PBS Frontline: 'The Torture Question'

Michael Kirk
Wednesday, October 19, 2005; 11:00 AM

In the uncertain weeks following September 11, an internal power struggle was underway deep inside the Bush administration. Waged between partisans at the highest levels of the government, that battle-captured in a series of blunt memos-exemplifies the struggle to create a legal framework to give the president authority to aggressively interrogate enemy fighters in the war on terror. On Oct. 18, Frontline goes behind closed doors to investigate the struggle over how and when to use what was called "coercive interrogation." The film begins with a policy born out of fear and anger and tracks how increasingly tough measures were taken to gather information about Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and finally the rising insurgency in Iraq. In an examination that begins at the White House and ends in the public debate about alleged abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib, policy makers, government interrogators, and their subjects talk to Frontline about their experiences as part of this internal battle.

"The Torture Question" airs Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

Producer Michael Kirk was online Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the film "The Torture Question," which examines alleged abuses in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Abu Ghraib and the debate over acceptable methods of interrogation.

The transcript follows.


San Diego, Calif.: Mr. Kirk,

Thank you for this film. Why, do you think, has investigative journalism failed (until now) to dig into the abuse of the current administration? Reporters back down from the President instead of digging in and demanding an answer to tough questions.

What has happened to tough journalism in America?

Michael Kirk: The tough journalism on this subject has been coming from The Washington Post and The New York Times, writers from the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer. What has not happened is any long-form broadcast coverage in-depth. Sadly, the networks and the cable news outfits simply aren't doing that much of this kind of work. I hope they will pursue this story further now that some of the ground has been plowed.


Columbus, Ohio: With all of the talk about what happened in Abu Ghraib, why is the mainstream media so unwilling to talk about the other side...what Iraqis did to U.S. POWs? Don't buy into the story of Jessica Lynch being well treated by her captors. Jessica did not receive her injuries in the humvee wreck. Eyewitnesses saw that she was fully capable of walking after she was pulled from the disabled humvee. She was brutally abused by her Iraqi captors and the only medical care that was given to her was deliberately just enough to keep her alive...nothing more. There are also the other POWs who were kept with her. They were tortured in ways that make what happened to the POWs in Abu Ghraib pale in comparison to them. The U.S. POWs were then murdered in cold blood. For example, when PFC Lori Ann Piestewa's body was recovered during the Lynch rescue, it was found horribly mutilated and with a bullet in the back of her head. This runs contrary to the official story that Lori died from head injuries incurred in the humvee wreck. Sgt. Donald Walter's family had to fight the Pentagon to finally have it admitted that Donald was captured alive and later murdered by his Iraqi captors as well. The whole truth about Iraqi abuse of U.S. POWs needs to be told.

Michael Kirk: It is undeniable that horrible things happen to soldiers on both sides during war. And there seems to be ample evidence that this is especially true in Iraq. But as horrible as these things are--they are not the subject of this report. It was about us--the Americans--and what we are doing. We followed the criticisms offered by our own soldiers and American politicians (like Senator McCain) who continue to be concerned about how Americans act in the world, and the consequences of those actions.


New York, N.Y.: Were you allowed to go into the prison?

Michael Kirk: Yes. We went to both Gitmo and Abu Ghraib prisons.


Kent, Ohio: Mr. Kirk, that was a terrific program. Do you think that our use of interrogation techniques that some would label torture and that involve humiliation and degradation of prisoners is undermining support for the U.S. occupation among people in Iraq? Do Iraqis see us as promoters of democracy and human rights, given the revelations about our treatment of prisoners?

Michael Kirk: I don't really know how Iraqis feel about us and our stated quest to bring them democracy. I went to Iraq and I produced this report for a different reason. I do know from talking to many American soldiers (including high ranking officers) that they are worried about the effect of our interrogation policies on the safety of our military people (now and in the future) and on America's reputation throughout the world.


Austin, Tex.: After Iraq was subdued, what was the real military urgency about finding Saddam's hiding place or buried WMD that would justify torture? Wasn't the urgency driven by internal American politics, the need to find political cover for an illegitimate pre-emptive war? Was there a real sense that buried WMD might be brought out, set up, and targeted at the U.S. right under our noses? What made them think that getting Saddam would end the insurgency? How was any of this torture justified except to curry favor with the President, Cheney and Rumsfeld?

Michael Kirk: I don't know the answer to your question. I know from my reporting and talking to politicians and military leaders that the urgency to find WMD, Saddam Hussein and the leaders of the insurgency was based on many imperatives--saving lives, calming the situation in Iraq and, of course, domestic (American) political considerations. The truth is that with this story as well as all big stories--there are always many reasons why things happen.


Oak Park, Ill.: Will President Bush, Secretary Defense Donald Rumsfeld or senior military leaders ever acknowledge publicly take responsibility for this national tragedy in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay?

Do you think any senior officials will be held accountable and fired over this tragedy, as it continues?

Are there any significant historical correlations or learnings with the Vietnam War and the performance of our military then in terms of POWs?

Are there any senators, Republican or Democrat, willing to go public with their outrage over this situation? I know John McCain has spoke bluntly during some hearings about in the Senate. But I think this situation requires repeated public outrage by someone who has the power to shame and embarrass this administration.

Michael Kirk: Two weeks ago Senator McCain offered an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill in the Senate. The amendment basically calls for human treatment of prisoners captured by America troops. It passed 90 to 9. I was especially interested to note that 46 Republicans voted FOR the measure in what many saw as a rebuke of Secretary Rumsfeld and the President. The President, incidentally has threatened to veto the appropriations measure if it passes.

As to future problems for the Secretary or senior military leaders--that will depend on whether after a robust national dialogue (if one happens) the American people feel they should be assigned some blame for what has happened.


Minneapolis, Minn.: A disturbing portrayal of events. Brig General Karpinski, one of your esteemed interviewees, has been booted from the military for justifiable reasons. Fishback admits having no in person knowledge of torture, only hearsay.

Why would anyone legitimate be interviewed by someone from your program? It's a sham.

Michael Kirk: I do not believe Captain Fishback only had "second-hand" information about events in Iraq. General Karpinski was demoted to Colonel, not "booted" from the military. I'd invite you to the FRONTLINE Web site to read her interview and those of others in the program in order to get your facts straight.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Have you spoken with many Iraqi civilians for their thoughts on prison abuses? Is the affecting their impression of Americans?

Michael Kirk: I have not spoken with Iraqi citizens about this matter. We followed Senator McCain's adage in our film--"this is not about them, it is about us."


San Francisco, Calif.: Thank you for your great programming. I was wondering if the international community could push for violation of war crimes by the United States?

Michael Kirk: I have asked this question myself. I know that in the early going there was some worry about this matter from Alberto Gonzales and the other lawyers around the president. It is one of the reasons torture was defined so narrowly (hard to commit the crime) and for not adhering to the Geneva Conventions with regard to Al Qaeda and the Taliban prisoners from Afghanistan.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. Kirk,

Did you get--or did your interviewees convey --any sense of proportions regarding the percentage of soldiers who were unhappy about our treatment of prisoners?

Michael Kirk: I am under the impression--partly from how available some of the evidence of abuse was to find--that the abuse happens often enough to be talked about at many levels. It remains to be seen--hopefully after military investigations, and further in-depth journalistic inquiries--how deep all this runs. For now, I believe it is more common that I thought when we began researching this story, and sources we talked to say the lack of oversight seems to be in direct proportion to the urgency to get information about the insurgency.


Amenia, N.Y.: Has early reaction to "The Torture Question" led you to believe the documentary may inspire a new investigation into these abuses or will the reaction be "We have already thoroughly investigated the situation"? Do you, as the director, hope that further investigation is sparked by your work? Thanks!

Michael Kirk: I am a believer in aggressive, tough and fair journalism. I have a strong belief that kind of work keeps our country free and strong. I sincerely hope other journalists will take up the story and pursue it as aggressively as they can.


Rockville, Md.: I was with Army Intelligence in Vietnam with the First Infantry Division (66-67) and later served as an interrogations advisor for central Intelligence for two more tours. In the context of Vietnam, there was never a situation when mistreatment served any good purpose. Our experience was that the Vietnamese were so sure that they would be badly treated and good treatment (meal down town at the local market) would get them to tell us all they knew. So far as I knew, most of the other provinces were the same. The Vietnamese may have mistreated prisoners, but we had no need or reason to do so.

Why is Iraq different? Where did these procedures come from? I suspect that our prisoner drills with air force personnel may have contributed to this problem. Those were exercises where air force staff would evade capture and be "interrogated" when captured. I know this got out of hand and with our own people.

I don't know about the special forces.

Michael Kirk: Our reporting showed us that coercive measures don't work in most cases--with the exception of so-called "ticking time bombs." The particularly unpleasant and perhaps illegal procedures employed at Gitmo and in Iraq grew up in an ad hoc fashion as young (mostly) military intelligence soldiers tried to make sense out of confusing and complicated authorizations from Secretary Rumsfeld, General Sanchez, a variety of officers, CIA officers, and private contract interrogators. Geneva, The UCMJ and the Field Manual were not in use...what were the young soldiers following?


Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada: Have you ever read the book, "Discipline and Punish - The Birth of the Prison" by Foucault?

In watching your program, there are many issues and questions that are raised around the idea of "power" and trying to uphold this concept of U.S. democracy throughout the world. Do you see this as a U.S./Orwellian "double-speak" (i.e.. "Freedom and Democracy" through "Torture and Control")? Now, post 9/11, do you see this attitude migrating into the American public psyche?

P.S.. I very much enjoyed watching your film and only wished more Americans could watch it and start asking the important questions of their government for accountability - both at nationally and maybe more importantly, internationally.

Michael Kirk: I promise to read them now. Thank you for your kind words.


La Jolla, Calif.: Mr Kirk,

In one section of the program you described how US operatives go into Iraqi homes and interrogate people ("breaking ribs" was mentioned).

I wanted to know more about what instigates such an event? What type of information causes our soldiers to break into an Iraqi home and drag people off to prison?

Thank you.

Michael Kirk: There is, in Iraq, an urgent need for information. That need is being conveyed every day to soldiers on the ground. Sometimes, I gather, under the kind of extreme circumstances they encounter, this type of thing happens. Preventing it takes strong leadership, according to officers and officials I have spoken with. That kind of leadership often comes from the top down.


Austin, Tex.: Given the clarity of the connection between Private England's behavior and the paper trail back to Secretary Rumsfeld, do you think the Army will void her prosecution?

Michael Kirk: No. Let's be very clear--the actions (some would call them "sadistic") are not legally or morally excusable if they are violations of the law. The question, as experts I have talked to articulate it, is not whether soldiers who do wrong should be excused--it is whether those who either order, condone or create a climate for such acts should also be held responsible. To date, in Abu Ghraib 7 military police and 2 military intelligence (enlisted) soldiers have been held responsible in court for their actions.


Frrdericksburg, Va.: Did you offer a preview of this decidedly biased piece to any administrative official prior to its airing? Will the public see their comments on-air? In the interest of fairness and journalistic integrity will you and PBS offer an on-air rebuttal by any administration official?

Michael Kirk: We never show a program to anyone outside our editorial and promotion process prior to broadcast. We made strenuous efforts to get Secretary Rumsfeld and many other top government officials to talk to us for the program. Your quarrel about whether you are allowed to hear their side of the story is with them, not us.


Kalispell, Mont.: First, thank you for a very informative program. I love Frontline. It gets to the heart of the problems we are facing.

Do you think Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld should be tried for war crimes? And how will they be remembered in the history books? I read in our local paper that Cheney has made over 78 million dollars in his stock in Halliburton since we invaded Iraq. FDR once said he hoped that WWII would not make any wartime millions. Seems to me this invasion into Iraq was about oil, power and money. Or are they synonymous??

Michael Kirk: How history and the courts will treat the people you mentioned will, in some way, depend on whether the American people are allowed to join the dialogue about this issue. At the present time the House of Representatives is considering whether to support Senator McCain's call for mandated humane treatment of prisoners. There is still time for citizens to enter that debate and articulate any number of positions on this vital subject.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you Mr. Kirk. Thank for your detailed exposure of what has transpired, and the history of how we arrived at "the pictures." I also appreciate that you showed some graphic footage of the Iraq war, which I think is grossly absent from us Americans protected in our bubble.

My question is, do you see anyone in the future being held culpable? Or is everyone off the hook and "Rumsfeld walks away from this"?

Many thanks.

Michael Kirk: See the above answer. And thank you.


Dallas, Tex.: Thank you for presenting an issue that I have tried to bring to the attention of my less enlightened friends. They will no longer wonder why I have an American flag hanging upside down in my room.

Michael Kirk: It's America...we can do what we think we must.


New York, N.Y.: Have the conditions gotten better at Abu Ghraib?

Michael Kirk: Yes, but they are still very primitive. The soldiers working there are doing their best...travel to and from Abu Ghraib continues to be dangerous. The detainees are still coming in (4100 at last count). There is an effort to give some control over to the Iraqis, but I think the Americans (by necessity) are still very much in charge. There continue to be mortar attacks, and in April there was a full scale attack on the prison. In terms of abusive interrogations--we hear that those kind of things have been dramatically cleaned up. There are, however, 16 other prisons in Iraq. We did not visit, and journalists do not regularly report from them.


Columbia, Md.: What do you think is the best way to convince our fellow Americans that, I can't believe I'm even having to say this, torture is wrong. We know it's ineffective, but beyond that, it's not who we want to be. I don't care (well, I care, but you know what I mean) what the enemy does. This is OUR country---if we can't stand against torture, the ultimate evil, then on what do we base our conception of ourselves as good people?

And most important, it doesn't matter whether the victims "deserve" it or not; torturing them turns US, our boys and girls, into torturers. What a terrible legacy to bring home with them.

Michael Kirk: A national dialogue, spurred by journalism, and elected officials, involving citizens will help educate people about this matter. Then they can openly decide what they are comfortable with....


Memphis, Tenn.: Mr. Tony Lagouranis revealed that the 'coercive interrogation' techniques used on Iraqis was more widespread than reported and that it has now lead to people being beaten and even suffering broken bones inside their own homes. What do you think the White House's response to this news will be?

Michael Kirk: I hope they will investigate the allegations and prosecute wrongdoers at all levels of the chain of command. To date the President has threatened to veto the Defense Appropriations bill if Senator McCain's amendment requiring humane treatment of detainees is passed by the House.


Middleton, Wis.: Thank you for your program. I watched and took copious notes. I'd like to see it again. I think I should renew my membership in PBS although I have been without any income for 8 months. I spend two hours a day reading news online and at the library. I was surprised recently I brought up news of the conviction of L. England to find my apartment manager insisted she had heard nothing about the Abu Ghraib news and a neighbor said, "who cares?". Now I would like to do a survey and find out more about how Americans are reacting. A friend in Alabama felt Rumsfeld should be accountable, too. From your program, I see just why he thought so. Was part of your motivation in doing the program that you perceived a lack of appreciation on the part of the average person?

Michael Kirk: We make programs to inform and educate. That's our sole purpose.


Chicago, Ill.: When you get comments from people complaining that your reporting is "biased" or one-sided, do they ever actually explain why they believe it to be so? I notice that the pro-Administration comments on this chat don't; they just insinuate that you somehow weren't fair or balanced, presumably because they don't like the results. Where's the point-by-point rebuttal? Thanks.

Michael Kirk: We strive to be fair. My personal agenda is to find as many facts as possible, try to make sense of them for an average viewer and tell a story that makes it compelling and useful.


University Heights, Calif.: I wonder what you left out of the program. Was there well documented information that you felt was too inflammatory for your broadcast?

Michael Kirk: FRONTLINE's incredible Web site is an important resource for viewers who want to know more. The film is really only the tip of the iceberg of information we gathered over the past year. I invite you to go there--see what could not be fit into the program, read and learn and follow leads yourself. It is an effort to be transparent in our journalism (the interviews of major subjects are there) as is some of the footage we couldn't get into the program. Enjoy yourself and learn much more about the issue. And in a few minutes you will be able to see the entire film again...on the web.


Austin, Tex.: In a recent book, "Our Father's War", the author illustrates the "code of silence" about slaughter in Italy during WWII. This code seemed to be common to almost all veterans after the war was over. Do you think there is or will be a code of silence about activities in Iraq? If so, what sociological process accounts for such widespread unwritten and spontaneous agreements? Is it shame or some concept of patriotism?

Michael Kirk: I'm not sure. So many soldiers there have digital cameras. Many have computers with live Internet capabilities. It is hard to keep secrets long in a web and wired world. We are regularly (now) receiving reports from Iraq on our computers (at FRONTLINE)...and I hope that if there are others who know the truth of what is happening there, they will contact me: mike_kirk@wgbh.org


Coral Gables, Fla.: Why did you exclude the most important evidence, cited by Republican Senators Graham and McCain, showing U.S. raping children in front of their parents? MSNBC, The New Yorker, and all other news outlets have discussed this. There are even photos and videos of this torture, which a judge has ruled must be released. Rumsfeld, illegally, continues to refuse to release these images, even to Congress. Why does Frontline always edit out the most negative evidence of anything about the Bush administration? This evidence is not partisan or claims by the so-called "liberal media" but are factual, proven by the judgment, admitted true by Rumsfeld, Graham, and McCain, and other Republicans and military officials.

Why? Does Frontline fear the whole truth would appear too partisan, thus it shows only partial truths to create a fake "balance"?

Michael Kirk: We do not intentionally do anything of the sort (about either side) and we never will. There are matters of legality and taste and journalistic proof that sometimes preclude our use of material--but NEVER to favor a political position.


washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.


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