How CIA Torture Spread Like Wildfire Throughout the US Military

The Bush officials' lies about CIA torture will haunt us in years to come, says filmmaker Alex Gibney.

The U.S. Senate summary of the report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program runs 500 pages and is filled with grisly details on waterboarding, sexual assault, sleep deprivation and death threats. But there’s a lot the report does not cover—like how members of the U.S. military also tortured prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One man who has spent time investigating the full breadth of the U.S. government’s torture regimen is Alex Gibney, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker known for movies that expose rot in the halls of power. In 2007, Gibney’s documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, was released to wide acclaim. The film, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary, focuses on one story: how an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar wound up dead in the hands of U.S. custody. Dilawar was arrested on suspicion of being a fighter with the Taliban—a suspicion that proved groundless. He was tortured for five days before he was killed.

The movie doesn’t stop at the death of Dilawar, though. It shows how, at the highest levels of the Bush administration, torture was authorized. Taxi to the Dark Side examines how the cold and calculating legal memos the Department of Justice produced came to justify torture used in every arena of the “war on terror,” from Guantanamo to CIA black sites to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. (Stream the film live or rent it as a DVD from Netflix.)

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AlterNet caught up with Gibney over email to get his thoughts on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, the airtime former Bush administration officials have received to defend torture, and his film’s legacy. 

Alex Kane: What's your take on the Senate's examination of the CIA's torture regime? Is there anything in the Senate torture report that surprises you?

Alex Gibney: Where do I begin? I think that we owe the committee and all the staffers an enormous debt of gratitude for fulfilling the oversight role of Congress. This report, with extraordinary forensic detail, much of it from testimony given by CIA employees to the CIA Inspector General, shows how a few people hijacked the values of our nation through this "torture program," and then lied about its efficacy. In some ways, I can't say I was surprised by the report. I knew it was worse than what was claimed.  

But my biggest surprise is that the whole enterprise was so incompetent, so vicious and so dangerous in its dishonesty. This is the Central Intelligence Agency? Where is the "intelligence"?

There are a number of details that surprised me.

1) I was surprised by the small number of people in the CIA who were involved in the program (something like 25) and how much they lied in order to protect their reputations.  

2) The report proves, conclusively, that much of the key actionable intelligence from prisoners like Abu Zubaydah, was obtained through lawful and skillful interrogation before CIA torture. Other information obtained by "enhanced interrogation techniques" was fabricated in order to tell the torturer what he/she wanted to hear.  

We detailed one example of this in Taxi to the Dark Side. A Libyan named Ibn al-Sheik al-Libi was captured in Afghanistan and interrogated by the FBI at Bagram, where he conveyed important information about Richard Reid and others. But the CIA obtained permission from President Bush to render him to Egypt where, under torture, he gave a false confession to please his captors (al-Libi's later recanting was confirmed by the CIA) about the connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Partly on the basis of that fabricated information, the US invaded Iraq.

3) Another surprise is that the CIA had no real training in interrogation. Why, in the world, post-9/11, would we entrust such an important task as interrogation to those who had no experience in it? Despite its complete lack of experience, the CIA didn't seek help from other more experienced agencies or even explore their own archives, which would have revealed the CIA's very own studies had concluded that torture "will probably result in false answers."

4) More surprises: the CIA lied to or misled the US Department of Justice (Office of Legal Counsel) which relied on CIA information for its determination of the legality of the program. Even more astounding is that the "torture unit" of the CIA hid the true nature of its activities from the White House and other members of the executive branch—sometimes at the request of the White House!

An internal CIA email: “[the White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary of State] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed about what was going on." Then the CIA lied to, misled or impeded its own Inspector General sometimes at the request of CIA directors Porter Goss and Michael Hayden.

5) A further surprise is how the Agency's spin doctors embraced the torture enthusiasts and undermined those principled members of the CIA who protested what was going on. And now, on television, we see former members of the executive branch and former CIA directors defending those who panicked and lied rather than those who bravely stood up for American values and tried to resist the "force drift" to torture.  

What kind of message does that send to people who tried to do the right thing? It is this: criminal acts will be rewarded and no good deed will go unpunished.

Many in the executive branch—in the Bush and Obama administrations—are willing to say that, in the words of Obama, "we tortured some folks," or in the words of Rumsfeld, "stuff happened," but continue to insist that the CIA architects of torture were "patriots."  

They may have been motivated by patriotism, but that doesn't excuse their incompetence or their mendacity. What angers me most about the "patriotism" remarks is that these acts were done in our name, in secret and, so far without any accountability. What kind of patriotism is that?  

Those who destroyed evidence of wrongdoing—men like Jose Rodriguez, the CIA deputy director for operations who destroyed the videotapes of waterboarding— are now making money on the lecture circuit promoting their own depravity and criminality.

The most shocking and surprising thing about the report is that it reveals, with evidence from the Agency itself, that the very organization that is supposed to provide "intelligence"—unfiltered information about the dangerous world around us—is lying to our own leaders, and by extension, the American people. If we are not getting accurate intelligence, how is the CIA protecting us?  

The Senate Report demonstrates, conclusively, that what was done by the CIA in our names sounds more like stupidity than intelligence, more like cowardice than bravery, more like craven political posturing than national defense.     

The most surprising thing of all is that no one has been held accountable for such incompetence, brutality and criminal mendacity. Indeed, some of the worst offenders were promoted into positions that required that their identities remain a secret. More than a get-out-of-jail-free card, the CIA offered those from its torture program the freedom to be above the law.

AK: Taxi to the Dark Side focused on one case of torture, which resulted in the death of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar. He was being held by the U.S. military, not the CIA. What does that tell us about American torture?

AG: It tells us that the CIA program mutated and migrated like a virulent virus throughout all the armed forces, even without explicit orders.  Once the armed forces learned about the use of these "techniques," and the tacit approval for them up the chain of command, they started to use them in increasingly unpredictable ways. This is a point made clearly in the film, particularly through the example of the Guantanamo interrogation of Mohammed al-Qatani. In Bagram and Kandahar in Afghanistan, in Abu Ghraib in Iraq and in Guantanamo, you can see MPs and military interrogators (MI) using the same discredited techniques employed by CIA operatives and private contractors employed by the agency.  

The Senate Report makes it clear that the torture advocates in the CIA lied to the executive branch about its effectiveness. At the same time, it is also clear —through the report and public pronouncements—that the Bush administration conveyed its approval of torture (redefined as "enhanced interrogation techniques") to all the Armed Forces.

Early on, a key legal and symbolic moment was when Bush, Cheney et al. decided to endorse the lawyers who argued that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the global war on terror. With a wink and a nod, that sent a powerful message of implied consent to all the armed forces to go over to the "dark side."

AK:The Senate report on torture was released seven years after your movie was released. Could you reflect on your movie's legacy, and how it relates to the current discussion on torture?

AG: I look back with some pride on Taxi because I believe that we got so many things right, including an outline of the CIA's role. I am also proud of the fact that Taxi is required viewing at the Army JAG [Judge Advocate’s General] school, and I'm told, is still taught at West Point. 

What many Americans miss is that, in addition to key CIA operatives, many high-ranking military officers deplore the use of torture on moral, disciplinary and practical grounds. We included many of them in that film. I wish the mainstream video media would seek their testimony.

AK: What is your reaction to the spectacle of Bush administration officials appearing on TV to justify torture?

AG: I am appalled by this. My father, whose deathbed testimony I included in Taxi, was an interrogator in the Pacific Theater in World War II. He was proud of the way the US tried to uphold the rule of law in its interrogations. He was appalled by what Cheney, Bush and Rumsfeld were doing in endorsing torture.

Cheney likes to present himself as a "tough guy." My father always saw him as a coward who panicked in the face of the 9/11 attacks. In times of crisis, we look to leaders who don't run from our principles or ignore years of experience in making decisions. But that is just what Cheney, Bush, Tenet and Rumsfeld did. They didn't defend us; they didn't make us safer; they surrendered our values.

The lies they are telling to the American people about the CIA torture program will haunt us in years to come by undermining our ideals, compromising our intelligence and making us less safe. What a trifecta.

AK: What are your thoughts on polls that show the majority of Americans support torture? Is that a reflection on the failure of those in the media business, be it news, television or film, to accurately inform the American public?

AG: I am dismayed by those polls. I think that the print media have done a good job of discussing this issue. TV news has been shockingly bad. The "big" networks have fled from the facts just like the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who skittered away from danger as they cried, "Run away!"

When I think of Cheney, I think of a man who, faced with the prospect of defending America's values, screamed "Run away!"  

Despite his incompetence and cowardice, Cheney is paraded on TV as if he were the Lady Gaga of torture. "A good get!" "A marketable celebrity!" The networks hand him a megaphone without asking for any evidence, or providing any analysis or balance.  

This is not a political issue, really. It's worse than that: it's entertainment. Perhaps if the polls were different, the networks would interview victims instead of torturers. On this issue, the networks have been like moral flounders, sucking the sludge off the bottom of the ocean floor, while looking up, from their two-eyed backsides, at the polling data.

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Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.