I am sitting two feet away from Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris. He is screaming at me. And I couldn’t be more pleased.
Morris’s latest documentary feature, Standard Operating Procedure (released by Sony Pictures Classics and Participant Media in Los Angeles on May 2) is not just about Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and its administration by the U.S. military. With the same trademark élan evident in The Fog of War, his Academy Award- winning doc on former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Morris’s S.O.P., which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, weaves together an overwhelming number of topical strands with remarkable clarity and artistry.
But it is the sentencing of seven soldiers–M.P.’s at Abu Ghraib–and the refusal of the military, US government and population at large to look beyond this “framing” of the pictures of humiliated and tortured Iraqi detainees, that is the reason Morris, generally the most genial and polite of interview subjects, vented his frustration after a question of mine.
Specialist Sabrina Harman, as guard on the night shift for the 372nd M.P .Company, explains in S.O.P. that she took photos not only of naked Iraqi prisoners but the dead body of a detainee named Manadel al-Jamadi, who was murdered after an interrogation by a CIA officer, whose name is known to the military. She insists the photos were not for perverse pleasure but because she felt compelled to document the repugnant activities in Abu Ghraib.
“Why wasn’t the CIA officer ever charged?” Morris shouted toward me with uncustomary vehemence. “Why was the only person ever threatened with imprisonment over the death of Al-Jamadi, why was it Sabrina, for taking a goddamn photograph that exposes the military, exposes a crime? To me it’s a metaphor for the whole goddamn war in Iraq.”
Among the interviewees, Morris surprisingly managed to capture on film six of the seven “bad apples” of the 372nd M.P., excluding Cpl. Charles Graner, responsible for arranging such disturbing, indelible images as an Iraqi with a hood standing on a box, with wires hanging off him or a pyramid of naked detainees. Graner received ten years, as the stiffest sentence of those charged, but S.O.P., upon careful scrutiny, points to culpability at higher levels.
For example, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, 800th M.P. Brigade, was eventually relieved of command and demoted by President George W. Bush. Morris selected clips of his 17 hours of interviews with Karpinski to reveal that Karpinski was responsible for rebuilding and running the entire, decimated prison system in Iraq. When she inspected Abu Ghraib, interrogation techniques used there were shielded from her view. Karpinski could not identify the staggering mix of civilian contract interrogators, CIA officers and, in military lexicon, O.G.A. (Other Governmental Agencies) going in and out of cells at the prison. Most damning of all, when Karpinski became aware of the systematic mistreatment of Abu Ghraib detainees, she informed Lt.-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who promptly ordered her to do nothing. She became the highest-ranking scapegoat in relation to the Abu Ghraib scandal and her onscreen gaze is suffused with cold resentment.
Morris’ collaborator on the book version of S.O.P, author and Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch, has stated that rather than wondering about finding a “smoking gun,” irrefutable evidence of the definitive culprit of Abu Ghraib, that “Abu Ghraib is the smoking gun.” Morris opens his documentary by contextualizing the prison, which was emptied of all its prisoners in the Fall of 2002 by Saddam Hussein. Under US occupation, Abu Ghraib became the center of military intelligence, despite its legacy for torture and murder of prisoners under Saddam.
Conditions in the prison breached the Geneva Conventions. Military sweeps brought in detainees, often relatives of suspects, without any confirming intelligence. A prison population of 200 grew to an unmanageable 1500. Food was scarce and often contaminated. And in one of the most obvious abrogations of Geneva, Abu Ghraib was located in a war zone, within the bloody “Sunni Triangle,” where daily shelling of the prison made the psychological conditions inside even more volatile.
Photos were widely distributed electronically among the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, beginning in October of 2003, which included images taken by Cpl. Graner of PFC Lynddie England and Specialist Megan Ambuhl, two women who posed with a naked, leashed prisoner called “Gus.” In a stunning parenthetical in this documentary, Morris delves into the fact that Graner was simultaneously having sexual relations with both England and Ambuhl, the latter now his wife.
Lieutenant-General Sanchez is not the only officer who escaped justice for a coverup. It was January 13, 2004, when Specialist Joseph Darby turned a CD of Abu Ghraib photos into the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. The result, as we learn in Morris’s work is this: Three days later, Colonel Thomas Pappas issued an amnesty for all military personnel who possessed the Abu Ghraib photos. In essence, this enabled the wholesale destruction of all evidence connected to the scandal.
Ironically, Spec. Harman had earlier attempted to disseminate the photos within the US media and with considerably lesser results. “You know, Sabrina burned a CD,” Morris explained. “Shortly after the death of al-Jamadi, she was sent back to the US on a leave. She tried to show the photographs to someone at CNN who didn’t really want to look at them.”
The evening I returned from the press roundtable with Morris, the news on television put S.O.P. into clearer perspective. The Associated Press revealed that a group within the White House, including Vice President Dick Cheney, with the approval of Bush, labored to find legal justification for waterboarding and other interrogation techniques they knew to be objectionable and unacceptable under international law. Between 2002 and 2003, the Justice Department had issued several memos from its Office of Legal Counsel.
As I heard the news, I recalled Morris’s furious rhetorical question from just hours before: “How many torture memos does a government have to promulgate before you get the idea they might be interested in promulgating torture? How many? What would satisfy anybody?”
Morris mentioned that there have been 13 separate investigations on Abu Ghraib, what he refers to as “almost an investigative filibuster.” His reframing of the significance of those prison photos, those who took them and those who controlled how they were perceived, is a distillation of a million and a half words of interview transcript, along with thousands of pages of unredacted reports and about 270 photographs that shook the world but has left it materially unchanged.
“The photographs have stopped us from looking further and demanding answers,” Morris said, “almost as if we’ve gone into this state of shock and nothing more is needed. It’s a democracy still and I still have some residual faith in that democracy. And I believe that part of moving past the stain of Abu Ghraib is confronting what actually happened there. Not scapegoats but confronting what happened there.”