Alex Gibney is an award- winning US filmmaker. His documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," an in- depth look at US torture practices in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, won best documentary at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival and will be released theatrically in the US in January, 2008. It will also be shown on cable TV, on the Discovery Channel, sometime before the presidential elections. Also planned is a small theatrical release in the UK. Gibney's documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006.
US Filmmaker Alex Gibney spoke to SPIEGEL ONLINE about his award-winning documentary on the US's torture practices, "Taxi to the Dark Side," and his belief that privately many Americans have long made peace with the idea of torture.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: US President George W. Bush has stressed again and again that "the US does not torture." For your documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side" you did a lot of research within the US military and talked to interrogators. Do you agree with Bush?
Alex Gibney: Only when you redefine torture so that it no longer means anything you can look the American people in the eye and say that. That's the only explanation how Bush can sit there and say that. The US administration has worked overtime to redefine torture beyond any common notion. They keep tinkering with the definition.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But hasn't torture been legally defined for decades?
Gibney: Sensory deprivation, psychological assault -- these are the kind of things we prosecuted the Germans for at the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Were those you talked to, who actually did the dirty work, aware of this?
Gibney: They had no clue. They had been told by various people that what they were doing was generally speaking okay.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But how can any person with a conscience think that way?
Gibney: The biggest problem is that three things happened in the US right after 9/11. One, the administration blurred the lines about what the rules were. Two, there was tremendous pressure from above for the interrogators to obtain actual information in a hurry. Three, very few of these people had any kind of training.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So who is ultimately responsible?
Gibney: I think the individuals at ground level do have to take some responsibility for what they do. They have a responsibility to speak up. The far greater responsibility, however, is what's called command responsibility -- the commanding officers and the administration are responsible. And again, that's what we prosecuted in Nuremberg after World War II.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why doesn't the American public seem to see this? Why isn't there more outrage?
Gibney: At some point the people who are responsible need to be legally held accountable. But that takes more than courage in Congress. We, the American people, have to make it absolutely clear that we understand what torture is and won't do it anymore.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why hasn't that happened yet?
Gibney: Every time new documents show up confirming that they do torture it becomes clear that the administration is trying very hard -- in secret, with a camouflage of legal footnotes -- to go around any boundaries the Supreme Court and the US Congress are setting.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Didn't the Abu Ghraib scandal make people suspicious?
Gibney: There was initial outrage about Abu Ghraib. People were genuinely outraged. But the administration very successfully convinced them that that was an aberration, not a policy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The public can't be that foolish. Have the Americans privately made peace with the concept of torture?
Gibney: I agree. That is a huge problem. Americans have become comfortable with the idea. They see torture as a kind of footnote, as a few bad apples that occasionally crossed the line like in Abu Ghraib. But it is a fundamental aberration of what it used to mean to be an American.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Frank Rich, in the New York Times, compared this to the "Good Germans" during the Third Reich, who claimed to have known nothing about the Holocaust. Isn't this a bit too harsh?
Gibney: I do see the parallel, even though it's an extremely uncomfortable idea, especially in view of our history. We were very vigorous prosecuting the Germans after World War II., and yet we seem unwilling to apply this to ourselves.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see anyone on the Democratic side who could change things?
Gibney: Unfortunately so far it's an issue most Democrats don't want to touch. The traditional problem of the Democrats is that they are being accused of being soft on defense. The Democrats have not been able to address this in a way that still makes them look strong on defense. They sense that the people are still scared and want leaders do whatever is necessary in times of war.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So who is going to break the ice?
Gibney: Ironically, Republican presidential candidate John McCain (who was tortured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War) has been the best on this issue. He shamed a lot of senators into voting for his Detainee Treatment Amendment of 2006. (The amendment prohibits torture, but Bush has issued a "Signing Statement," meaning that he may interpret it differently or ignore it altogether.)
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your movie alludes to the dark side in all of us. Is everyone capable of torture, allowing certain circumstances?
Gibney: I think everybody has a dark side. That's why I so vigorously disagree that it was only some bad apples who did this. We're all bad apples to some extent. That's why the military was the most outraged about this. They understand the need for rules to keep a disciplined army from turning into a mob. If you see your friends killed in battle, you go over to the dark side, and that's when you need rules. You need the guidance the administration failed to provide so miserably.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Didn't your interviews with the soldiers confirm that the information you get from torture really has no value?
Gibney: Yes. What do you get from torture? You get the victim to tell you exactly what you want to hear.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: How come then they still apply these methods anyway?
Gibney: I don't think anybody in the US administration has looked through the deep history of these techniques. A lot of these techniques were actually designed by the KGB to obtain false confessions. If you look through the literature you see that experienced interrogators disparage these techniques.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does the US media share any of the blame for the lack of debate on this?
Gibney: I think they do. But I also think it's complicated. TV largely failed on this issue. On the other hand, you had an extraordinary amount of very good investigative reporting in print -- The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker. So you can't say that the information wasn't available.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So if all that hasn't had an effect yet, is there any hope that this issue will ever be attacked successfully?
Gibney: I think it's incumbent to the American people to get outraged and angry enough to demand politicians to do something. We have to hold the people who took us over to the dark side accountable. This goes way beyond Abu Ghraib. This corrupts the spirit, it corrupts the rule of law, and it's doing damage to our own soldiers. It puts our society at grave risk.
Interview conducted by Marc Pitzke