Standard Operating Procedure: Conversation with Errol Morris

Conversation with Errol Morris

Q: Tell me about Standard Operating Procedure

Errol Morris: I think of the film as a nonfiction horror movie. The imagery is designed to take the viewer into the moment the photographs were taken, as well as to evoke the nightmarish, hallucinatory quality of Abu Ghraib.

Q: Your starting point is the photographs

EM: Yes. The infamous Abu Ghraib photographs taken during the fall of 2003. It all starts with the photographs. They are at the core of this whole project. 270 photographs were given to the Army Criminal Investigation Division, and many of them appear in the movie. Standard Operating Procedure is my attempt to tell the story behind these photographs, to examine the context in which they were taken. People think they understand the photographs, that they are selfexplanatory. They think they know what they are about but do they, really Thats the question. Megan Ambuhl, one of the soldiers in the movie, asks: have we looked outside the frame This film is an attempt to do that.

Q: Did you come to this subject out of an interest in photography

EM: Yes. And my desire to make another investigative film like The Thin Blue Line. I like investigating, and this was an opportunity to become involved in a contemporary, rather than a completely historical, investigation.

Q: You have been writing about photography for the New York Times

EM: A series of essays for the online Times called Zoom. One of my ongoing themes is: photographs can be misleading without context we are free to interpret photographs any way we choose. Its one of the odd and interesting things about photography. You look at a photograph, you think you know what it means, but more often than not you could be wrong. Photographs provide evidence, but usually, it takes some investigative effort to uncover evidence of what

Before I got involved with the Abu Ghraib story, I was thinking about a new kind of history. What if we could enter history through a photograph What if we could enter the world of this war, as if you were using the photographs as a portal into history. Photographs are often used to accompany historical narration, but here we use them the other way around.

Q: Did you try to contact any of the detainees in the photographs

EM: Yes, of course. We tried to locate the detainees who appeared in the most famous photographs. Its been difficult to impossible. We spent over a year trying to track down Gilligan, the hooded man on the box. We couldnt find him. Not through military records. Not through fixers on the ground in Iraq. We dont even know if hes still alive.

Q: How did you connect with the American military you talked to How did you gain their trust

EM: It took a very, very, very long time. My mom told me: Im a good nag. The central ingredient is persistence. My first interview was with Janis Karpinski, the brigadier general who was the head of the prison system in Iraq and who was later relieved of command and demoted by Bush. My cameraman, Bob Chappell, had seen her on C-SPAN and said, You should have a look at this. This is really interesting. I watched the piece, and asked Karpinski to come to Boston for an interview. We did an extremely long interview: seventeen hours over two days. Her anger comes through vividly. And it is clear that she was used as a scapegoat.

Q: Did that interview set you to tracking down the others

EM: From Karpinski I decided to interview as many of the bad apples as I could. The media referred to the seven bad apples the seven MPs who were indicted. The seven are Sabrina Harman, Megan Ambuhl, Lynndie England, Charles Graner, Ivan Frederick, Jeremy Sivitz and Javal Davis. The first of them we interviewed was Javal Davis. We flew him up to Boston. He was extremely articulate and his interview was very, very powerful. From that point I was quite
sold on making the movie. I didnt know whether I would be able to make it, but I felt that it was a story that I needed to tell. The media and the government provided little information about these soldiers. Who were they Why did they do what they did After Javal, I suppose you would describe the process as networking. Its an odd way to use the term, but its meeting one person, getting that person to make calls, meeting another person, getting them to make calls. Eventually I was able to interview five of the bad apples, and other people who were prosecuted, principally Roman Krol. He was a military intelligence guy who appeared in several photographs taken by Lynndie England.

Q: Are the people in the film in contact with each other I dont see Megan and Lynndie going out for coffee together. Lynndie England became pregnant by Charles Graner while serving at Abu Ghraib. He was also having a relationship with Megan Ambuhl, and is now married to her

EM: Megan and Lynndie do not talk. Megan and Sabrina are friends and are in close contact with each other.

Q: You werent allowed to talk to Charles Graner

EM: No. We werent allowed to talk to Chuck Graner or Ivan Frederick. They were in prison. Lynndie was paroled last April, and we talked to her about a month after her release. Frederick was released in November, but while they were in prison we had no access to them at all. My hope is to talk to Graner and to Frederick at some point in the future.

Q: Didnt you have the urge to confront the higher-ups, not Karpinski, but the other generals

EM: Yes. But I was focused on something different. This is the flip side of The Fog of War. The Fog of War is about a man at the very top of the pyramid, the man second in the chain of command to the President. These are people who, rather than at the apex of the pyramid, are at the bottom. The central figures in this story are privates, specialists, sergeants. They are low ranking. And many were very young. Lynndie England was 20 years old.

Q: The women were particularly demonized, especially Lynndie England

EM: People are surprised that she is articulate. Her last speech in Standard Operating Procedure is like a page from a Theodore Dreiser novel. Its as if sex must inevitably lead to tragedy. Its interesting: the pictures that became best known the iconic photographs usually have an American female MP in them. Lynndie England. So its this picture of a petite American woman dominating male Iraqi prisoners with the camera held by a male American soldier.

Q: The sexuality of the humiliation

EM: Yes, that captured the attention of the world. And yet, I will always have a hard time understanding why stacking naked Iraqi men in a pyramid is an unspeakable sexual crime but trussing up naked Iraqi men with womans panties on their heads is not. Isnt it all unspeakable When they started working in Tier 1A (the area of the prison where most of the photographs were taken) in September, all of this was already in place. In Sabrina Harmans first photographs, we see the stress positions, the panties, the whole nine-yards. As Lynndie England says, This is what we saw. We know one thing for certain, these MPs did not create these policies, they first witnessed them and then were asked to carry them out.

Q: Some of the photographs look posed

A: Yes. The most infamous among them are posed. I often think that if cameras had not been present, these events would not have occurred. The pyramid is an example. Graner, in all likelihood, orchestrated these events for the camera.

Q: So what were they punished for For taking photographs

EM: Yes. I believe they were punished for embarrassing the military, for embarrassing the administration. One central irony: Sabrina Harman was threatened with prosecution for taking pictures of a man who had been killed by the CIA. She had nothing whatsoever to do with the killing, she merely photographed the corpse. But without her photographs we would know nothing of this crime.

The photographs do two things at the same time. They provide an expos and they provide a cover up. They showed the world that these things were going on, but they point the finger at a very small group of people. They make you think its these people who are the culprits. These are the people who are responsible for everything. That is a misdirection. It gives you a false picture.

Q: The letters between Sabrina and Sabrinas domestic partner Kelly are really striking, because they were written before there was any investigation. Its not after-the-fact testimony

EM: Thats correct. I should stress that those are the actual letters. Thats Sabrinas handwriting. Those are all taken from the actual letters that were written to Kelly. Although the letters are excerpted in the movie, the plan is to include more substantial excerpts in the book.

Q: Beyond the first-person statements of the soldiers, we also hear shocking testimony from Brent Pack, the photo-investigator. Hes the only one, apart from you, who addresses the whole topic through the evidence in the photographs

EM: Yes. He is the prosecution expert. Hes a government witness who was asked to examine the photographs and to put them into chronological order. Hes the one who makes this distinction between criminal acts and standard operating procedure. We see these really awful things that are considered standard operating procedure.

Q: Isnt this a big indictment when Pack admits that, from the prosecutions point-of-view, many of these photographs depict standard operating procedures

EM: To me its completely bizarre, particularly when Pack shows you the picture of the detainee known as Gilligan standing on the box with wires. Its the iconic photograph from Abu Ghraib for many people it is the iconic picture of torture–and Pack tells you that this is standard operating procedure. That moment, I hope, is shocking. It was for me. Shocking, in particular, because at that moment Abu Ghraib and the investigations into the photographs become about us about our values, our society.

Q: Its ironic that it comes from the guy that was on the government side. And then theres an interrogator himself who talks about how torture became a calculated part of the process

EM: Thats Tim Dugan, a civilian contract interrogator for CACI Corporation. There were different groups of civilian contractors working at Abu Ghraib. CACI Corporation supplied interrogators, Titan Corporation supplied interpreters. Dugan is remarkable. It was the most difficult interview for me to get. After what he has been through, I dont believe he trusts anyone. But I do trust him. In the two years that Ive been involved, hes said some pretty heady things and made some strong claims, but what he told me has been independently confirmed by

Q: Another great shocker is the story of al-Jamadi who died at Abu Ghraib during an interrogation

EM: Yes. If not for Sabrina Harman and her photographs of his corpse, we would never know about it. It would be hidden. The death of al-Jamadi was written about for the first time by Jane Mayer in the pages of The New Yorker. But the reason we know about the murder is through Sabrina Harmans photographs. Under a different set of circumstances, you could imagine Sabrina winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography.

Q: Has anything official happened with that murder

EM: Yes, there have been a couple of prosecutions but no one has been convicted. Charges have been dismissed. And no CIA operative has ever been charged or convicted in connection with the murder even though we know the name of the CIA operative who was alone in the shower with Al-Jamadi. Some of the Navy Seals who brought him to Abu Ghraib were charged but not convicted.

Q: You have amassed a lot more material in the course of making the film
EM: Yes. I was not only involved in interviews. I was also investigating.

Q: Investigating

EM: The closest thing that I can compare it to is The Thin Blue Line. In The Fog of War, I had only one person to deal with Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In The Thin Blue Line, I was involved with a full-fledged investigation trying to get one person after another to talk to me, trying to get them on film. In The Thin Blue Line, I was interviewing people both on camera and on audiotape. I was collecting documents, testimony. It was a full-fledged investigation. The same is true with Standard Operating Procedure. I have a million-and-a-half words of transcript, over thirty interviews, tens of thousands of pages of documents, and over a thousand photographs.

Q: So you have over a thousand photographs that the press has never seen

EM: Yes. Ive been investigating now for two years and every person that I talk to I try to get material from them. Weve assembled an archive, a really substantial archive of material on this subject.

Q: Do you have plans for all of this material

EM: Well, it was pretty obvious during the making of this movie that there was more than one movie in this material. Part of it will be included in my book with Philip Gourevitch. The book Standard Operating Procedure will be published in 2008 by Penguin Press. Gourevitch is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the editor of The Paris Review.

Q: Do you feel an obligation to do more with it

EM: I do. I feel an obligation to continue with the investigation, an obligation to see this through. I feel that Standard Operating Procedure is the tip of an iceberg. Frankly, I would like to see the people who were responsible for this punished. Many people involved in Abu Ghraib have been censured. But the people who are responsible for these policies have emerged unscathed. They pin medals on each others chest, and they congratulate themselves.

Q: Is there a smoking gun in this story as there was in The Thin Blue Line

EM: The smoking gun is Abu Ghraib itself. The seven bad apples are a sideshow. It is all part of a much bigger picture. As Javal Davis says, the worst stuff was not in the photographs.

Q: Hasnt the military and the administration repeatedly said that everything was in
accord with the Geneva Conventions

EM: The one thing that can be said conclusively about Abu Ghraib is it was entirely a violation of the Geneva Conventions. All of it. First, you choose a prison-site thats being mortared every day. You are talking about an incredibly dangerous place that was understaffed, undersupplied, and situated in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. Theres not enough food for the prisoners and often what food there is is contaminated. The conditions are horrible, and the detainees are on the verge of rioting. The MPs are outnumbered: one hundred to one. You have a prescription for disaster.

In addition, you have enormous pressure coming from above to get useful intelligence to capture Saddam, to find Saddam. You have rules of interrogation that have been relaxed to the point where they are nonexistent. There is constant pressure to find people that can provide intelligence to the U.S. military, but no real idea of how to do it. People rounded up in random sweeps and put in prison without any real hope of getting out. The prison population is growing. The insurgency is growing. And there is the growing realization, even though our leaders are in a state of denial, that this is not a cakewalk, that the mission has not been accomplished, that Iraq is spiraling out of control. A growing feeling of desperation and fear.

Q: Youve said this is not a film about torture, but your outrage about torture is clearly implied

EM: Yes, theres outrage. But its not only about torture. Its everything. Extortion, kidnapping. Keeping children in prison. The use of attack dogs. This is America This is the America that weve grown up to love and defend And then blaming low-ranked soldiers for all of this I dont know if Americans care about torture, because I think the prevailing attitude is you do what you have to do to win a war against an implacable enemy. But I do think there is one thing that Americans still react to its the simple idea of little guys getting punished and the big guys who are really responsible walking away. Cover up, misdirection, scapegoating.

At the core of this film, you are being introduced to a reality that people have not seen, and you have to ask yourself: what would you do What kind of predicament were those soldiers put in Untrained, understaffed, ill supplied. What does all of it mean and what does it mean about us our military, our society We havent wanted to look at it. I would like everybody who watches the film to ask themselves the simple question: What would I do if I had been put in this position

Q: Does your film exonerates the indicted soldiers

EM: If youre asking, can I absolve these seven bad apples of all responsibility, the answer is, No, I cant. But I can explain how they found themselves in this situation. I can provide a context for their actions.

I have tried to make a morally complex movie and to capture the complexity of the situation. The Fog of War attempted to capture the moral complexity of McNamara, and the problems that he was dealing with. People get confused. They think that to capture moral complexity is to exonerate or to absolve which is, of course, not the case. Its simply to capture the moral complexity. This story is about these soldiers dealt with the horror of Abu Ghraib. Its also about how each one of us, as individuals, would deal with the nightmare of being trapped in something where there is no way out. It forces us the viewers to ask the question: how would I have reacted What would I have done

Its much easier for us as a society to imagine seven bad apples as than to face the reality of what we were doing. The most chilling point for me is when Karpinski tells us: None of this produced useful intelligence. Nothing useful to the war effort came out of this place.