Fuzz It Up
May 21, 2008 9:09 AM   Subscribe

The Most Curious Thing (follow-up of sorts) by Errol Morris. Fuzzed up indeed.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi (31 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Morris' latest, Standard Operating Procedure, deals with the Abu Ghraib photos. It's not his best work, IMO, but it's well worth seeing.
posted by cgs06 at 9:37 AM on May 21, 2008

Well worth reading. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:41 AM on May 21, 2008

(In retrospect: timsteil's previous title that I objected to, pretty much struck at the heart of the matter...)
posted by progosk at 10:14 AM on May 21, 2008

Errol Morris really, really fascinates me.

Somehow I completely missed the First Person series when it came out and have only managed to catch a couple of episodes via the net after the fact.

Does anyone have any idea where I can get a hold of more of these shows?
posted by nedpwolf at 10:22 AM on May 21, 2008

I'm a huge fan of Morris. Leave it to him to involve a smile specialist to investigate the photos. The man's a genius.
posted by shmegegge at 10:24 AM on May 21, 2008

I <3 Errol Morris.

And if you've clicked on the link only to shy away at the length of the page, 80% or more is comments. It's worth a read.

I felt Errol sort of betrayed a bias as he explored the photo with the smile dude -- I'm used to a more stoic, neutral type of Errol -- but then again I kind of had a sense when I first saw the photo that it was a "Hi Mom!" thing and not "Awesome, dead dude!". Disturbing that it's with a dead dude, yeah, but no, it never struck me as "yay! I am a sociopathic murderer!" -- rather "Wow! What a fracked up situation I'm in!"
posted by cavalier at 10:29 AM on May 21, 2008

nedpwolf, First Person is readily available on DVD.
posted by hilker at 10:29 AM on May 21, 2008

Fuzzing it up is a common practice in government. You hide intention and responsibility. You have one person say one thing, and another person the exact opposite. You create a blizzard of paper, so much paper that actual evidence is lost in the glut. And of course, you deny anything and everything you can deny — particularly the obvious. (Denying the obvious is always popular.) You produce noise, distraction and confusion. People rarely think of this as a well-established bureaucratic technique, but it is a tried and true methodology.

I'll remember that.

It's so sad to read about the dreary everyday details of torture by the US. I grew up thinking that this happened only under Stalin.
The evil empire...?
posted by jouke at 10:30 AM on May 21, 2008

Through his blog and his documentary work, Errol Morris is rapidly becoming an American Treasure. His sheer attention to detail and investigative enthusiasm regularly awes me.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:33 AM on May 21, 2008

Thanks for pointing this out, i_am_a_jedi. Harmon's case is certainly bolstered by her contemporaneous letter to her partner, although the skeptic in me wonders if Morris was able to (or even tried to) verify its authenticity. It almost seems too convenient, like "I'm so bummed about all this bad stuff the military is doing, and get this -- the other day someone took a picture of me smiling in front of a dead guy, but what I was really doing was trying to take pictures of the evidence..." And the stuff about the "smiling muscle," while interesting (and maybe true), tells us only that she wasn't smiling out of general enjoyment. But does a non-enjoyment smile get her off the hook? I just get the distinct impression that Morris is trying too hard for Harmon. I think his statement that he "often think[s] about Sabrina being a woman, a gay woman in the military," might suggest rooting for the underdog as a motivating factor. But who cares if she smiled or frowned -- the far more important point is that she clearly didn't have any role in the guy's death, but the military nevertheless loved having her as a public face to deflect attention away from the higher-ups.
posted by pardonyou? at 10:54 AM on May 21, 2008

At what fucking point do soldiers in the U.S. Army take orders from no-rank dickheads in the CIA? This is the part of this story that to me is the focus of the complete breakdown of the system over there. From day one the army pounds into recruits heads chain of command - who you listen to who you don't. I cannot possibly imagine that "random CIA guys" is on the list of people who give orders that soldiers take.

I understand that the army routinely supports CIA, FBI and other non-military agency operations. But do you see what the CIA does here? They fucked up, right? So they call their guys, who a few steps up the chain are bureaucrats and lawyers whose only function is to cover the agency's ass. ("Swanner [14] called on his cell phone for assistance and several other C.I.A. officers arrived.") Who did they call? No one knows. CIA chain of command? There is one, certainly, but we'll never see it. Paperwork? Are you high?

The CIA considers themselves the Knights Templar of the American Empire. No one knows what they do, no one is accountable, they not only use the country's money but they engage in side business to generate their own funds. They need to be disabused of this notion, because they are going to screw everything up. The reason the U.S. has a military is to provide this function. That's what Special Forces, Navy Seals, Marine recon teams are for.

We have people trained in all kinds of ninja shit who are more than capable of running around some godawful back alley in who-knows-where stirring things up, but who are also ultimately accountable to their unit, to their branch of service, and to the American people. We don't need a bunch of Foreign Service Exam flunkies in khakis from the beltway version of central casting acting out Three Days of the Fucking Condor with no accountability to anyone because they read an op-ed by Richard Perle once.

The moment the prisoner died in Swanner's presence, the soldiers should have stripped every fucking CIA agent on premises of their weapons and phones and locked them in a room. The soldiers should have called their superiors, not only the people in charge of the prison, but their superiors in their chain of command, reporting that "non-military American personnel have been detained for involvement in the death of a prisoner. What do I do next?"

The only people who should have been at that prison making any decisions should have been Army. As we see now, they are the one's locked up in prison. They are accountable, they are responsible, they should have had the sole decision making authority.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:11 AM on May 21, 2008 [9 favorites]

Does anyone know if there were any consequences for Swanner? This story certainly paints a picture of this fat cowboy riding in, barking orders, taking on the big, bad (shackled, handcuffed) prisoner, then shitting his pants when something goes wrong.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:35 AM on May 21, 2008

Or consider what we're now finding out from the Justice IG's report: the FBI Special Agents who were assisting at Guantanamo (and in other secret locations) not only spoke to their superiors about the abuse they were seeing - to the point where the FBI determined that they could no longer be involved in the CIA-run interrogations - but they kept a "war crimes file" listing specific operatives and their violations.
posted by nicwolff at 12:51 PM on May 21, 2008

I grew up thinking that this happened only under Stalin.

I grew up thinking that this happened in Central America under American auspices. The big difference with Bush is that it is now in broad daylight and they don't feel the need bother to involve proxies as much.
posted by srboisvert at 12:57 PM on May 21, 2008

I really like Morris and I have a lot of his films; but let's be frank here, if some Scaife Foundation film maker had admitted giving a bunch of Cambridge cops a lot of money to convince to give them interviews about Obama and drugs during his college years everybody here would be shitting their pants

Morris paying these guys off is not excusable; it makes everything they told him suspect.

and this from someone who thinks that Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Rumsfeld and Tenet should all be put in the dock at the Hague.
posted by matteo at 1:21 PM on May 21, 2008

Rice and Powell, too
posted by matteo at 1:22 PM on May 21, 2008

The big difference with Bush is that it is now in broad daylight and they don't feel the need bother to involve proxies as much.

No, see, I disagree there. I think they'd prefer to do it with proxies and under cover, but they are so inept and have so alienated everyone in the agencies that had experience with pulling this sort of shit that they got left with the dregs and they no longer know how to do it properly with proxies. So they are both evil AND inept.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:41 PM on May 21, 2008

I thought the most interesting part was the interview with the facial expressions expert, Paul Ekman. I'm still kind of freaking over the second picture here.
posted by CunningLinguist at 3:15 PM on May 21, 2008

So they are both evil AND inept.

I just don't buy the ineptness. They are very good at what they set out to do. It just isn't what you want them to do. You don't pull off reelection without some skills in your team. They could have achieved what they wanted without the stupidity and they had people who could have helped them do it. They tortured because they wanted to and they wanted the public to know they tortured. It was a deliberate Fuck You to the civilized world in much the same way that drilling in a Nature Reserve is a deliberate Fuck You to environmentalists and letting New Orleans stay sunk was a deliberate Fuck You to a non-Republican area. Fuck You was the goal not actionable intelligence or increasing the oil supply or providing aid.

They pulled it off too, with hardly a peep from anyone important, right up until the point where it was clear they were no longer the silverbacks because their constituency had a pornographic joy in seeing everyone else fucked.

Now, no doubt, the Democratic Party will hold up the rug and get out the broom in the name of turning the corner, closing that chapter and letting the healing begin. Of course BushCo and co conspirators know this, which is why they were so free with their Fuck You policy.
posted by srboisvert at 3:22 PM on May 21, 2008

Thanks for this. Morris' conclusion:

"Abu Ghraib is all about the blame game. M.P.’s blaming M.I. M.I. blaming the civilian contractors. And everyone blaming the “bad apples.” Harman didn’t murder al-Jamadi. She provides evidence of a crime, evidence that this was no heart attack victim. She took photographs to show that “the military is nothing but lies.” At the very least, to show that she had been lied to by her commanding officer. It is now our job to make sure that her photographs are used to prosecute the people truly responsible for al-Jamadi’s death."

Apparently, Obama is the only candidate to pledge to "immediately review" potential of crimes in Bush White House.

This was the Question That Could Not Be Asked during the debates.
posted by psyche7 at 3:35 PM on May 21, 2008

I thought the smile expert was pretty interesting, but one thing bothers me: his examples and comparison pictures all show people in upright positions. In the picture the article highlights, Harman is in a bent-over, contorted posture. Would that affect the composition of her smile? Has the smile expert done extensive research into the affects of gravity and/or posture on his subjects?
posted by joaquim at 4:00 PM on May 21, 2008

Morris: I believe that the failure to prosecute any C.I.A. personnel for the death of al-Jamadi may lead to the highest echelons of the government. Investigating small things can often teach us about the big things that stand behind them.

High levels, for sure.

Yet low-level America also made a decision about being there. So did the soldiers.

And the full fucking, high-level whirlwind has yet to be reaped.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 5:57 PM on May 21, 2008

matteo writes "I really like Morris and I have a lot of his films; but let's be frank here, if some Scaife Foundation film maker had admitted giving a bunch of Cambridge cops a lot of money to convince to give them interviews about Obama and drugs during his college years everybody here would be shitting their pants "

I can see your point about the money, but your comparison involves a political smear involving (already admitted) youthful indiscretions of a candidate for president, while the Morris interviews involve very serious war crimes which happened under the watch of the current president.
posted by krinklyfig at 7:01 PM on May 21, 2008

no my point is that when a liberal pays witnesses off to talk about Bush's crimes it's good journalism; if Republican activists do it, it's corruption that only generates lies. it's a double standard. there's a reason why responsible media organizations have always refused to pay for information, because it stains what the witnesses/sources say. no responsible DA would have someone who took money from the media take the stand and testify about something, because the defense will argue that the testimony is tainted, and rightly so.

Morris can't get away with this just because we like his politics. the Abu Ghraib guards wouldn't talk for free? fuck them, don't do the film. this way you're paying them for having committed war crimes.
posted by matteo at 4:41 AM on May 22, 2008

For a participant in a discussion on someone who goes to extraordinary lengths to distinguish the niceties of fact, fiction and interpretation, you're wielding some pretty heavyhanded rhetoric there, matteo...
posted by progosk at 7:37 AM on May 22, 2008

on the payments:

- the blog that first reported the payments (as an aside). "I, frankly, don't really have a problem with this — it got these people to sit down and talk about their behavior, and I don't see how it would in any way encourage them to speak anything other than the truth—except for the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, this compensation was not openly acknowledged, as it should have been since this is a documentary that purports not to have any agenda other than seeking the truth, and in my estimation does not. I worry that because Morris did not do so, those who wish to disparage SOP, for whatever reason,may latch onto this as evidence of some secret agenda, just as they do in response to the use of re-enactments in his films, including this one."

- NYT article

- from a GQ interview:

Morris is fascinated by why nearly every interview in Berlin began with a variation of the same question: How did you get them to talk to you?

“Why is that such an interesting question?” he wonders.

I tell him that I am more fascinated by the question that they didn’t ask. For all their curiosity in this area, not one single journalist asked, “Did you pay them?”

“It is interesting,” he agrees. “I don’t know if it’s a great idea for me to talk about it. I’ve always felt that if someone specifically asked me, I wouldn’t lie about it, because I think that would be incredibly stupid.”

It is not the first time he has paid a subject of his films. When he returned to find Fred Leuchter, the subject of Mr. Death who fecklessly becomes a hero in Holocaust-denial circles, several years after first interviewing him, he paid him to continue the project—payments he rationalized in an interview at the time on the basis that he paid actors to act out scenes for his documentaries and he was asking Leuchter to re-create certain images from his life as an actor.

For Standard Operating Procedure, the first of the five “bad apples” Morris interviewed, Javal Davis, asked for a fee and Morris agreed. “The rest just followed in due course.” (Only the bad apples. If other subjects refused to be interviewed without payment, Morris didn’t pay them.) “In this instance, I justified it—I think that’s how the contracts were written—that I was paying them as consultants or advisers to the project. Yes and no. I was essentially, for all intents and purposes, paying them to be interviewed.”

He has this further to say on the subject:

“I don’t think it influenced in any way the quality or content of the material. Maybe it did—maybe I’m just kidding myself. But I don’t… The amounts of money were relatively small, and I just don’t see it being a consideration…”.

My hunch is that you’re right, but my hunch is also that there are people who…

“Oh yes, they would take exception to it, or they would take it as another sign of the erosion of documentary standards or of some kind of journalistic standards. But there’s always this dream that somehow you get material that is free from any kind of constraint. That is pure. And of course that notion in itself is illusory. People talk to you for various different reasons—pecuniary reasons can be among them.”

I guess some people will simply attack you on the grounds that they think these are bad people and you gave them money.

“People can attack you for so many, many, many, many reasons,” he says.
posted by progosk at 7:50 AM on May 22, 2008

oh, and: some more comments from Morris in another very recent interview:

This has been the weirdest experience I've ever had. It really is in so many ways. I'm sure you are aware the Times did the story about my paying people. One of the things that's so strange about this for me, do I go around trying to pay people for documentaries? I don't. This deal, it was really, really simple. These people had been in prison, they were pissed off; they were desperate for money. They wouldn't have done it. They came with their lawyers, they came with their investigators, they came with family members. They just would not have agreed to do it. No one was paid but the five so-called bad apples. No one else was paid and one of the bad apples didn't want to be paid and I insisted on paying them because the others bad apples had been paid and I thought it was just not right for whatever reason. I can tell you one person who's not going to get paid in connections with this movie, by the way, me.

CD: And how is that?

MORRIS: How is that? I get a fixed amount of money to make these movies. Fog Of War: I got "x" dollars to make the movie. I went over budget by a lot of money. Who has to front that money? I have to. I am fortunate I make commercials when I'm working. I can't work while I'm promoting this movie. When I'm working I make a lot of money and I can make up for the money that I lose making documentaries.
posted by progosk at 7:53 AM on May 22, 2008

I just don't buy the ineptness. They are very good at what they set out to do.

Maybe it is my own work frustrations, but I actually don't think they are very good at what they do at all. They seem to have been very lucky thus far at being sneaky, but things catch up with them. The thing is that the system that was supposed to catch them is so full of their cronies now that they've alienated all the decent people and rehired who they want, that they get away with it. They are the same people, quite literally, that were the greedy morons that brought us the Enron fuck-up, except in this case the SEC is run by Ken Lay.

Now, no doubt, the Democratic Party will hold up the rug and get out the broom in the name of turning the corner

And there too, I actually see a problem, not because I want to hold onto the creeps, but because the housecleaning will put us right back at zero again with organization and processes. I'm afraid of another Carter administration, a great and necessary scrub down, but it left us a bit raw.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:54 AM on May 22, 2008

some pretty heavyhanded rhetoric there

at least nobody paid me for it -- this way you know I'm sincere.

face it, in the legal community and the serious media the first rule of DAs and reporters is, you don't pay the sources/witnesses because everything they tell you will become suspect and/or useless. being a fan of Morris's films (as I am, too) cannot make you change this rule just for him. even leaving aside the ethics of rewarding torturers (and Holocaust deniers, in the Leuchter film) for their crimes and their lies, the fact is that everything they told Morris becomes suspect. they got paid, they're officially actors, not sources.

hint: there's another American war criminal -- much, much bigger fish than the Abu Ghraib two-bit inbred thugs -- William Calley, who is ready to talk if you pay him 25,000 bucks.

a trashy UK tabloid turned him down. I'm sure Morris will be happy to stuff the cash in an envelope and turn his camera on.
posted by matteo at 8:12 AM on May 22, 2008

Pollmacho, I can see we don't really disagree other than that you view the crony cover up portion as incidental while I see it as a part of the plan. I agree that the current admin is not very good at what they are SUPPOSED to do. The Bush Crew did set the stage for getting away with what they were doing, transferring taxpayer wealth to their buddies, even when caught in my opinion. They knew and know that they can't keep these things secret so instead they structure the system such that the revelations are gradual and blame is dispersed and obfuscated while key players obstruct investigations. I don't think things like the Attorney scandal were simply cronyism. It was part of a larger strategic putsch to completely undermine justice so there would be nobody to come after them.
posted by srboisvert at 9:00 AM on May 22, 2008

It was the echo of the Dead Parrot sketch that somehow really got to me: "No, he was in the middle of interrogating and just expired. Ceased to exist."

It was when I read that when the humanity and realness of everyone involved really hit.

What a horrifying story.
posted by Kattullus at 2:25 PM on May 22, 2008

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