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Torturing Democracy

Tells the inside story of how the U.S. government adopted torture as official policy in the aftermath of 9/11.

A printer-friendly version of this page 90 minutes
Closed Captioned

Directed by Sherry Jones
Written and Produced by Sherry Jones
Co-Producer: Carey Murphy
Consultant: Jane Mayer
Narrator: Peter Coyote
Camera: Brett Wiley, Foster Wiley, Gary Grieg
Editors: Penny Trams, Foster Wiley
Original Music: Lenny Williams
Produced by Washington Media Associates in association with The National Security Archive

"Should engender the same mass outrage as the 2004 photos from Abu Ghraib." Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
In a riveting and dramatic narrative, TORTURING DEMOCRACY tells the inside story of how the U.S. government adopted torture as official policy in the aftermath of 9/11. With exclusive interviews, explosive documents and rare archival footage, the documentary has been called the definitive broadcast account of a deeply troubling chapter in recent American history.

Produced by Emmy and Dupont award-winning broadcast journalist Sherry Jones, the film relies on the record to connect the dots in an investigation of interrogations of prisoners in U.S. custody that became "at a minimum, cruel and inhuman treatment and, at worst, torture," in the words of the former general counsel of the United States Navy, Alberto Mora. Producer Jones carefully presents the evidence that leads straight to the top of the chain of command - and so lays to rest the "rotten apple" defense for abusive interrogations at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

In the film, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage describes - for the first time on-camera - being waterboarded during military training before he was sent to Vietnam. When asked if he considered waterboarding to be torture, he answered, "Absolutely. No question." He added: "There is no question in my mind - there's no question in any reasonable human being, that this is torture. I'm ashamed we're even having this discussion."

The documentary traces how the secret U.S. military training program - "Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape" or SERE - became the basis for many of the harshest interrogation methods employed first by the CIA and subsequently by interrogators at Guantanamo and in Iraq. The tactics designed to "inoculate" elite American troops mirror tactics used by "a totalitarian, evil nation with complete disregard for human rights and the Geneva Conventions," according to Malcolm Nance, former SERE master trainer for the U.S. Navy.

Besides Armitage and Mora, government and military interviewees include Major General Thomas Romig, Judge Advocate General for the U.S. Army; veteran Air Force interrogator Colonel Steven Kleinman; military prosecutor Colonel Stuart Couch; former Pentagon lawyer Richard Shiffrin; and Martin Lederman, senior advisor in the Justice Department.

Former detainees interviewed include Moazzam Begg (Detainee #558), Shafiq Rasul (Detainee #086), and Bisher Al-Rawi (Detainee #906).

Grade Level: 10-12, College, Adult
US Release Date: 2009     Copyright Date: 2008
DVD ISBN: 1-59458-849-X

"Torturing Democracy should be required viewing for every American over the age of 14. It is tough, unremitting, educational...and scary. History may ponder 'why' but Torturing Democracy answers 'who' and 'how.' If this is a chapter in American history you don't want repeated, see this film."
John D. Hutson, President and Dean, Franklin Pierce Law Center

"Americans who've been waiting for someone to graphically connect the dots between the legal memos justifying torture, abuse of prisoners at Guantanamo and beyond, and the consequences for the moral standing of this nation, need look no further. It's all here. Torturing Democracy should engender the same mass outrage as the 2004 photos from Abu Ghraib."
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate

"Over the last several years, we have heard much about the systematic program of detainee abuse developed with authorization from the highest levels of our government. So many details have emerged in hundreds of articles, official reports, and books by journalists and participants that it has been difficult for most people to follow. Torturing Democracy is an indispensable guide to this dark side of recent American history. The film grips the viewer while presenting an amazing amount of material in 90 minutes. I wish that every citizen would view it and act so that we never have a recurrence of these abuses in the future."
Dr. Stephen Soldz, Director, Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, Co-Founder, Coalition for an Ethical Psychology

"Torturing Democracy shines much-needed light on one of the darkest questions Americans must face: how did our government, a leader in the campaign to advance human rights around the world, find itself authorizing torture at the level of the President's Cabinet after the attacks of September 11, 2001? The film tells the story of America's descent into practices we have long condemned, and reveals the duplicity and secrecy that surrounded the initiative. As a new administration takes power and must confront the difficult question of what to do about the torturers, Torturing Democracy helps viewers understand what happened and why, so that, one hopes, it will never happen again."
David Cole, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law School, Author, Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror

"You'll see and hear some things hard to bear but you'll also meet some government insiders who refused to go along, who stood up and said 'this is wrong.'"
Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers Journal

"This powerful, damning documentary...recounts in merciless detail the steps the Bush Administration took on a road to torture, beginning less than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The compelling narrative outlines how Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their attorneys...shredded the US Constitution and international, military and US law, all in the name of supposedly protecting the country. It's like a train wreck: You cannot look away even though you are horrified and appalled."
Candace Talmadge, North Star Writers Group

"There's fresh footage not seen in past stories from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and fascinating footage of US Army training against the type of torture favored by the Chinese against troops in the Korean war, prompting one quote: 'We have recreated our enemy's methodology in Guantanamo.'"
Jim Weiner, Public Media Digest

"A somber, gut-wrenching documentary. You will go away convinced that what we are doing to our prisoners is morally wrong and illegal. I walked away convinced that the leaders of this torture regime should be prosecuted for war crimes and put away for life."
daxie, DailyKos

"I really found this documentary, Torturing Democracy, very, very disturbing. And I guess the reason that heretofore I have not been such an easy mark on the matter of this kind of charge is that I don't think I ever saw an organized, systematized review of what we did, and how we did it, as well presented as it was in this documentary. And it grieves me to say, as an American citizen, that I believe the leadership of our country is responsible for crimes against humanity. But, you know, we can't be trumpeting about the behavior of others, like Milosevic, and others, if we do not expect ourselves to be held to a similar high standard."
Gene Burns, KGO Radio, San Francisco

"Please watch Torturing Democracy. It isn't easy to watch; but what so many innocent (and guilty) individuals were subjected to in your name was unimaginably harder. As readers know, I've been fixated on this since Abu Ghraib. But that documentary made me ill by forcing me again to absorb the enormity of what Bush and Cheney have done - and the urgent, urgent task of repairing the damage. If America is to recover, those responsible must be put on trial. Including the president."
Andrew Sullivan, Atlantic

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DVDs include public performance rights.

DVD Features
includes scene selection plus study guide, annotated transcript, resources including books, blogs and other online resources, and a list of civic organizations.

The film's website
Study guide

Awards and Festivals
Best US Television Program, Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards
Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Bellingham Human Rights Film Festival

American Democracy
American Studies
Conflict Resolution
Foreign Policy

Human Rights
International Studies
National Security
Political Science
Social Justice
War and Peace

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A seven-part series that gives context and perspective to events since the 2000 presidential elections and 9/11.

Deadly Mistakes?
A 2-DVD set designed to help students critically analyze some of our foreign policy interventions since World War II.

Soldiers of Conscience
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... more Reviews

"I can't recommend [Torturing Democracy] highly is an extraordinarily well-documented account of America's torture program over the last seven years and, most informatively, the role that top Bush officials played in those programs. Notably, most of the sources on which it relies are former U.S. military and Bush administration officials who waged courageous though ultimately unsuccessful battles to halt these programs. I'm particularly amazed that someone could be aware of this set of facts -- could know that our highest government officials deliberately and knowingly authorized torture techniques that are war crimes under both U.S. law and international treaties to which we are a party -- and still argue, as so many do, that it would be wrong to hold these political officials accountable for the laws they systematically violated. It's easy to say how horrendous one finds torture to be. But those who simultaneously advocate that American political leaders should be immunized from the consequences of their criminality -- that, in essence, we should refrain from enforcing these laws -- are proving that those are empty words indeed."
Glenn Greenwald,

"This one will go into the record books for historians and teachers and others who look back to ask, `What did we do?'"
Bill Moyers

"Profoundly disturbing...A well-documented, frightening account of sanctioned torture, this opens the road to intense discussion."

"Adds important new evidence to a still-fierce debate, while also advancing a cogent argument that high officials should be held accountable for embracing and advancing the use of torture in blatant disregard of fundamental democratic principles. Recommended."
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