In 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee finally released a report on the CIA torturing suspected Al Qaeda terrorists captured after 9/11 and during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That summary and all the underlying information were the result of an investigation by Daniel Jones, the committee staffer who spent more than five years digging into thousands of pages of paperwork to reveal the horrors and inefficacy of the CIA’s methods.
That investigation is the heart of “The Report,” a new movie by Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Side Effects,” “Contagion”) starring Adam Driver and Annette Bening. Watching the investigation unfold on screen, along with flashbacks to some of the horrific prisoner treatment, I was reminded of a conversation I had in December, 2008, with Matthew Alexander, who was the chief US interrogator in Iraq, and who led the team that eventually brought down Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq. When I posted that interview (which you can listen to here), I wrote:
How did Alexander and his colleagues do it? By using brains, not brutality. By building relationships, not beating people up.
I spent an hour speaking with Alexander about his experience, which he recounted in his book, “How To Break A Terrorist.” He told me that torturing prisoners ended up costing American lives, as it served as the biggest recruiting point for Al Qaeda. We talked about his methods and results, despite resistance from the Pentagon (which fought the publication of his book), and why he so strongly disagreed with torture as an interrogation technique.
He explained how his team elicited information from adults (and children) who didn’t bother to contain their hatred for America, how his translators were helpful in explaining idioms peculiar to Iraqi culture, and how he managed to gather information from even the most hardened detainees.
Alexander was not a guy in a think tank or a TV talking head. He sat a foot away from terrorists and fanatics and won the mental battle time and again. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his work, which hopefully influenced those who succeeded him.
Unfortunately, the CIA was hoodwinked by two psychologists, Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who created and carried out the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on prisoners. They claimed their methods would break down detainees in order to get them to be compliant and submissive to authority, and that it was all backed by science — except there was no scientific evidence that their torture program would result in any actionable information. Jones’ report showed that it never did, yet Mitchell and Jessen were paid $81 million as CIA contractors.
“The Report” takes a quick but well-deserved shot at “Zero Dark Thirty,” a movie that made it look like the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were much more successful than they actually were (the reality is it was human intelligence, not torture, that yielded the actionable information that led to the capture of Osama Bin Laden).
Driver plays Jones as a man on a mission, one that consumed him seven days (and nights) a week, determined to uncover the truth about the torture program. Watching a man reading documents or staring at a computer screen would have made for boring movie-making, but Burns allows Driver to overheat a few times with frustration when he takes on the people behind the CIA’s attempts to undermine his work. Burns keeps things moving with those flashbacks and paces the movie like a thriller as Jones battles with an intelligence community that has no desire to have light shone on its flaws.
As his boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Annette Bening gives one of her best performances in years. As Jones had to dig through the dirt, Feinstein had to maneuver through the political minefield, first during the Bush administration, and later Obama’s.
There’s quite a supporting cast, too. Jon Hamm plays Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Ted Devine as CIA Director John Brennan, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall as CIA officers overseeing (and being duped by) the Mitchell/Jessen protocol, Sarah Goldberg (of HBO’s “Barry”) as one of Jones’ colleagues, plus Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, and Matthew Rhys.
As Alexander told me, six years before Jones’ report was made public, the politicians who claimed its release would cost lives were wrong. Rather, it was these very violations that endangered American lives rather than protecting them — not by rogue agents, but by the entire chain of command.
The saddest part is that there has been no accountability for those who made the decision to torture, from Mitchell and Jessen all the way up to Cheney and Bush (who claimed as president that the US would never torture). Worse is the string of lies the CIA told not only to the public but in private to the White House. One can only conclude that the reason they kept their actions secret from even the president was because they knew they were wrong and counterproductive. The level of deceit and misinformation from the CIA to those who were supposed to oversee their activities sounds criminal to me, but none of the agency’s directors (e.g. Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, George Tenet) or underlings has been charged or held responsible.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration didn’t take action against any of the architects of the torture-is-good policy. Although the president told a TV outlet the techniques “constituted torture in my mind” and were a betrayal of American values, he also issued a written statement praising the CIA employees as “patriots” to whom “we owe a profound debt of gratitude” for trying to protect the country. That was just Obama playing politics, trying not to look like he was the enemy of the CIA. But there is nothing wrong with calling out and prosecuting wrongdoing within our government.
Here’s a simple test to take: how would you react if these torture protocols were used against an American held hostage by Al Qaeda? How did you feel every time Isis posted video of another American being beheaded? If that turned your stomach, if it made you think the enemy was inhuman, it if violated everything you believe is right, then how can you possibly condone it being done by Americans, and how can you not consider these actions to be war crimes?
In our current political environment, I’m not sure how many Americans will go to movie theaters to see a docudrama about an investigation into the CIA’s more-than-misguided approach to counterterrorism. It might have reached a larger audience as an HBO or Netflix movie.
Nonetheless, I found “The Report” very compelling. I give it a 9 out of 10. It will be on my Best Movies Of 2019 list.