Alex Gibney exposes the haunting details of the USA's torture and interrogation practices during the War in Afghanistan.Alex Gibney exposes the haunting details of the USA's torture and interrogation practices during the War in Afghanistan.Alex Gibney exposes the haunting details of the USA's torture and interrogation practices during the War in Afghanistan.
Gibney shows how the US administration has become willing to blatantly disregard the rule of law, domestic as well as international, to fight their "war on terror" in ways that involved extreme cruelty and murder. In doing this they had the assistance of various corrupt or immoral--or, if you prefer, simply very misguided--men of the law and the judiciary.
The practices have been illegal. They may also have been variously unwise. The photos of Americans mistreating Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib are good recruiting material for anti-US terrorists. But torture also simply doesn't work, accomplishes nothing useful. Much time is given to Alfred McCoy, author of a book called 'The Question of Torture' and a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin. McCoy recounts that the CIA has been working on methods of coercion for all the decades of its existence, but their experiments have yielded little except lawsuits from victimized guinea pigs. Another authority, a former CIA operative, asserts that the best method to obtain information is to gain the confidence of the prisoner and convince him you can help him.
But post 9/11 "high value" prisoners were clearly tortured with anything their captors could think of--and then confessed to anything they could think of. The film clarifies that psychological experiments by Donald Hobb at McGill University in the Seventies proved sensory deprivation is the most effective means of torture; at least according to Hobb it can induce psychosis within 48 hours. The film shows that basically all "terrorism" suspects here and abroad have been subjected to sensory deprivation. That is what covering the ears, head, and hands does; and it was and is standard treatment to continue this for hours and days. This is more effective than pain. But effective at doing what? Breaking down the prisoner, not obtaining reliable information, or any information, for that matter.
Hence the widely spread US policies are not only harmful, dangerous, immoral, and illegal, but stupid and, in intelligence-gathering terms, worthless.
The "extraordinary rendition," waterboarding, sensory deprivation, etc. don't work in practical terms, but they have a political purpose. They convince people that the US is "getting tough" on its enemies. But the US has not been holding real enemies. If it were, the useless prisoners or wrongly captured would be filtered out, as Dilawar ought to have been. He was innocent. And now the US authorities are in a bad position. They cannot acquit even those few Guantanamo prisoners they are putting up for show trials, because to do so would reveal that they had been held for six years for no reason. That would look bad. Varieties of Orwellian terminology have been devised to describe these prisoners. The film also shows "tours" of Guantanamo and deflates the claims of the tour guides.
One reason for all this is who's been in charge: a group of draft dodgers who never served in a war. Senator McCain is shown in the film as a man who opposes torture for good reason: because he experienced it during his years in a North Vietnam prison.
Another issue: American has a developed a culture of guilty-as-charged, of hysterical attacks on imagined enemies. An example: the popular jingoistic TV program "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland as a CIA agent who "saves" millions by torturing mad terrorists with ticking bombs in Times Square. A Dark Side talking head says that there has never been such a person captured, and suggests that if there were, such a person would have the commitment to die rather than reveal information about his plot.
I do not know if torture never gets you information, though the assertion that insinuating oneself into the confidence of a prisoner is more effective makes sense. What is clear enough from Gibney's powerful and disturbing film (which contains many images not for the squeamish) is that the torture and wrongful imprisonment and lawlessness of the US as a nation post-9/11 indicate a country that has become very cruel and very stupid.
Andrew O'Hehir of Salon.com recounts that at a post-screening Q&A when Gibney was asked what he would like his film to accomplish, he said "I hope it provokes some rage." "Well," says O'Hehir, "it worked on me." May it work on everyone who sees it.
- Chris Knipp
- Feb 21, 2008