At least four of prolific documentarian Alex Gibney's movies—Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010) and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010)—have a common theme: smart people who have painted themselves into dark corners.
In the days after a team of U.S. Navy SEALS raided a suddenly famous compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, TakePart asked Gibney five questions pertaining to the shadowy intersection of torture, American values and the killing of Osama bin Laden.
TakePart: Killing bin Laden seems to have, to some degree, played into the extremists' game. Could bin Laden have been neutralized in a more effective way?
Alex Gibney: I'm not sure that killing Bin Laden did play into the extremists' game. I would have preferred that he had been captured and tried, but I also believe that this action was legal and consistent with the congressional authorization of force. Also, I believe that the U.S. government was weighing concerns about possible taking of American hostages if bin Laden were captured. It has been suggested that one reason why the Obama administration may have preferred to kill bin Laden is that the administration couldn't see a politically viable mechanism for trying him. If that turns out to be true, it is chilling. But unless I know that to be true, the key question about bin Laden's death is: What now? Will we return to the country that we were prior to 9/11? Or will we continue to drift into lawless American exceptionalism? Now that we have killed bin Laden, is it okay for us to continue to use drones to kill men, women and children without any due process?
TakePart: Some U.S. media is presenting Osama's killing as a vindication of U.S. forces operating "from the dark side." Is torture effective in extracting useful intelligence?
Alex Gibney: Absolutely not. Torture is unreliable. There is no good practical argument why torture should be used instead of lawful interrogation techniques. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. Why didn't he tell us where bin Laden was? Ibn Sheikh al-Libi was waterboarded in Egypt at the request of the CIA—despite the good intelligence he gave to the FBI under lawful interrogation. As a result, al-Libi provided information linking al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, which the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq. After the invasion, the CIA conceded that al-Libi had lied to please his torturers, a common problem with torture.
TakePart: Can U.S. policy do anything to counteract the appeal of extremist militants to the Arab world?
Alex Gibney: The United States can live up to its own stated values. The ideals are high-minded and worth pursuing. Every time we abandon them, it gives hope to extremist militants. Look at the Arab Spring: In Tunisia and Egypt, people are demanding greater democracy. While we ultimately supported those uprisings, it was also clear that we had, for many years, allied ourselves with leaders in those countries that were best described as tyrants. Our democratic values are our greatest strength. We counteract the appeal of extremist militants by not abandoning those values in the face of terror.
TakePart: How do good people become torturers?
Alex Gibney: Very easily. It is usually a variation on the argument of the end justifies the means. It happens gradually when responsible people give orders and or permission for those under their control to go over to "the dark side," in Dick Cheney's words. Further, psychologists have identified a process called "force drift," in which interrogators, once permitted to use brute force, push the boundaries of that force when they don't get the answers they are looking for.
TakePart: What can we as individual Americans do to ensure our ideals survive the war on terror?
Alex Gibney: We need to demand that our leaders follow the rule of law. Further, we need to demand that those who do not be held accountable no matter how respectable or powerful. We are supposed to be governed by laws not men. We should insist that no man or woman be above the law.
In relation to an investigation of the use of torture by the Bush administration, President Obama said he wants to go forward, not back. But if a crime has been committed, should we not seek justice?
Unless we reckon with our past, we will be condemned to repeat it. On this issue, Obama is putting political expediency above principle. When he does that, terrorists all over the world have a good, long laugh.
We need a truth commission on torture.
Alex Gibney received an Academy Award for 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side. His numerous and varied upcoming projects include a film about Wikileaks and that site's imprisoned source, Bradley Manning.