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'The Torture Question' applies a delicate touch

'Frontline' documentary explores the issues of using brute force to gain information that might save U.S. troops' lives.

October 18, 2005|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

"The Torture Question," a well-done "Frontline" documentary that airs tonight, centers squarely on the moral and tactical dilemma embedded in the U.S. fight against the Iraqi insurgency: How much psychological coercion or brute force is permissible when troops are trying to get Iraqis or imported jihadists to cough up information that could save U.S. lives?

The Geneva Convention bans maltreatment of prisoners and noncombatants. The standard argument against using torture is threefold: It doesn't work; it leads to a loss of moral authority; it leads to torture as retribution when the opposing side takes prisoners.

But from the beginning of its war against terrorism, the Bush administration decided that the old rules and the old rationales did not apply -- not when your enemy beheads captives, indiscriminately kills its own countrymen and, it was feared, was prepared to use biological and nuclear weapons.

The argument of "Torture" is that the Bush administration's get-tough policy led to an anything-goes attitude that stretched from the holding pens at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and beyond.

"People are torturing people in their homes," a former Army interrogator, Spc. Anthony Lagouranis, tells the camera.

An Army interrogator still on active duty, his face kept in shadows, says, "There were briefings on the Geneva Convention and torture. But those briefings were seen by most who took them as a kind of a joke and something that would be basically forgotten."

"Torture" explores the legal gymnastics that led to setting aside the Geneva Convention. There was interagency feuding, stresses between the military police and military interrogators, and personality clashes among Army generals.

The documentarians lay out the whole sorry story with the cooperation of major figures, with the exceptions of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, the "can-do" general sent to toughen up interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and later assigned to do the same at Abu Ghraib.

For the abuses at Abu Ghraib, a handful of low-level soldiers were court-martialed. Army officials insist they neither knew of nor condoned the behavior captured in the now-infamous pictures.

Former Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the Army Reserve commander reprimanded for her lack of oversight at Abu Ghraib, accuses the Army of a coverup: "I will continue to ask how they can continue to blame seven rogue soldiers on the nightshift when there is a preponderance of information right now, hard information from a variety of sources, that says otherwise."

Finally, earlier this month, the Senate attached an amendment to a defense appropriation bill requiring humane treatment of detainees.

"Torture" is a work of straight-down-the-line journalism, not advocacy, and both sides are heard. If there is a point of view peeking through, it comes at the end when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a sponsor of the anti-torture bill, is given the last word: " ... you can't become your enemy in the name of defeating your enemy."

The documentarians might have done well to interview soldiers and Marines at Fallouja or Ramadi and ask about their anger at being blocked from getting information from prisoners and civilians that could keep other troops from being killed or mangled by improvised explosive devices hidden daily along convoy routes.

That's the kind of frustration that can torture you the rest of your life.


`Frontline -- The Torture Question'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 11 tonight

Ratings: Not rated

Executive producer: David Fanning. Producer-writer-director: Michael Kirk.

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