Friday, February 23, 2007

GHOSTS OF ABU GHRAIB—The World Affairs Council Q&A With Rory Kennedy and Mark Danner

As something of a companion piece to my Greencine interview with Rory Kennedy regarding her documentary Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, which premiered last night on HBO, I offer up this report of her onstage appearance at San Francisco's Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, with Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror, sponsored by the World Affairs Council. It was an evening made memorable—not only because of the opportunity to speak with Rory and to watch her hard hitting documentary—but because the RMS Queen Mary was gliding underneath the Golden Gate Bridge lit up like a brilliant tiara sailing out to sea. I love San Francisco. Living here is the best of many worlds.

Dave Hudson's introduction to my Greencine interview astutely associates my concerns with Jane Mayer's New Yorker piece on Joel Surnow, producer of t.v.'s popular thriller 24, and Alessandra Stanley's comparable criticisms for The New York Times. I admire Dave's range and grasp. He sets the standard for attentive journalism.

After thanking her World Affair Council audience for watching the film and acknowledging the parties responsible for the evening's event, Rory Kennedy introduced Mark Danner who kick started the discussion by commenting that the events at Abu Ghraib constitute an extremely complicated story when talking about torture and the Bush Administration. "It's an ongoing story," he emphasized. "As one of the final points of the film said: as of October 2006 the Military Commissions Act was passed by Congress, which was an extraordinary law that—among other things—removed the rights of habeas corpus and also gave the President the power to determine what were violations of the Geneva Convention. It's one of these laws, I think, that will be studied in law school in the future like the Dred Scott decision and other disgraces." His audience burst into applause.

Danner continued: "I mention it to point out that—though the film seems to be about events that have happened—this film is about events that are happening. It seems to me very important to remember that, rather than deformations of the norm—which is what the Administration has called these things—in fact after 9/11 a new norm was created. It's a norm that happens to be the torture and abuse that the American public has known about at least since the end of 2002, which is to say almost five years. So, in effect, the country has accepted this. It hasn't been secretive. A lot of the information has been public and—as people in the film said so compellingly—at only one point when these pictures were published did it become a national issue. If the pictures hadn't have been published, it wouldn't have been a national issue and, as recently as October, a pro-torture law was passed and was indeed introduced by President Bush in the hope that it would help him in the mid-term elections. I'm trying to make the rather simple point that this film is about us, not simply about people at Abu Ghraib, soldiers who were put in very difficult positions, and policy makers in Washington that we love to hiss at."

Danner likewise thanked the film's audience and the sponsors of the evening's screening but added his thanks to Rory Kennedy for taking it upon herself to approach this complicated story and presenting it in such a compelling narrative. He considers Ghosts of Abu Ghraib an extraordinary achievement and hopes it gets the recognition and the attention it deserves.

Opening up for questions, the first came from a heated young man who, bolstered by the recent Democratic reclamation of Congress, wanted to know how we could get a 9/11 commission-style investigation started, if the Military Commissions Act could be undone, and if President Bush could be tried for war crimes? Though the audience applauded supportively, Kennedy and Danner looked at each other as if neither wanted to touch the question with a ten-foot pole. Kennedy deferred to Danner, which made everyone laugh. "I'm going to get all the hard questions," Danner quipped. By way of response, however, he stated, "First of all, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont who is now Chairman of the Judiciary Committee has said that he's going to pay very close attention to reworking, revising, redrafting the Military Commissions Act. We'll see what happens with that. It's important to realize that—though the gentleman put this forward in a positive way, how we have control of Congress—in fact, the passage of the Military Commissions Act was a statement that, if presented the right way, politicians will be afraid to oppose anything that seems to be a law against terrorism and will seem to be a law that justifies empowering terrorists. It's critical to realize that Americans in general do not seem to be that worried about this kind of stuff." Danner asked if anyone in the audience ever watched 24? "It's a remarkable series," he explained, "that very often has torture at the heart of it; torture committed by the hero. It bears asking ourselves why this is popular? Why it seems to be, in some ways, consoling to Americans to think that their leaders are torturing people, are willing to do this? Because I think that's true. In a way, with the atmosphere of fear after 9/11, a very powerful emotion of fear, and a response to it with the idea of untrammeled government power that is exemptible from anything to protect it. That seems to be very reassuring to people. As Dirty Harry was 20 years ago. The liberals are going to stand in the way of your protection. That political dynamic is still in place. It isn't going to be the case, unfortunately, that—simply because the Democrats are now a majority—all of this stuff will be undone. As it isn't the case that the war is going to be stopped. Because the political dynamics that are supporting [these] are still to some degree in place. Will we have a true investigation of Abu Ghraib? I doubt it. I think you would answer that as no. Will the Military Commissions Act be rewritten? I think the answer to that is possibly. Some of it will be. Will Bush be tried for war crimes? No. He won't. You're having cases in other countries—there's one in Germany—that's developing to try Donald Rumsfeld for war crimes." The audience applauded, to which Danner added, "I hate to be the wet blanket here but I don't find that, as an American, very satisfying to have the Germans trying our Secretary of Defense for war crimes."

Kennedy expressed that she was slightly more hopeful than Danner. "Obviously," she asserted, "we deserve a full investigation of what happened at Abu Ghraib. There are people who are in the new leadership who are talking about taking that on." Agreeing with Danner that Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is not just about looking back at what happened at Abu Ghraib, but looking at the policies that were put into place after 9/11 that might have contributed to Abu Ghraib and are still in existence today—the Military Commissions Act being part of that—Rory believes there are many leaders and the public who are emboldened to speak up against these issues in a way that they haven't previously been able to in the last few years. In terms of concrete ways that people can get more involved, Rory reminded that there are several organizations who are active on these issues—Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, ACLU and Amnesty International—and she encouraged her audience to visit their websites, insisting it could make a significant difference.

Someone wanted clarification on which committee would start an investigation regarding Abu Ghraib. Danner reiterated that the committee that is looking at the Military Commissions Act is the Judiciary Committee, headed by Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The committee that would be investigating Abu Ghraib, however, would be Armed Services, which is now headed by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan. Insisting he is not a complete pessimist, Danner nonetheless said it bears stressing that even though he's quoted in the film as saying we will never know what happened unless we get a true investigation, which he believes—"We don't know what happened in the interrogation booths. We don't know a lot of things that went on at Abu Ghraib."—the fact is that what has been lacking is not exposure of what was happening; what has been lacking is a will to do something about what was happening. Though one of the prime tenets of journalism is that a journalist needs to reveal information in the hopes that revelation automatically leads to investigation, expiation and punishment, often that is not the case. "It's not the case here," Danner punched. "[Ghosts of Abu Ghraib] is an incredibly compelling portrait of this, and I hope it will have a great effect, but the basics of what happened at Abu Ghraib, large parts of it, and the basis of the policy decisions that led to it that—as Rory said—are still in effect have been known for four years. These are the knowns. They are not a secret. More things are coming out but what has been lacking is a societally-sanctioned telling of the story and only a court or a congressional committee can do that; a journalist can't."

Following up on that comment, however, one individual opined that film remains a powerful medium to reveal information. He wondered if Kennedy had arranged to screen the documentary to members of Congress? "How could Senator Feinstein see this film and sit on her hands?" he posited. "It seems to me that HBO and you with your wonderful outreach should make sure that as many congress people see this film as possible." Kennedy announced that a screening has been planned for Capitol Hill in about a week with Senators Leahy and Kennedy hosting a post-screening panel. Extensive outreach on Capitol Hill to help create awareness, to get legislators to see the film, and to generate discussion on these issues is fully intended.

"My concern," another fellow spoke up, "from the European perspective is that people will say, 'Ah, the prison is closed. It's history.' Would you consider please putting a tag on this film saying, 'It continues at Guantanamo today. Demand accountability.'?" Kennedy countered by detailing how hard she tried to pull back and simply report the facts and not do a partisan film. It required a great amount of restraint on her part. She didn't want to create a sensationalist perspective in any sense. She wanted just to present the facts, let the Administration speak for itself using archival footage of direct quotes, letting the documents speak for themselves, letting the MPs and the MIs who were involved in the abuse, and letting the detainees speak for themselves. That is the film, which she feels is powerful precisely because of that balance. Kennedy explained that she felt she had to be careful about what kind of advocacy work was attached to the film itself, though she places hope in the campaign developing around the film to distribute Ghosts to the public, to provide panels that focus attention on the issues and generate discussion, so that ultimately it is the public's initiative to continue educating themselves. "Hopefully this will speak to their hearts," Kennedy said, trusting audiences will then research information and become more actively involved.

Kennedy was asked to speak about her experience of working in Iraq and reaching out to the detainees. "I was able to reach out to the prisoners through a woman named Susan Burke who is representing a number of former detainees in a class-action suit against the independent contractors who were involved with Abu Ghraib. I talked with her about it and she then approached a number of detainees to see who might be comfortable talking to us on camera and identified six who were willing to speak with us. We then tried to make arrangements to film in Iraq but all of them felt the situation there was too dangerous and asked that we fly them outside of the country. We then arranged to fly them to Jordan and had their visas and airplane tickets and we got to the airport and were told they were on a security list and weren't allowed out of the country. We couldn't get to the bottom of whose security list they were on or why that was the case. We then arranged for them to fly to Turkey. They were able to get to Turkey but then they were detained in the Turkish airport. We were able to get them out of the airport and ultimately into Istanbul into a hotel there. But it was an extraordinary experience for me to meet so many of the detainees and talk to them. They had so much dignity and grace and were so open and able to talk about this obviously tremendous difficult subject matter. They really made me feel that the photographs were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what was done to these guys. Susan Burke, the lawyer, was able to come to the Sundance premiere, which happened a couple of weeks ago. I was talking to her about the detainees and how they felt about the film and she said that she had just spoken to them about the film and they said, 'This gives us our dignity back, having this shown to a receptive American audience and for them to understand what we went through and to empathize with us. It gives us our dignity.' "

Kennedy was then queried on what it was like getting the MPs to talk about their experience at Abu Ghraib? "It was a challenge to get the MPs to talk to me," Kennedy responded. "All of them had recently gotten out of prison where they served time for the abuses and I think most of them felt this was an experience that they wanted to put behind them. They wanted to move on with their lives. At the same time they felt that the true story of what happened at Abu Ghraib really hadn't gotten out to the world. They trusted that I was going to do a much more balanced approach to what happened, which took a lot of trust building because there were a lot of interviews that they had done prior to me where people had told them the same thing that ended up being very sensationalist news coverage. It took a lot of relationship and trust building to get to a point where they were willing to speak to me on camera. Again, I think they were very courageous to participate in this film and, whatever you might think about them, it took a certain amount of courage to agree to tell their stories. They were so honest, I felt, in so many ways about what happened. I'm grateful to them. I'm also grateful to John Yoo because he obviously comes from a perspective that I don't agree with but he gives insight into what happened at Abu Ghraib and what policies and what their mindset was within the Administration, which I think is important for all of us to understand. He was the only one who was part of that Administration willing to talk to us."

Noting that the detainees' names were in quote marks, indicating they were not real names, one fellow was interested in why they wanted to be anonymous? Kennedy confirmed his deduction that they were pseudonyms. "I assumed that when they went back home there was going to be retaliation in their neighborhoods and their communities but what they all told me was that they were scared of retaliation from Americans. There was one detainee who was not just willing but somewhat insistent on speaking to us and showing his face. He felt that he had been so humiliated by the Americans and had been through such torture that he just didn't want to go through the rest of his life in hiding. He said, 'Even if I die, I'm not going to spend the rest of my time trying to run away from these people.' He was very insistent on showing his identity. Throughout the editing process I kept going back to him and saying, 'Are you sure?' "

Danner noted it was worth saying that—months before the pictures came out—awareness of American retaliation against Iraqi civilians was strong. "The first time I went to Iraq after the combat phase of the Gulf War in the Fall of 2003, it was very well-known among the Iraqis that stuff like this was going on. I heard it frequently, 'They're torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Horrible things are going on at Abu Ghraib.' " Even though the Americans hadn't yet (and still haven't) restored electricity to the region, there was a joke circulating to the effect of: "I always knew the Americans would eventually restore electricity, I just didn't know they'd be shooting it up my ass." The audience tittered nervously. "You heard [that joke] on the streets of Baghdad and, at the time, I was fairly skeptical about it and I thought, 'Well, they couldn't be doing this on a wholesale level. It would be too stupid.' I look back on it and think it was completely believable to Iraqis, partly because they lived under a regime like this before—as horrible as it is to make that comparison—but also because to them this is a continuation of what they were seeing on the streets; that is, wholesale cordon and capture operations, smashing down doors, a general, fairly brutal approach towards the population. So it made perfect sense that people were being tortured."

One fellow wanted to broaden the context of the discussion to indicate that the United States has been exporting torture for some time in the form of places like the School of the Americas and that Abu Ghraib was a continuance of a policy whereby we export our techniques and knowledge to people to do our dirty work. What makes Abu Ghraib shocking, he surmised, was that this was us actively engaging in the torture. He wondered if Kennedy and Danner could address the broader network of torture prisons throughout the world that are run by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, among other organizations, and if there is any move to expose those and to investigate them further?

"Those are big questions," Danner replied. "Just briefly, I covered Central America. My first book was about El Salvador so I know very well about the School of the Americas. But I always resist that comparison and the notion that [Abu Ghraib] is just a continuance of the past. [Abu Ghraib] strikes me as something rather different. These are decisions made by all the responsible agencies in the U.S. government, documented decisions to change specific policies in U.S. military and other government intelligence agencies, meaning the CIA, to adopt torture. That's different. That is not the School of the Americas. I try to emphasize the difference here rather than the similarities."

Kennedy added, "We've never had the Vice-President of the United States arguing for torture before Congress. It's always been under the rug. It's always been something we've hidden. But to be so overt about it to say we want to adopt this policy in such a public way is a complete departure from the last 200 years of policy in this country."

Danner volleyed, "One could say that this is, again, a very complicated story. On September 6, 2006, when the President at the White House essentially gave a speech talking about alternative techniques of interrogation and telling Congress to pass a law legalizing these techniques—which in effect Congress did in October—on that very day the military came out with its new manual of interrogation, which made all of this stuff illegal within the military. So literally it was on CSpan One and CSpan Two. You had the President saying please make this stuff legal for the intelligence agencies and you had the highest intelligence officer in the U.S. introducing the new manual and saying waterboarding, cold cell, all these stress positions, all these things are illegal and you can't use them. So the story with this is a very complicated one, particularly in the military and what it has done to the military. The other question you asked about the secret prisons is very relevant because that has to do with the CIA and is a very different story. The Administration has been adamant in keeping the possibility of these things open. They claim now there are no prisoners in these places but we have no way of telling whether that's true or not. Fourteen of the so-called 'worst of the worst' were shipped to Guantanamo shortly after the President gave this speech and some of them were supposed to be tried. But the law which passed in October—this terrible, awful law—essentially made a lot of this stuff legal for all practical purposes."

Wanting to provide some historical perspective on these issues, Kennedy qualified that it's not just about going back to the Geneva Convention in the 1940s to look at the policy about torture in this country. You could go all the way back to the American Revolution. At that time the British were treating the American soldiers horrendously. They were beheading Americans and torturing Americans. The generals came to George Washington and said, "How do you want us to treat British soldiers, British prisoners of war?" and George Washington said, "Treat them with respect and dignity. If we lose that, we've lost the reason why we're fighting this revolution." "That policy," Kennedy explained, "determined the direction of this country for the last few hundred years and it's something that our leaders have fought for. There's a reason why you can travel around the world as an American and everyone looks up to you and says, 'I want to be an American. I want to move to America.' In four short years that has shifted dramatically so that [Americans are] now treated with disdain when people look at us as if we're the advocates of torture."

Another audience member expressed how appalled he was with American torture as well. "When I drive down the street and see the American flag, I see a swastika," he stated forcefully, "and it's just shocking to me that Americans know about this torture and they can live with it. They all just went back to sleep after the pictures. Seems to me that this was an education for America. This is what we're going to do from now on and Americans took the lesson very well and agreed to this: that America is now going to start torturing people." Struggling to narrow down his question, this fellow added that—since apparently the motivation for Americans is going to be "What works for me?"—he felt the strongest motivation to bring this point home is to remember that there weren't any Iraqis involved in the 9/11 attack that he knew of but now, after years of systemic torture, he queried whether Kennedy and Danner thought there would be any future terrorist attacks on Americans engineered by Iraqis? Someone else responded, "What about the last four years in Iraq?", implying the attacks on U.S. military personnel.

Danner took that one on. "It depends on your definition of terror. I don't particularly consider attacks on military forces [in Iraq] terrorist attacks." Addressing the comparison between the American flag and a swastika, Danner reiterated how complicated a story this is. "You have in this film people who try to bring [this torture] to the attention of commanding officers. There was a struggle within the military itself. Alberto Mora, who was interviewed in the film, was part of that profile in that very good New Yorker piece a couple of years ago by Jane Mayer. If you look at the collection of documents, which I collect in my book Torture and Truth, and which are available on the Internet, they record the debate over the Geneva Convention decision. You see a strong debate within the government, led on the opposing side by—as so often—then Secretary of State Colin Powell saying, "Don't do this. We need to follow the Geneva Convention." Referring to the tradition that, as Rory says, goes back to General Washington and the Battle of Trenton. The American military has always prided itself on not doing this stuff even though it has, on occasion, done it. The question that's important it seems to me is the official version, the rule, how do we think of ourselves? I think it would be unfortunate if one took from this—despite some of my pessimistic remarks—that this was all this horrible thing, this terrible disgrace, that there was no struggle over it. There was a struggle over it and there is a struggle over it, which is going to be in front of you in the coming days. There are going to be hearings. People are going to be talking about this. This is just a little chunk of a larger struggle about how the U.S. behaves in the world, how it treats prisoners, and how it fights the so-called war on terror. I guess I'm just disagreeing with the notion that this is the way Americans are and this shows how horrible this country is. I don't agree with that. But I do agree that when this country's attacked—you've seen these points in American history: the problems that were raised with World War I, the internment of the Japanese, McCarthy—you can see a pattern of reaction which is often very violent and usually involves taking away or ignoring the principles that supposedly underlie this country. It's happened repeatedly and it's happened here again."

The paintings used to illustrate this transcription are by Colombian artist Fernando Botero and are courtesy of the Marlborough New York website. Botero's Marlborough exhibition of his Abu Ghraib paintings were reviewed by Arthur C. Danto for The Nation and have been eloquently blogged upon by Mark Scroggins at Culture Industry. Further examples of this powerful series can be found at EastSouthWestNorth, with accompanying reviews from The Independent, The New York Times, Revista Diners (in Spanish), and The Washington Post. Botero's paintings have likewise been incorporated into a short film A Permanent Accusation available on YouTube.

Those in the Bay Area interested in Botero's work have the unique opportunity to view this exhibition at the Center for Latin American Studies on the UC Berkeley campus through March 23, 2007. Fernando Botero attended the opening and engaged Robert Haas in conversation late last month and webcasts of both their conversation and the "Art and Violence" panel discussion are available at the Center for Latin American Studies website.

Of related interest—and because I'm on their case—is Jana Prikryl's investigative essay on Abu Ghraib for The Believer. Free, of course!

Cross-published on Twitch.