Abu Ghraib prison interiorAbu Ghraib prison interior

Rory Kennedy Reckons With the Disturbing Truths of Abu Ghraib

The acclaimed director discusses how she approached the documentary and how those who feel outraged can take action.

  • HBO: How did you come to make this film?

  • Rory Kennedy: Initially, I was looking at the subject of genocide, asking the question, why do ordinary people commit extraordinary acts of cruelty or evil? The idea was to look at genocide from the perspective of the perpetrators. Who are the people who commit genocide? How are they brought into it? What is the structural and institutional process that happens? And what is the individual psychological process that happens?

    What happened while I was researching that project is that the photographs of Abu Ghraib came out, and I found myself asking very similar questions of the people who were involved in the abuse that occurred at Abu Ghraib.

    Who were these people? What motivated them? How much was it about the structure and the situation at Abu Ghraib? How much was it because the individuals were inclined to be abusive? Were they just the kid next door who was behaving badly? Or were they psychopaths who had a tendency toward being abusive?

    I then went back to HBO with the idea of refocusing the film on Abu Ghraib, but asking the same questions, and really focusing on the perpetrators, and the people who were involved in the abuse. And they thought that was a good idea. I was ultimately able to talk to well over a dozen people who were at Abu Ghraib at the time, many of whom were perpetrators, as well as detainees who were abused. All of the people were at Abu Ghraib in the fall of 2003 when most of the abuses seen in the photographs occurred.

    To do a film that probed the psychology of the perpetrators, and why they were motivated to do what they did, I was thinking and expecting that I would hear about their childhoods, that there was any inclination towards violent behavior, but when I asked each of them why they committed these acts, they all said the exact same thing: "I did it because I was told to do it."

    After I heard that the first time, I thought, oh, that's interesting. By the second, and third, and fourth time it became disturbing. Then it became much more of an investigative film. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib looks at the policies that were put into place after 9/11 that I believe contributed directly to what happened at Abu Ghraib, looking up the chain of command as to who was responsible for what happened. Not just at the soldiers.

    The film starts with a study that was done in the sixties that shows a group of people who are brought in to be part of an experiment. They were asked to inflict electric shocks on somebody who they knew to be innocent. The purpose of the study was to find out how willing people would be to shock somebody else simply because they were asked to do so by a person in authority. What they found is that a hundred percent of the participants were willing to shock, to ostensibly torture somebody just because they were told to do so.

    I think what we saw at Abu Ghraib, in large part, is a group of very young soldiers right out of basic training, who were thrown into a situation where they had no training to be prison guards, and absolutely no training for prepping detainees for interrogations, which is what they were asked to do. The prison population blossomed from less than a thousand prisoners to over six thousand prisoners in a very short period of time, and there were merely three hundred prison guards to guard six thousand prisoners. So these guys are coming out of high school in some cases, and being thrown into this environment where they really don't know what is normal and what is not.

    They're then asked to keep people up all night, and put them in stress positions and humiliate them, to prepare the prisoners for the more formal interrogation. There's a general attitude of, take the gloves off, anything goes, do what you need to do to get the information. There were individuals who I think did take it too far, and I do think there was a level of sadism and abuse that occurred. But it happened within a mostly sanctioned environment.

  • HBO: Why do you think no one has been held accountable?

  • Rory Kennedy: I think that goes back to the procedures that were put into place after 9/11. There's still a different set of procedures that apply to the CIA, and when President Bush was asked what those procedures were, his response was to say, "I can't tell you that, I'm sure you understand why." And I personally don't understand why.

    I think we need some transparency with this administration, and I don't think the executive branch should be making these decisions exclusively. Even members of Congress aren't aware of what the procedures are. Many believe these procedures continue to include what most of us would consider too be torture.

  • HBO: And this continues to this day?

  • Rory Kennedy: I can't say that definitively, but many indicators suggest that that is the case.

  • HBO: What could someone do if they feel outraged? How can a person take action and, perhaps, try to affect change?

  • Rory Kennedy: Well, I think there are a lot of things that people can do to demand changes. First of all we need to understand exactly what happened at Abu Ghraib. There has yet to be a 9/11 style commission where there's an investigator who's really empowered to look up and down the chain of command, to examine exactly who was responsible.

    To date, there have been eleven low-ranking soldiers who have served time. No high- ranking official has served any time for what happened at Abu Ghraib. I think we the American People deserve to know what happened. We can't just imprison people and push this under the rug and say it's over and we've moved on.

    There are a number of organizations like Human Rights First, the ACLU, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who are very active in campaigns to ensure that we change our policies so that we don't continue to advocate torture in this country. And people can certainly reach out to those organizations. They have very active campaigns that aim to get to the bottom of what happened, and change US policy.

    I would hope Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is a contributing factor to that dialogue, and encourages people to get involved. People can have gatherings where they talk about it, write their local newspapers--all these things make a huge difference. Also helpful is calling and writing their Congresspeople, talking to their friends and family about what's happening and really demanding change.

    We need to voice those concerns, and really embolden our leaders to take action, and change our policies back to what America used to represent--human rights and human dignity, and respect for the law.