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Alex Gibney — Documentary Filmmaker

6 minute read
M.J. Stephey

Last month, Gibney’s film Taxi to the Dark Side won the 2008 Academy Award for “Best Documentary” for its exploration of the Bush administration’s policy on torture and interrogation at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram Detention Centers. He dedicated the film to its central character, a 22-year-old taxi driver from Afghanistan who was detained and later beaten to death by American soldiers in December 2002.

On his film
I think “Taxi” is a really a film about the corruption of the American character and how a few rather weak and panicked leaders — meaning the highest ranking members of the Bush administration — decided to pursue a policy of torture and illegal detention, which ended up not only damning us with bad intelligence, but also corrupting our rule of law. So in that sense, it’s not purely an “Iraq” film. It’s a film that journeys from Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib in Iraq to Guantanamo to the White House. What the film does is show how [those abuses] were not the result of a few bad apples, but are deeply connected to policies that originated in Washington and were pursued in Afghanistan and Guantanamo and elsewhere.

On the soldiers found guilty of torture
I expected, initially, not to like them. Some of these guys, after all, had beaten a very fragile young man to death. And yet, I came away from my very long interviews with them being very sympathetic to the position that they had been put in. They had been sent over to Afghanistan and Iraq with very little cultural training, very little understanding of what their mission was, very little understanding of how and why they should do what they did. And they were pushed into doing things that, if you had asked them back home, they never would have done, or never would have wanted to see. So they come back very haunted, sometimes broken men.

On waterboarding
I’m astounded by this whole debate over waterboarding, and this insistence by the administration that they want to preserve the right to do so, even if it’s at some future time. Waterboarding is torture. John McCain just said that on “60 Minutes” last night. It’s clearly torture, and it’s clearly illegal. And the idea that [U.S. Attorney General] Michael Mukasey — the highest law-enforcement official in the land — would say that he’s “not quite sure” whether or not it’s legal is astounding to me. I think we’ve gone a long way — or this Administration has gone a long way — in shocking the rest of the world at the kind of depravity that we’re willing to entertain.

On Bad Intelligence
[The Bush administration] seem to be seeking the kind of intelligence that they want to hear. Not what’s really going on. And that’s one of the things that I included in my film. I included the example of ibbin Sheik Al-Ibbi, who was giving good intelligence to the FBI at Bagram in Afghanistan, but it wasn’t the intelligence the Bush administration wished to hear. So they sent in the CIA, who duck-taped this man from head to toe, stuffed him in a small, plywood box, told him they were going to have unlawful carnal knowledge of his mother and shipped him off to Cairo, where he was waterboarded by Egyptian authorities. Lo and behold, he said that there was a link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. That information was used by Colin Powell in the United Nations as a prelude to war. A year later, after the war had commenced and after we are now in Iraq, the CIA says, “Whoops, sorry, we made a mistake. In fact, that was a false confession. We shouldn’t have been surprised [considering] the studies of the waterboard. But now we’re in Iraq. Too bad.”

The Economy and War
When you understand what the cost of war is, you have a hard time not connecting it with the troubles in our economy. The policies that this Administration has pursued has been disastrous for all sorts of reasons, and one of these is economics. But I do find it telling that this distant war is something that Americans are somehow just tuning out. And I think the Bush administration has done a good job — if a mendacious one — of convincing people that [the war in Iraq] is still somehow connected to the war on terror, which it has absolutely nothing to do with.

On mainstream versus independent media
I think, early on, the dominant media — that is to say the major TV networks and to some extent some of the largest newspapers — played something of a cheerleading role. It’s perhaps natural because after 9/11, Americans were hurt. They were angry. They wanted payback. It wasn’t so much the reporters’ fault. I think it was the editors who determined that their audience wanted to hear a certain kind of story. So I think they were somewhat tone-deaf to the truth early on.

About his father, Frank Gibney
My father was a journalist, but before he was a journalist, he was a Navy interrogator in World War II in the pacific theater. He interrogated Japanese prisoners on Okinawa, which was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. He was horrified at the pictures coming out of Abu Ghraib, and even more so when he began to learn that this may have represented the kind of policy,that we were torturing people by choice, not by accident, and by direction, not by occasional rage. My father believed, in World War II at least, they were getting great intelligence by not doing this stuff. Furthermore, they were doing it against an enemy that had tortured us, that was perceived to be fanatical and beyond the reach of reason — all the things we later said about members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So he very much encouraged me to make this film.

On the future
There’s a thing I used to have when I was a kid growing up called an “8-Ball.” You’d roll it around and flip it up and ask it a question, and one of the answers is “Reply hazy, try again.”” Well, I think for a long time we’re going to be looking at that 8-Ball about Afghanistan and Iraq and the answer is going to continue to be “Reply hazy, try again.” It does seem to me that what we need is an administration that pays less attention to its own ideology and more attention to intelligence from the ground — pure, good intelligence that’s not filtered through some sort of political mechanism.

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