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Q&A: ALEX GIBNEY,
Director of Taxi to the Dark Side

An exclusive online interview

Left: Director Alex Gibney / Photograph by TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS

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Friday, January 18, 2008

By James Hughes


While evaluating a 2004 memo that set limitations on interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay—among them hooding, sleep depravation and forcing detainees to stand for four hours at a time—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved each method before adding an infamous bit of marginalia. “I stand for 8-10 hours a day,” he wrote. “Why is standing limited to four hours?” For a civilian working comfortably at a podium in an air-conditioned fortress, a stress and duress technique like standing hardly seemed unendurable. (As Alexander Cockburn noted in his book Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall and Catastrophic Legacy, Rumsfeld also had the ability to sit whenever he wanted to, and wore shoes with extra padding, which his staff dubbed “duck shoes.”)

That same week, Tom Malinowski, the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, provided further background on the subject in the Washington Post (read the complete editorial here): “Perhaps one reason these stress and duress techniques were approved at all is that they sound innocuous. … Stress and duress interrogation techniques were invented in the dungeons of the world’s most brutal regimes for only one purpose — to cause pain, distress and humiliation, without physical scars.”

In his latest film, Taxi to the Dark Side (opening Friday, January 18), director Alex Gibney exposes in forensic detail exactly how devastating those scars can be. While a wave of recent documentaries, among them No End in Sight (which Gibney co-produced), focus on the panorama of the global war on terror—cherrypicked intelligence, neocon nation-building, unhindered riots in Baghdad—Gibney’s film zeroes in on a single case: In 2002, a 22-year-old taxi driver in Afghanistan known only as Dilawar was detained by American soldiers to answer questions involving a rocket attack on a US base. While captive inside the Bagram Collection Point, Dilawar was chained to the ceiling and forced to stand while receiving repeated blows to the legs. Days later, Dilawar died from a pulmonary embolism, prompting the military coroner to register “homicide” as the cause of death. As reported by Tim Golden in the New York Times (read his piece here): “It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.”

Gibney, who received an Academy Award nomination for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, explores Dilawar’s case in the context of experiments conducted by 20th century social psychologists like Stanley Milgram, while also tracing how similar interrogation methods (and personnel) would soon migrate to Abu Ghraib. Gibney confronts several of Dilawar’s interrogators and guards at Bagram, as well as former detainees and members of Dilawar’s family, in on-screen interviews. The results are devastating, impassioned, vital. A driving force for the filmmaker is the memory of his father Frank Gibney, a Naval interrogator in World War II. Before he passed away, Gibney asked his father why torture was verboten during his interrogations. “Well, because we didn’t need to and because we thought our principles gave us strength that our enemy didn’t have,” he replied. My conversation with Gibney, conducted in New York in January, opened on a similar note.

Stop Smiling
: I wanted to start by reading from a Washington Post article in October about the men who secretly interrogated Nazi captives on US soil after World War II (read the complete article here): “‘We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,’ said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.”

Alex Gibney
: My dad’s experience was exactly like that. In fact, I was reading some of his memoirs recently. I have his interrogation logs. He interrogated a fairly senior guy in Okinawa, Colonel Yahara. He developed a pretty good rapport with him and got a lot of good information. But at some point, Yahara turned to my father when he was interrogating him and said, “Gibney-san, you really should be a little more careful.” And he described the trip they had just taken together in a Jeep. He said, “Your sidearm was right there, I could have taken it from you, knocked you flat and run off, gone back to my lines. You really have to be more careful.” [Laughs] My father thought, “What kind of a soldier am I?” But it also testified to the fact that they had already developed a kind of rapport that got a lot more out of him than waterboarding.

SS: Why are claims of torture so rampant in this current war?

AG: It’s not exceptional. That’s why the war in the Pacific is such a good comparison. We described the Japanese as fanatical, beyond reason. “These people are just different. These are the kinds of people who would fly suicide missions with planes.” Does that sound familiar? What is it that’s so different? I think what’s so different is you have a civilian leadership that was weak, arrogant and fundamentally ignorant. And I think in a peculiar way, this is the dark lesson I learned from Taxi to the Dark Side: I think they understood, either intuitively or consciously, that there was a political advantage to torture, which is that you always get back the answer you want to hear. And when you’re trying to go to war in Iraq, for example, that can be very powerful and very seductive, about gathering intelligence in a way that always seems to come out right, as far as you’re concerned.

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