame the grunts, then court-martial them to deflect attention from the policy aspect of this," Scott Horton, a noted human-rights lawyer who offers commentary in both films, says in an interview. "But what happened flowed directly from the policy decisions that were taken at the top to use highly coercive techniques."
Both films also force us to contemplate what we ask of those who fight our wars. "You put people in crazy situations, people do crazy things," as Corsetti says in "Taxi to the Dark Side." "I can tell you we set the same policy at Abu [Ghraib] as we set at Bagram. Same exact tools. Same thing was going on."
He was among several members of the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion at Bagram who ended up at Abu Ghraib.
Corsetti, who was acquitted of all charges in the Bagram investigation, pauses and wryly chuckles. "And they wonder why it happened."
* * *
Former Army sergeant Sam Provance, a self-described "computer guy," got caught up in the investigation at Abu Ghraib. He was stripped of his security clearance for defying an order by talking to ABC News about the abuses. In Kennedy's movie, he sums up the atmosphere in the infamous prison as "like a combination of 'Apocalypse Now' meets the 'The Shining,' except that you know this is real and you're in the middle of it."
Today he's unemployed and sleeping on a relative's couch in Virginia -- he doesn't want to specify exactly where. The other day, smoking cigarettes in the back yard, Provance, 32, expanded on his five months working in military intelligence at Abu Ghraib. The use of dogs, he says, was imported directly from Gitmo: "When the Guantanamo crew showed up, a bad thing got worse."
A dog yelps in the background, as if on cue. "I feel bad just having been in there."
What bothers him most, though, is the stain on the U.S. Army. Torture was among the ostensible reasons we deposed Saddam Hussein, who had dispatched countless enemies to gruesome fates at the prison. "The two can't really be compared," he says. "That sort of thing was expected of Saddam -- he was your stereotypical tyrant -- whereas we are the bastion of ethics and morality in the world, holding the world accountable for wrongdoing."
So what happened at Abu Ghraib, he says, "is, in a respect, even worse."
Alex Gibney dedicates "Taxi" to the memory of his late father, Frank, who interrogated Japanese prisoners on Okinawa during World War II. "War crimes by Japanese were horrible," the filmmaker says. "We had every right to behave as the Japanese did but there was a sense of pride that we didn't do that. That's what made us different."
In the war against terrorism, he continues, "there is an argument made that this is a new kind of a threat: What kind of people would ram airplanes into buildings? Well, there were the kamikaze, but people like my father were able to talk to those people. And as fanatical as they may have appeared, they didn't have to waterboard them to get good information."
Administration lawyers say America's hands are clean, consistently denying that what happens to detainees is torture and drawing fine distinctions. The word torture, it seems, only applies to "intentional infliction of death or organ failure," Gibney says in summarizing a now-infamous 2002 Justice Department memo.
As President Bush himself said last September when the administration ran into congressional and legal opposition to CIA interrogation practices for terrorist suspects:
"This debate is occurring because of the Supreme Court's ruling that said that we must conduct ourselves under the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, and that Common Article 3 says that, you know, there will be no outrages upon human dignity.
"That's like -- it's very vague. What does that mean, 'outrages upon human dignity'? That's a statement that is wide open to interpretation."
Horton, who has screened both films for his Columbia University law students, has one way of focusing the debate. He says he instructs them, "When you see these techniques being used, imagine that the detainee is a young American soldier. What would your reaction be? If it is one of outrage, then it is not the right technique."
Larry Wilkerson, a 31-year Army veteran, most certainly agrees. Now teaching a national security course at George Washington University, he screened "Taxi" for his students to help them focus on the results of making a change at the top in detainee policies. "You have to make sure every private at the bottom knows how to carry these decisions out," he says.
"If cinema is the highest American art form, and I believe it is," he adds, "then why not use that tool, that most effective tool, and certainly one that young people are drawn to, to get across that message, and to cause people to critically think about these things."
Such documentaries may never become blockbusters, but they do serve a higher role: as truth commissions for a wartime America. Toward that point, Wilkerson cites Friedrich Nietzsche: When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.