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Torturing Democracy

Producer Sherry Jones' expose on the U.S.' use of torture techniques is angry and compelling -- a work whose sense of outrage clearly tilts toward the realm of advocacy journalism.

Producer Sherry Jones’ expose on the U.S.’ use of torture techniques is angry and compelling — a work whose sense of outrage clearly tilts toward the realm of advocacy journalism. As such, PBS was probably right to avoid national carriage on an outlet such as “Frontline,” though several stations — including WNET in New York — have individually agreed to run the project. Billed as being 18 months in the making, “Torturing Democracy” won’t teach anyone who’s been paying attention much that they didn’t already know, and its style does more to obscure than illuminate its substance.

Despite having produced roughly two dozen works for “Frontline,” Jones’ passion gets the better of her here, unnecessarily incorporating eerie “Friday the 13th” music and dramatic recreations to accentuate the bad deeds perpetrated by the Bush administration, implemented under the guidance of a “war counsel” of advisors assembled by Vice President Cheney. Hiding behind “impatience with the rule of law” and belief that the president could freely ignore it, they began taking steps toward what Cheney has described as working “the dark side” within two weeks of Sept. 11.

Various former government officials step forward to express their disgust at hearing that the U.S. dusted off a Cold War-era interrogation manual, KUBARK, to utilize against detainees. Malcolm Nance, the Navy’s former master trainer of SERE — a program teaching captured personnel “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape” — says flatly that such techniques in Iraq and at Guantanamo “will hurt us for decades to come.”

As former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage notes, when the administration must draft guidelines regarding the boundaries of what actions qualify as war crimes, that’s “tipping too close to the edge.” There’s also little doubt that these methods were approved at high levels of the government, undermining initial assertions that the cruel treatment exposed at Abu Ghraib prison represented the work of military-grunt bad apples.

PBS is often bashed by both the right and left for perceived cowardice given its awkward status as a government-supported enterprise, but “Torturing Democracy” lacks any pretense of balance — an element admittedly made more elusive by the administration’s refusal to participate. A half-hour companion discussion will doubtless help address some of those concerns.

Even so, given the powerful evidence at her disposal, Jones only muddied the waters and diminished a hard-to-dispute premise with the project’s stylistic excesses.

Torturing Democracy

  • Production: (Documentary; Thirteen WNET, Fri. Oct. 17, 9 p.m.) Produced by Washington Media Associates in association with the National Security Archive. Writer-producer, Sherry Jones; co-producer, Carey Murphy; senior field producer, Christopher Buchanan.
  • Crew: Camera, Brett Wiley, Foster Wiley; editors, Penny Trams, Foster Wiley; music, Lenny Williams. RUNNING TIME: 90 MIN.
  • Cast: Narrator: Peter Coyote
  • Music By: