Taxi to the Dark Side – The Story of American Torture

Taxi to the Dark Side is an in-depth look at the United States’ use of torture in the War on Terror that won the 2007 Academy Award for Best Documentary. The film looks at the issue through the case of an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar who died from treatment he received while in U.S. custody. The piece uses this as a jumping point to further explore how torture was encouraged by the Bush Administration and then used in Afghanistan and Iraq. The film carries the message that torture is an unacceptable practice and that the U.S. has engaged in it during its War on Terror, resulting in major costs to the U.S.’ moral high ground. It advocates the abolition of torture as a U.S. method of gaining information.

 

 

Our Notes

On December 1st 2002, an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar was taken into custody by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, it occupied a former Soviet air base in Bagram. This base was then used as an interrogation center to determine if a detainee was of high value. On December 5th 2002 this is where Dilawar was brought.

At the time Dilawar was believed to be the triggerman in a rocket attack. Five days after he was brought to Bagram, Dilawar was found unconscious in his cell. After trying to apply medical assistance he was declared dead by one of the base’s doctors.

Dilawar was not the first death at that prison. A week before another detainee died after beatings he received there led to a blood clot in his lungs.

The preliminary investigation into Dilawar’s death found that he had large bruises all over his body. However it did not conclude that his death was a result of how he was treated at the prison. The opinion of the soldiers who worked there was that the investigation was rushed so as to not draw attention.

At the prison detainees would be shackled to the ceiling and forced to stand for long periods of time. The report written after both deaths there did not mention this treatment and concluded that both men had died of natural causes.

The officer in charge of interrogations at the prison, Captain Woods, was awarded the bronze star for valor soon after Dilawar’s death. She was later reassigned to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq following the invasion.

Abu Ghraib was one of Saddam Hussein’s former prisons and torture centers.

One sergeant recalls being told by his superiors that the prisoners were less than dogs, making them seem subhuman.

Military leaders from generals all the way to Donald Rumsfeld claimed at the time of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal that the actions there were the work of just a ‘few bad apples’.

The military police who ran the prison claimed that they were ordered to humiliate the prisoners for interrogation purposes. The film shows photos of prisoners being made to sit on top of each other naked and perform masturbation.

In her testimony for the abuse investigations, Captain Woods said that she felt pressured to produce intelligence and that led her to use dogs, nudity, stress positions, and other unauthorized techniques in order to get that information. She also claimed that use of the ‘Bagram model’ had approval from her superiors. However, there is no record of any responses to her requests for authorization to use harsher interrogation techniques.

Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2005 states that there have to be rules to restrict foot soldiers during war to keep them from crossing the line. In war, with all its horrors, it becomes hard to see ones moral clearly. He also says that the Bush Administration created an environment that encouraged abuse because it put pressure on people to produce intelligence.

When the film was made, 105 people had died in U.S. detention. Thirty-seven were classified as homicides.

Carlata Gaul, a New York Times journalist in Afghanistan, found Dilawar’s family who showed her the papers that were given to them by the U.S. Army along with Dilawar’s body. The pathologist who filled out the documents classified the death as a homicide. The documents also sate that blunt force trauma to the legs had led to Dilawar’s death by complicating an already present coronary artery disease condition. When Gaul asked General McNeill if prisoners had received any blunt force trauma, he answered that he had no information indicating that.

After the New York Times investigation and the Abu Ghraib scandal, the U.S. military stepped up its investigation of the Dilawar case and began to charge soldiers with abuse and homicide.

Some of the soldiers interviewed claimed that they had poor training for interrogation and that they did not know the ground rules and were pressured to come up with information.

Interviewed soldiers who were assigned to prisons say that officers who toured the facilities had to have known the harsh practices being used there. As well, many high up officers would call daily to check on the progress of interrogations of certain detainees.

The coroner found that Dilawar’s legs had been “pulpified” from the beatings he received. In a video that surfaced during the investigation, the top army lawyer for forces in Afghanistan can be seen describing how detainees should be hit in the legs if they were uncooperative. The coroner also said that if Dilawar had lived, it would have been necessary to amputate his legs.

The investigation never looked into superior officers and whether or not they ordered the abuse of detainees at Bagram. Only one officer was charged in the entire case and those charges were later dismissed. The investigation focused only on the soldiers.

Cheney was one of the strongest proponents in the administration of harsher interrogation techniques.

The Geneva Conventions, which came about as a result of the atrocities that occurred in WWII, give rights to prisoners of war. However, members of the Bush Administration made legal arguments that said terrorists did not count under the Geneva Conventions. They gave the CIA and Special Forces legal cover to use tactics that were previously illegal in interrogations. They only prohibited extreme measures that resulted in death, organ failure, or impairment of bodily functions.

The soldiers interviewed said that they had never been talked to about the Geneva Conventions.

High value detainees were shipped to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay Cuba.

In 2002 Donald Rumsfeld approved new psychological interrogation techniques. How exactly the techniques would be applied was ambiguous.

Sleep depravation, isolation, and sensory depravation were all used on detainees. Female interrogators also would touch detainees in order to make them uncomfortable. As well, detainees were made to perform acts insinuating homosexuality and dog tricks in order to further degrade them. These were used because these are all cultural taboos that are particularly insulting to an Arab man.

Sensory depravation was used because it was found to be particularly effective during studies in the 60s and 70s. In this way, the Administration circumvented the definition of torture by not inflicting physical pain on the detainees. These techniques went on to be used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There were voices, such as Alberto Mora the General Council to the Navy, within the Administration that called for an end to the abuse. Those calls went unheeded.

Very few detainees were actually arrested by U.S. and coalition forces. Ninety-three percent are turned over to the U.S. by indigenous warlords, militias, and local fighters looking for rewards.

Two and a half years after the first detainee went to Guantanamo Bay, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees have a right to challenge their detention. However, the new tribunals that have been set up to allow these challenges are not effective or fair. Most of the time detainees are not allowed to know what they are accused of or what information the government has against them.

Torture is an ineffective means of gathering intelligence as people will say whatever they think their torturer wants to hear to make it stop. This was the case with one high value detainee who, while being water-boarded, claimed that Saddam Hussein had trained Al Qaeda. This information was then used to build up the invasion of Iraq, but later turned out to be false.

The scenario of torture being necessary to stop an imminent attack is often used (the ticking time bomb theory). However, there has never been a case in which a detainee has information on an imminent attack.

CIA methods for interrogation include: water boarding, forced nudity, and forced standing for up to forty hours.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the detentions and interrogation of detainees should be governed by the Geneva Convention.

Bush Administration officials have not been, and some even prevented from being, tried for war crimes relating to torture and abuse. But soldiers have been tried and punished for it.

As of September 11th 2006, the number of detainees has reached over 83,000. None of them have been brought to trial.

This use of torture only creates future terrorists as it outrages Arabs and Muslims as well as those who experience it.

Bottom Line

Taxi to the Dark Side is a compelling, albeit one sided, look at the United States’ use of torture in the War on Terror. It will appeal strongly to an audience who saw the U.S. as going down a path of moral turpitude during the Bush era. However, the information presented only tells one side of the story and anyone looking for the whole picture will have to find that information elsewhere.

Our Response

Taxi to the Dark Side is a well-made film and makes the viewer think about one of the biggest moral questions of the War on Terror. However, it makes no attempt to look at the issue from all perspectives. The question of whether or not torture actually produces valuable intelligence is poorly explored and is dismissed with merely anecdotal accounts. This is a hole in the film’s argument against torture. When one looks at the literature on interrogation practices, particularly the Intelligence Science Board Study on Educing Information (PDF), it becomes clear that this area is severely lacking in research and discourse. Little meaningful research that addresses the costs, benefits, and effectiveness of various interrogation practices has been undertaken, making it impossible to give definitive statements on their effectiveness. The film would have done well to address this lack of research and mention some alternatives to the practices it condemns. For example, the aforementioned Educing Information study at one point suggests training a specific division of interrogators rather than trying to train all personnel for the task. This could diminish the lack of experience that the film portrays as a leading cause for some of the abuses. Again, the piece’s failure to explore such alternatives and to simply dismiss coercive interrogation practices without looking critically at their effectiveness, or at least pointing to the lack of research regarding this issue, lessens the veracity of its argument.

The film also piles the blame almost solely on the Bush Administration. The director even seems to try and absolve the soldiers who carried out the actual acts in certain parts of the film. While the Administration is largely responsible for creating an environment that encouraged torture and its cover-up, the soldiers who did the torturing cannot be wholly innocent. There were no recorded direct orders to torture anyone and therefore the carrying out of torture was not a forced act.

Finally, while quick to criticize the holding of innocent people in Guantanamo Bay and other centers, the film does not provide insight as to what should be done with them. Despite efforts by the Obama Administration to shut the facility down, the complexities of the issue have proved to be a hindrance to achieving that goal. Many detainees cannot be simply sent back to their home country as they would be treated poorly. Some of the innocent detainees have proven hard to release since few countries want to take them. It is also nearly impossible to convince any American community to take former detainees, considering the amount of fear mongering prevalent in the media and blog sphere. These issues were made clear in an Economist article written soon after Obama’s inauguration when the issue was heating up. The point is that while some of these detainees may be innocent, the situation is not as simple as just letting them go.

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