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January 18, 2018

STAY TUNED: Why Good People Break the Law (with Alex Gibney)

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Preet talks with Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney. He’s made films about the Enron scandal, Eliot Spitzer, Lance Armstrong, and the Church of Scientology. His new Netflix series examines corporate crimes. It’s called “Dirty Money.”

Do you have a question for Preet? Tweet them to @PreetBharara or call 669-247-7338 and leave a voicemail.

Preet Bharara: Alex Gibney, thanks for being on the show.

Alex Gibney: Thanks, Preet. Delighted.

Preet Bharara: So, we’ll get to your newest project, which will be released in binge-ready form on January 26th, just a few days from now. But so, you made documentaries for a very long time.

Alex Gibney: Sure.

Preet Bharara: Why do you make them?

Alex Gibney: The selfish reason is you get paid to learn.

Preet Bharara: How well do you get paid? Because, you know, I could do some more things . . .

Alex Gibney: Well, enough. I mean, if I–it’s not corporate lawyer time. It’s not investment banker time. But it’s a reasonably good living. My personal bent is I like pursuing that old journalistic goal. You know, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Preet Bharara: Right. How do you pick your topics?

Alex Gibney: Sometimes I pick them. Sometimes they pick me. I mean—

Preet Bharara: What does that mean?

Alex Gibney: Well, it means that sometimes, somebody comes to me with a story, and I try to decide whether or not that would be interesting. But usually, the key component is, is it a good story? And a lot of people come to me with issues. But very often, the first question I’ll ask is, that’s an important issue. Why should it be a film? Is it a good story? You know, we used to say about the Enron story—I did a film called “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”—that it really wasn’t about the numbers. It was about the people. That’s what made it interesting. What made them tick. And a lot of my films also look at the perps more than the victims. Understanding the damage done is important. But I’m interested in the psychology approach.

Preet Bharara: Why they do it.

Alex Gibney: Why they do it.

Preet Bharara: Do you consider, you know—so, I’ve seen some. You have so many that it would take me a long time to see all of them. Some of your projects are not just telling a story that everyone sort of can find out for—on their own, but they’re mini investigations themselves.

Alex Gibney: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Preet Bharara: And so, I’d imagine, because you know, I was in a line of work where you did investigations of a different nature and a different consequence, although I think investigative journalism, which is an aspect of what you have done, is incredibly important, and sometimes launched investigations. And some of these, the documentaries that you have coming out, they’re about the investigations that my office or other offices did. So, it’s a little bit different. But have you begun a project with a point of view about who the bad guy is or how bad the guy is, and then had that view changed? In other words, to what degree are you consciously keeping an open mind about a project after you accept it?

Alex Gibney: Always. In terms of the example that you talk about, I mean, I almost always learn more in the midst of the investigation than I thought I was gonna. I often start with a thesis, or an idea, or a hypothesis, but then you’ve gotta go in and see, is it real? The big case in point for me in terms of changing my mind would be the film I did call “We Steal Secrets”, about Julian Assange. I went in thinking that he was an unalloyed hero. I came out with a very different view. And indeed, as part of that story, I ended up discovering somebody who at that point had been a forgotten person, which was Chelsea Manning. You know, everybody was talking about the WikiLeaks. Leaks, as if they were Julian Assange’s leaks.

Preet Bharara: Right.

Alex Gibney: Leaks. They weren’t his leaks. He was the publisher.

Preet Bharara: Perhaps Senator. Senator Manning, right?

Alex Gibney: Exactly. Yeah. So anyway, that’s one where I turned 180 degrees, because I felt that while Julian did some very important things, he ultimately had very impure motives, which I think have been revealed over time. But when that film came out, there were many who felt that I was wronging him unfairly. But you know, it was the investigation that took me to a place that made me understand him differently.

Preet Bharara: What was it during the Julian Assange project that flipped your mind?

Alex Gibney: It was the Sweden episode, which is an interesting episode to talk about now in terms of the #metoo issue. But initially, I assumed that that was some kind of intelligence operation put up, that there was nothing there. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized there was something there, and indeed, that Julian had very consciously distorted the story in a way that was beneficial to him, and purposefully made it not about something personal, but made it about WikiLeaks so that tawdry personal episode would be transformed into a grand crusade. And that was fascinating to me, because I didn’t think there was anything there. Whether or not he would have been found guilty is another question. It wasn’t about trying that case. It was trying to determine whether something was worthy of investigation and whether or not he should have been allowed to basically elude capture. Ultimately, he puts himself—that’s the other fiction about the Julian Assange story. He wasn’t forced into the embassy. He puts himself into the Ecuadorian embassy because he doesn’t want to face the music. And he had great access to Great Britain’s best lawyers in terms of defending his position.

Preet Bharara: Was there resistance on the part of people on your team who were your backers when your thesis kind of changed over time, or not?

Alex Gibney: Luckily, on this one, you know, I had a producer named Mark [?Shmugger], who came to me with that idea for doing that story, who was hugely receptive. He was willing to let me take the story where it was gonna go. And that was a huge boon. And generally speaking, I’m pretty assiduous about maintaining a pretty strong grip on editorial control just for this reason.

Preet Bharara: Right. Right.

Alex Gibney: Because I don’t want to be a captive of a funder who has a particular agenda, and then we come out in a different way. There were private individuals who invested in the film I did about Eliot Spitzer, “Client 9”.

Preet Bharara: Right.

Alex Gibney: For very important reasons, I made sure that that money was put into a bank account to which they had no access, and I had total access.

Preet Bharara: That’s very smart.

Alex Gibney: Unless I went over budget, you know. But it meant that I had total editorial control because I controlled the money.

Preet Bharara: So, let me do something maybe unusual. And that is, give us sort of a quick master class in how to make a documentary. Say maybe it’s me. I’ve got time on my hands now. People make documentaries about cases that came out of my office, and you did one on Enron. And I decide, you know, with a team of people, that we want to make a documentary about an interesting case or controversy. How do you go about it?

Alex Gibney: In some ways, I would say it’s not too dissimilar from how a prosecutor might go about it, with a slight difference. I’m willing, at the beginning, to go wherever the story is gonna take me. But at the end of the day, you have to come up with a story. And the difference between a documentary and a scripted fiction film is that you write the script at the end, not at the beginning.

Preet Bharara: Right.

Alex Gibney: But it was interesting, you know, in the actual Enron case, there was a kind of a key phrase from a Tom Waits song, “What’s he building in there? We have a right to know.” And it became the idea of a mystery story. What happened at Enron? Kind of something simple. And it’s that simple story that I look to in terms of getting to that point at the end. And if you have a simple through line, then a lot of complexity, you can bring onboard. So, much as a prosecutor would have to present a case to the jury, you have to be able to convince the jury that there’s a simple story at the heart of this, even when there’s a tremendous amount of complication around the edges. And so, Enron for me was a heist film. “Taxi to the Dark Side” was a murder mystery. I think of them that way as movies.

Preet Bharara: Right.

Alex Gibney: That’s how I do it. Everybody has a different way.

Preet Bharara: So, you decide you want to do a documentary about something. Do you have to get a lot of people to give you money first? Do you then just start interviewing people with a camera? Do you decide who you’re gonna interview when, and you’re gonna interview—like in an investigation, we come up with an investigative plan, and we decide ordinarily, as people are learning about with the Mueller investigation and other things—

Alex Gibney: Yes.

Preet Bharara: Sometimes for the first time, you start low, and you get information from the low-level people. You find assistants and secretaries, or disgruntled ex-employees of a company, if your focus is on a company, and then you build up to other folks. Sometimes you might take a run at someone who’s more significant because you think they might, you know, be susceptible to telling you their secrets.

How do you come up with the—first the money, and then how the plan unfolds?

Alex Gibney: Usually with the money, you have to sell the idea of a compelling story to the funder. And those funders can be broadcasters. They can be theatrical film distributors, sometimes independent investors. And you have to make a compelling case that it’s gonna be an exciting story. There are times where I will actually either invest my own money or find a development fund to pursue a story initially and then show somebody the results of that, and a sizzle reel is something like that.

Preet Bharara: Right.

Alex Gibney: And then get the money. But yes, generally speaking, before I start, I have a budget, and then I know what those constraints are. One of the reasons I tend to work on a number of different projects at once is because of the investigative nature of what I do. If we get blocked in an investigation, it’s useful to be able to set that film aside for a moment and move on to another one. The one thing I don’t have that a prosecutor has is subpoena power.

Preet Bharara: Yeah, you know, neither do I anymore.

Alex Gibney: If only—yes, that’s true. If only I did, I think.

Preet Bharara: You know, it’s funny. I talk to journalists a bunch. We’ve had some on the show. And in my experience as a prosecutor, there are certain kinds of people who are more likely to talk to you, even though you don’t have subpoena power, because some people trust the FBI less than they trust a journalist to get the story. You know, whistleblowers don’t always come to law enforcement. They go to the media.

Alex Gibney: Correct.

Preet Bharara: So, you must take advantage of that also.

Alex Gibney: I do. But it is hard, the process of deciding who you’re gonna interview first is a little bit more helter-skelter, because often, you have to think—it would be nice to think you could it as methodically as a prosecutor does, starting low and moving high. But the fact is, sometimes you get somebody quite high, and that allows other people to come onboard. You get that first person, who is a powerful or influential person. They say, “Oh, you interviewed so-and-so. Okay, I’ll come onboard.”

Preet Bharara: Well, it’s not only because you get the powerful person. Sometimes I’m assuming you get a person who has a point of view, and then you tell someone else with an opposing point of view.

Alex Gibney: Correct.

Preet Bharara: Look, the first guy says it was all your fault.

Alex Gibney: Right.

Preet Bharara: What do you have to say about that?

Alex Gibney: That’s right.

Preet Bharara: And then the second guy gets a little up in arms about it.

Alex Gibney: Sometimes that works, and sometimes that person says, “Well, you’re interviewing that person. Clearly, you have a point of view. I’m not gonna give you the benefit.” It’s all about trying to convince somebody to trust you that you’re going to take their testimony seriously, and that you’re gonna really try to present their point of view. Even if, you know, the overall point of view of the film doesn’t match theirs, in the context of presenting their interview, you’re gonna present their point of view accurately and fairly. That’s kind of a key challenge. Because I’m always having to make arguments to people in terms of why should they participate.

Preet Bharara: But isn’t it true sometimes, and you’re not one of these people, by your own testimony today, a little bit suggests that they’re gonna be sympathetic to a person they’re trying to get on camera? Do you have a view on the ethics of that?

Alex Gibney: Well, I think that trying to communicate to somebody that you’re going to take their testimony in a way that respects that testimony, that you’re gonna be respectful to that, it’s easy to sit here from the standpoint of journalistic ethics and say you’re gonna go interview somebody and say, “Just letting you know that I’m not giving you any promises, and if I have a chance to screw you over, I will. So now, let’s talk. How about that?” Not many people are gonna open up. You have to be honest and say, “I have editorial control. I can’t guarantee what the final result is, but I can affirmatively promise you that I will take your testimony seriously.” That, I think, is where you can go, and give them an argument as to why they should participate.

Preet Bharara: And so, in investigative journalism, whether or not it’s a documentary—this is an ethics question that people have different views on, and law enforcement has a particular set of rules.

Alex Gibney: Sure.

Preet Bharara: Law enforcement—I always say “we”. I’m not in law enforcement anymore—are permitted to use deception to get at the truth.

Alex Gibney: Sure.

Preet Bharara: Right? To pretend to be someone who’s in the drug business, undercover officer, to get someone to sell them drugs. Do you have a view on whether or not misrepresentation to people about an investigative project you’re working on is okay or not?

Alex Gibney: I don’t think it is okay. But what I always tell people on my team, and I tell myself so I’m reminded of it, is never lie, ever. But—

Preet Bharara: Even in the service of ultimate truth?

Alex Gibney: Yes. But you don’t always have to tell everybody the entire truth.

Preet Bharara: Oh, okay. Now we see some shades.

Alex Gibney: Right. Now, sometimes you leave stuff out. That can be okay. But I don’t think it’s ever okay to lie, because then I think you’re crossing a line that you would rightly punish or castigate people in the context of a narrative for doing the same thing. You know, I think a lot about lying because a lot of the characters I talk to lie. They lie to me. And I often wonder, you know, whether they’re conscious about it. Is it self-deception? Are they imagining that they’re telling the truth at the time? Is it somebody like Trump, where he doesn’t know whether he’s lying or telling the truth, and it doesn’t matter? I’m in a business where people lie to me all the time. And I try very hard never to lie to anybody. But I don’t always have to tell them everything.

Preet Bharara: What do you think of my shirt? Do you like my shirt?

Alex Gibney: Nice. It’s very good. Blue, white checks. It’s a little blinding. Be tough for the camera. Probably have a—

Preet Bharara: Well, I didn’t—look, I didn’t bring my hoodie.

Alex Gibney: Yeah, right. Exactly. So, lovely shirt. Yeah.

Preet Bharara: Thanks. Thanks very much.

Alex Gibney: That’s a lie that’s probably okay.

Preet Bharara: It probably is.

Alex Gibney: Yeah.

Preet Bharara: And I very much appreciate it.

Alex Gibney: I might suggest a different shirt.

Preet Bharara: I very much appreciate it.

Alex Gibney: Yeah. If I could talk to somebody who was close to you, I might say.

Preet Bharara: But let’s get to that question for a second. So, you’ve been lied to a lot—

Alex Gibney: Yes.

Preet Bharara: You’ve said. Why do you keep talking to liars over and over again in connection with your work?

Alex Gibney: Because the liars tend to be the ones who commit the crimes. And I’m interested in those crimes. And the crimes keep coming. So, unfortunately for me, there’s a lot of material.

Preet Bharara: But why are those the stories that you like the most? Because you could pick a lot of other things.

Alex Gibney: That is true.

Preet Bharara: You could write about nature. You could do civil war.

Alex Gibney: That is true. My wife keeps asking me, “Why don’t you do films about puppies?”

Preet Bharara: I wouldn’t watch them.

Alex Gibney: Because maybe the puppies would die. I’m interested in those stories because, for whatever reason, I seem drawn to abuses of power. And powerful people tend to lie a lot. And so, in order to uncover those abuses of power, you have to talk to liars very often. It’s part of the job. But I am interested, for some reason, in that. I think both my parents and even my stepfather, who is a sort of crusading civil rights minister, all inculcated in me this idea that there needs to be a sense of justice in the world, and we all owe it to everybody else to try to make the world a better place.

Preet Bharara: So, let’s get to a particular project that we’ve alluded to a couple of times.

Alex Gibney: Sure.

Preet Bharara: Called “Dirty Money”.

Alex Gibney: Yes.

Preet Bharara: And it’s six episodes. Six individual documentaries.

Alex Gibney: Mm-hmm. All by different directors.

Preet Bharara: On Netflix.

Alex Gibney: Yup.

Preet Bharara: Want to give us a minute about what that’s about? I saw the first episode about the Volkswagen emissions scandal, and I thought it was excellent. And if the others are just as good, it’s gonna do very well.

Alex Gibney: Thanks. Yes, it’s about corporate crime. We do an episode about VW. We do one about the HSBC case, money laundering cartel money. We do one about the payday loan scandal. That’s directed by Jesse Moss.

Preet Bharara: I know that one.

Alex Gibney: And yes, you were involved in that, I believe. We do one about Trump, Inc.—that is to say, the business model of Donald Trump. That’s directed by Fisher Stevens. We do one about Valiant, directed by Erin Lee Carr, sort of a rapacious story of big pharma. And then we do a kind of fun one directed by Brian McGinn about a huge maple syrup cartel heist in Canada.

Preet Bharara: I had nothing to do with that case.

Alex Gibney: Well, it was Canadian.

Preet Bharara: I passed it. Well, it doesn’t matter if it’s another country’s for us. We went into every country we could. But we took a pass on that one. Let’s talk about the Volkswagen scandal.

Alex Gibney: VW, yeah.

Preet Bharara: And then maybe I can ask some questions about sort of generally what you think about how corporate culture goes awry. So, the scandal, in a nutshell, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that Volkswagen was presenting itself as a company that was abiding by the more stringent emissions standards through their diesel engines—

Alex Gibney: Yes.

Preet Bharara: In the United States. And that was BS, correct?

Alex Gibney: Correct. Absolutely correct. They—ultimately, it was proven that they had a cheating device. And the cheating device worked like this. So, when the cars were tested by environmental agencies, be they the EPA or CARB, the California Air Resources Board, on the blocks where the car was just spinning, the computer would actually sense that the car was on the blocks. The rigorous—

Preet Bharara: Meaning as opposed to being on the road.

Alex Gibney: As opposed to being on the actual road.

Preet Bharara: So the software would understand that this was a test.

Alex Gibney: That it was a test.

Preet Bharara: Got it. Okay.

Alex Gibney: The software understood that it was a test. But once you took that car out on the road, the software then understood that this car was being driven under road conditions. And all of the pollution controls were then removed. And suddenly, that car was polluting up to 50 times more than the regulated pollution standards, which meant that they were just gushing this massive amount of pollution—in this case, nitrogen oxide, which is terribly damaging to people’s lungs.

Preet Bharara: So, that case was investigated by the Department of Justice. Not my office, but other folks.

Alex Gibney: Yup.

Preet Bharara: Fine folks. Charges were brought, and penalties were—

Alex Gibney: Convictions.

Preet Bharara: Convictions and levies—penalties were levied.

Alex Gibney: Yup.

Preet Bharara: So, that was already known and accountability was had. Why do that documentary?

Alex Gibney: What was interesting to me about that documentary was twofold. One was to try to get inside the mind of why people in a big, respectable corporation like that would do these kinds of things.

Preet Bharara: Profitable. Profitable. Yeah.

Alex Gibney: Very profitable. Why does that happen? And then also, to take it one step further, because I think that people got the idea that Volkswagen cheated. But people didn’t get just the kind of ecological and health damage that Volkswagen was doing. It’s estimated that there are 10,000 premature deaths a year in Europe because of this nitrogen oxide pollution. That’s a lot of people dying.

Preet Bharara: Wait, you’re saying that emanates from the Volkswagen cars?

Alex Gibney: Diesel cars.

Preet Bharara: Okay.

Alex Gibney: Because the other thing that people don’t know is that while VW was in on this, there are a number of other German companies, Mercedes and BMW, who were also cheating. So, everybody thinks they’re getting these clean cars, when in fact, they’re horribly dirty, and some German cities are almost unlivable in the middle of the day because there’s so much pollution there. That was kind of a staggering thing to me. So, all of this together led me to believe that it was worth doing a deeper dive. Not only that, we found some very grisly details in terms of the lengths to which Volkswagen in particular was trying to prove—falsely, as it turned out—that their cars were clean, including literally proposing tests that would gas human beings.

Preet Bharara: Right.

Alex Gibney: And then ultimately doing tests on—

Preet Bharara: Primates.

Alex Gibney: Primates. The person who described this to us, it was like there was a corporate council at Volkswagen America. And somebody was presenting this test to him and said, “Well, what about this idea? We’re thinking of gassing a human being who will be on an exercise bicycle inside of a closed space.” And corporate council was like, maybe you guys haven’t thought this through, but you’re a German company. You know, you were started by Hitler. Maybe you should give this some thought.” And they said, “Okay, maybe that’s taking it too far. How about we do this on NHPs?” And everybody was like, “Well, what are NHPs?” It was like, nonhuman primates. Ah, that’s the solution. And that’s what they did. They did tests. So, all for the sake of being able to prove that they actually weren’t cheating. So, the Volkswagen story, I think, is hugely instructive, because it shows the way that—there’s a famous phrase, where an economic man is not a [?rationalizer], he’s a rationalizer.

Preet Bharara: I didn’t get that. Do that again.

Alex Gibney: Economic man is not rational. He’s a rationalizer.

Preet Bharara: Rationalizer. Got it. Okay.

Alex Gibney: Meaning that executives at VW, yes, they were thinking about their profits and the idea of capturing the idea of the American market with a vision of a car that would really sell there. But in so doing, they were able to rationalize the fact that they were cheating. The end justifies the means. People were lied to.

Preet Bharara: It was a betrayal.

Alex Gibney: It was a betrayal, that’s right. And—

Preet Bharara: Which is different from just being a rip—it’s a different kind of rip-off.

Alex Gibney: Right.

Preet Bharara: It’s not just, people took your money away.

Alex Gibney: These people looked you in the eye. I mean, I think that’s why so many people were angry at Lance Armstrong, particularly cancer survivors, because he lied to them. We can talk about whether or not other people besides Lance Armstrong were doping. They were. But Lance Armstrong looked into people’s eyes and said, “How dare you say that I, as a cancer survivor, would ever use performance-enhancing drugs?”

Preet Bharara: It was also because someone they loved—in the Lance Armstrong case, a person they looked up to and idolized—turns out, not only was he—he wasn’t what he said he was, he lied about it. And at Volkswagen, there are very loyal customers of Volkswagen. It’s a product that people love.

Alex Gibney: Yes. And it became part of your character.

Preet Bharara: Right.

Alex Gibney: In other words, I was a VW driver. You know, I felt like I was part of that VW family. It was weird. I mean, all the advertising stuff worked on me. I thought, I’m so proud to be driving this car. It’s so great. It’s part of who I am.

Preet Bharara: Should you maybe have loved your car a little bit less?

Alex Gibney: Yeah, I think I should have.

Preet Bharara: You know, a lesson to people.

Alex Gibney: I think I thought, you know, this is—

Preet Bharara: Should they have a more arm’s length relationship with their vehicles?

Alex Gibney: There is no doubt about that, yes.

Preet Bharara: But it has to begin somewhere, right? So, and I saw this over and over again at lots of companies. You saw it at Enron and at Volkswagen, that there has to be some beginning culture and reason to proceed in a particular way. And I understand it from the film and otherwise that if Volkswagen had sort of made a decision that it wanted to leapfrog over competition and become hugely bigger in sales in the U.S.—

Alex Gibney: Yes, that’s right.

Preet Bharara: Again, maybe this is rationalizing also, because you’ve seen at a lot of companies, when all of a sudden—

Alex Gibney: Well, I think that was the rational part.

Preet Bharara: Right. There’s pressure to make the numbers and to hit the new benchmarks. And it causes people to do bad things because they can’t do it without cheating. Do you buy that, or is that nonsense?

Alex Gibney: No, no, I do buy it. That’s what causes people. It’s when you have people at the top saying we’ve got to get to this result. And the wink and the nod is, I don’t really are how you get there.

Preet Bharara: Right. Like in insider trading. You know, we charged hedge funds, sometimes entire hedge funds, because there was a little bit of this wink and nod. And sometimes it was more than a wink and nod. Think we have to have better numbers than anyone else. We have to have edge. Some people called it black edge. And knock yourself out, and figure out how to get there. I mean, look. There’s nothing wrong with the head of an institution to push the people in the company.

Alex Gibney: Correct.

Preet Bharara: Because, you know, it is a money-making enterprise, and you have shareholders, and you’re trying to make a good product. And so, you have to push people, and it’s competitive.

Alex Gibney: Sure.

Preet Bharara: What’s the line between properly pushing people and maintaining integrity at the company compared to pushing people in a way that gets people to do things that are unlawful?

Alex Gibney: Particularly at Volkswagen, for example, you had executives who know about every screw, every rivet that was put into those cars. And they knew that they were trying to solve a physics problem that couldn’t be solved. At some point, if you know the problem can’t be solved but suddenly, the problem is solved, do you ask the question, how did you solve that problem, or do you just say—

Preet Bharara: They’re just happy that it was solved.

Alex Gibney: They’re just happy, you know. But you know that it wasn’t just some rogue engineer in the machine shop who came up with this solution. It’s a solution that has to be integrated into the entire manufacturing process. And because it is, the people all the way up the chain end up knowing about it, but they all imagine that they have some kind of plausible deniability. Willful blindness. Because the culture, in effect, gives permission to everybody in the organization, the end always justifies the means. In other words, it doesn’t matter how you get there. It doesn’t matter how you play the game. It only matters that you win. And so, if you were to bribe the referee at a football game, that’s okay, so long as you’re gonna win.

Preet Bharara: But here’s what I don’t get, often, even after doing this kind of stuff for a long time. There’s some kinds of lies, when they begin to be exposed—and there was a point here where, as you show in the film, people started to get hip to this.

Alex Gibney: Right.

Preet Bharara: And there was cheating going on. And they chose to double down. Why is it that smart people like that still think they’re gonna be able to get away with it when people are hot on the trail and getting close to discovering the lie? That’s the thing that I don’t understand how intelligent people persist in.

Alex Gibney: It is a really good question, and I’ve spent a lot of my career trying to find the answer to that. I do think that part of the answer is that we as human beings engage in a peculiar kind of self-deception. And that’s the rationalization part of the rational rationalization, that we’re hardwired when we want to be able to deceive others, to deceive ourselves that what we’re doing is actually okay.

Preet Bharara: It’s not just self-deception. It’s also arrogance.

Alex Gibney: I believe it is arrogance.

Preet Bharara: It’s a powerful combination, self-deception and arrogance.

Alex Gibney: Yes, that’s right. It is a powerful combination of self-deception and arrogance, and you believe at some point—and the Enron people were like that too. They were extremely arrogant. And they used to get by on a schoolyard bluff. They said, if you’re not smart enough to understand what we’re doing here, I’m not gonna bother to explain it to you. And a lot of people accepted that. Very often, it’s surprising on how well people can bluff with that arrogance and get away with that arrogance. And I think that in case of HSBC, that HSBC did get away with it. They kept saying, look, you’ve caught us over and over and over again laundering money for the mob—sorry, for the cartel. But that’s not really our culture. And over time, I think that was a lie that was accepted or believed because HSBC was, after all, a respectable bank. So, it is arrogance. But it is self-deception, and it is mind-boggling to be that these executives believe that they ultimately will get away it.

But I think that part of the answer is that in some fundamental way, they don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong, because after all, what they’re really doing is—you know, I think the rationalization for the VW executives was, ultimately, we’re gonna solve this problem in a way that will get us to those pollution controls. But in the short-term, we’ll just do this little cheat for a few years—

Preet Bharara: We’re just gonna lie. We’re gonna lie about it.

Alex Gibney: And poison a lot of people, and a lot of people will die. But they’re not thinking about actually people dying. They’re just thinking—

Preet Bharara: But these guys weren’t rationalizing it in the way some people have in the past, I don’t think, from what you’re saying, in terms of, you know, they’re running a business, and they’re trying to create value for shareholders.

Alex Gibney: Yes.

Preet Bharara: And they can’t be burdened with the expense. Let me ask you a question that we’ve sort of talked about so far, but ask you more directly, in the way that I get asked all the time, given the prior work I did. Why does a good person do really, really bad, unlawful things, particularly when they don’t have to? What have you learned from your experience?

Alex Gibney: I think it gets back to this self-deception. And I think it gets back to this idea of the end justifies the means. And also, I take stock of a very interesting psychological experience that I put, actually, in my Enron film, the so-called Milgram experiment.

Preet Bharara: Oh yeah.

Alex Gibney: It’s actually an experiment about obedience.

Preet Bharara: It’s Stanley Milgram.

Alex Gibney: Yeah, Stanley Milgram. He did it at Yale in the early 1960s. And people are encouraged to engage in negative reinforcement to teach somebody how to learn. And they shock somebody a little bit at a time if they get the answers wrong. But they move up the scale. And I think the idea is that everybody thinks, well, maybe I can cheat a little bit, because jaywalking is illegal, but so, I jaywalk. What’s the big deal? Who’s harmed? So, you cheat a little bit in the service of a greater good, and then you’re encouraged, maybe cheat a little bit more and a little bit more. Almost nobody goes and presses the button that ultimately the people in the Milgram experiment press, which would have been a death sentence if there had been somebody real on the other end.

Preet Bharara: It’s incremental.

Alex Gibney: It’s incremental. It’s that incremental—those incremental lies.

Preet Bharara: Descent into evil. Right.

Alex Gibney: Lies that you tell yourself along the way. It’s slowly but surely. Because I think we all have to admit that good people do bad things. The American myth, I think, is that there are good people and then there are bad people. I think there are people, and all of us are a little bit good and a little bit bad, depending on the circumstances.

Preet Bharara: Look, I totally agree with that. And people have different motivations. And really smart people do dumb things. People who have a lot of money commit a crime, it seems like it’s a dumb thing.

Alex Gibney: Right.

Preet Bharara: And defense lawyers would make this argument. You know, we charge people who had a billion dollars in the bank and cheated to make more, even though they could not possibly have spent all of their earnings in a lifetime.

Alex Gibney: Right.

Preet Bharara: Why’d they do it? And we would say, because they were greedy, or they self-deceived, or whatever other reason, or trying to—they wanted to hit the next benchmark of being in the $5 billion club, or whatever the case may be. And some of these defense lawyers would use this in an effort to undermine the case and say, well, why would he do it? He’s got a billion dollars.

Alex Gibney: Right.

Preet Bharara: Good question. But he did. And we proved it over and over again.

Alex Gibney: Right. You know, I think there’s something interesting, too, that happens—that’s happened over the last 30 years or so in economic culture. And we’re talking about mostly economic crimes now. There was a phrase that sort of seeped in to American culture—I believe it was in the Reagan era—the bottom line. And the bottom line was supposed to be a kind of statement of ultimate goodness, right? It transcended the original meaning, which is simply, is there a profit or a loss at the bottom of the page? But ultimately, it came to me, is it good or is it bad? The bottom line is X or Y. Well, that’s a very pernicious phrase, if you think about it, because then if you think, well, where that phrase comes from, the bottom line, meaning I made a profit, makes everything else okay. And that’s where the rationalization really starts. So, in economic crimes in particular, they think, well, nobody’s harmed, but I made money, and after all, the idea of this economy is to make money. That’s how we create a better society. So, I did a good thing. And therefore, if I cheated in order to get there, it’s okay.

Preet Bharara: So, before we started taping, you and I were talking about your father.

Alex Gibney: Mm-hmm.

Preet Bharara: And he had a very interesting career that’s relevant to your work, I think, and I want to hear how it is relevant to the work I used to do. So, why don’t you tell us what your father’s job was for a period of time?

Alex Gibney: Well, yeah. For a period of time, I mean, he was an interrogator in World War II. He interrogated Japanese prisoners of war in the Pacific Theater. And he’s actually in one of my films, “Taxi to the Dark Side”, which is all about torture and interrogation. And he was very much an advocate of rapport-building techniques. I mean, he used to say that his idea of interrogating a prisoner was to get him in a room, give him a cup of sake, and start talking. It was outside of a context. The war was over for them. They weren’t going back to the battlefield. But he felt that once you got somebody willing and able to start telling their story, it was far more effective to relate to that person as a human being, as if you were equal, than it was to try to beat the hell out of them.

Preet Bharara: So, he didn’t think waterboarding was effective?

Alex Gibney: No. He was absolutely furious. I mean, he was literally dying. He was on an oxygen machine. He asked me to an interview with him because he was so angry about what Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney had done in terms of reintroducing torture into the American interrogation landscape.

Preet Bharara: And because it was immoral only, or because it was both immoral and also, in his experience, ineffective?

Alex Gibney: Both. Now, I think we can agree that sometimes, torture will get the right answer. But it’s not dependable. It’s not at all dependable. And so, you know, in fact, in 2003, there was a famous case in which the FBI was interrogating a man named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, and getting good, actionable intelligence, but it just didn’t happen to be the kind of intelligence that seemingly the people at either the CIA or the administration wanted. They wanted him to connect Saddam Hussein with Al-Qaeda. Well, the administration decided the CIA was gonna take over. They wrapped him in duct tape, stuck him in a box, flew him to Cairo, where the slogan is, “Give us the person in the morning, we’ll get the answers by the afternoon,” i.e., we’ll torture them. And they tortured this individual until he gave them the answer that they wanted, which was that Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda are connected. That became part of the speech that Colin Powell gave before the UN, and it was one of the rationales for going to Iraq, the 2003 Iraq War.

Well, a year after that, he recanted. He said, “I just gave you that answer because you tortured me, because it’s what you wanted to hear.” And on that answer in part, a huge war, and, I would argue, you know, chaos in the Middle East has resulted. So, this can have hugely damaging consequences. And the CIA weirdly keeps learning that lesson, but they keep betraying what they learn over and over and over again because for some reason, it seems so compelling in a human way to believe that by administering force, you can get something more effectively than by treating that person as a human being.

Preet Bharara: There’s this fear on the part of, I think, some people that you shouldn’t be nice to folks who have done bad things, who have fought against you in a war, or have been accused of committing a crime. And I get that. But if the goal in the moment is to get information, then it’s not about coddling. It’s about getting the information, which should be—

Alex Gibney: It’s about results.

Preet Bharara: Which should be paramount. You were talking about how your father talked about rapport-building, and speaking to someone who is a captive captured in the war as an equal. A cop I was talking to not too long ago put it this way, and I don’t know that people think about it this way, because they think the thing that’s gonna get the target to speak is the fact that the cop has the power and has the gun and the badge.

Alex Gibney: Right.

Preet Bharara: And he said to me, “Those are not my allies. They’re my greatest obstacles to getting this other human being who is scared, who knows that I have all this power over him, to tell me the truth. I work really hard to get him to forget about my badge and forget about my firearm so that he thinks I’m just another guy who’s trying to be helpful, and then he tells me stuff.” And in case after case, that worked for him. And I’ve heard that story dozens and dozens of times.

Alex Gibney: There’s an old journalistic [?saw] which relates to how journalism—conducting interviews is related to this whole idea of interrogating a prisoner, which is, getting people to talk is relatively easy. It’s getting them to shut up that’s hard. And the point is, once you reach a point of trust where people start to talk, everybody, I think, is hardwired to want to tell their own story. And so, once you get somebody talking, they will talk, and talk, and talk. And they’re motivated, both because there is a sense of mutual obligation, and also because people want to tell what they have to say.

Preet Bharara: There’s a few examples where it’s a particular kind of bad guy, someone who’s tried to commit an act of terror in the United States or somewhere else, and these guys immediately, in many, many cases, even though there’s this controversy, and Senator Lindsey Graham likes to say they should all be sent to Guantanamo Bay and never be Mirandized, talk for days and days and days and days. That includes Faisal Shahzad, who was the Times Square bomber. And in talking to people about why that is, it goes back to this initial point that you alluded to a couple minutes ago. And that is, no matter what people are engaged in and whatever bad acts they’ve committed, they still want to tell their story, and they want to be heroes of their own stories.

Alex Gibney: Yes.

Preet Bharara: And they want to be understood, even the worst of the worst has that propensity.

Alex Gibney: That’s right. Everyone has a story to tell. That is—you know, as a documentarian, that’s what I seek out, because that’s what educates us all in terms of figuring out how the world works, and particularly how crimes are committed.

Preet Bharara: I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for this rapport-building exercise, and thanks for talking.

Alex Gibney: Thank you, Preet. A pleasure.

[End of Audio]

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