The Report, a new film from Vice Studios starring Adam Driver, feels somehow both timely and late. It tells the story of American Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Driver), who was tasked with investigating the U.S. government’s “enhanced interrogation” program in the late 2000s. The program, which many denounced as torture, was used to extract intelligence from suspected terrorist detainees at CIA black sites after Al Qaeda’s attack on September 11, 2001. It ended years ago and is no longer even legal—the McCain-Feinstein Amendment restricts prisoner interrogation techniques to those listed in the United States Army’s field manual, and it passed the Senate with a 78–21 vote in 2015, backed by majorities in both parties.
Among the general public, however, the topic remains controversial, with almost half of Americans saying they think torture could be used to obtain “important military information” from “a captured enemy combatant” and only a little more than half saying they think torture is “wrong.” During and after his 2016 campaign, President Donald J. Trump, ever-sensitive to divergences between “elite” and “popular” opinion, promised to revive and even expand enhanced interrogation, claiming that waterboarding is a “minor form” of torture and that “we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
Jones worked for Senator Dianne Feinstein (played in the film by Annette Bening) and was deputized by a bipartisan Senate committee to lead a team of six—three Democrats and three Republicans—to find out exactly what the CIA program had entailed. In the flash-forward that opens the film, we learn that his obsessive dedication to the report cost him his romantic relationship, but as we return to the report’s inception and watch events unfold chronologically, we also see that this kind of personality was required to pursue the investigation to completion and release. “Do you ever sleep?” a security guard asks Jones at one point. “I used to,” he replies, “but it got in the way of the work.”
The agency had destroyed its recordings, so the investigators had to conduct their research using written reports and emails. Jones’s orders were clear: “No politics, no bias … There can’t be any Republican sentences or Democratic paragraphs.” Jones appeared to be perfectly qualified for the job. He had worked counterterrorism in the FBI for four years before becoming a Senate staffer, and as a graduate student in 2001, he switched all his courses to national security after the 9/11 attacks.
However viewers think terrorist suspects ought to be treated, they’re likely to learn some things they didn’t know during the course of this film. For starters, the enhanced interrogation program was not the brainchild of George W. Bush’s White House. It was entirely a creation of the CIA. Before the CIA began interrogating terrorist suspects, it was the FBI’s job, and the Bureau managed to procure useful intelligence without going off-book. Abu Zubaydah, for instance, was a Saudi national arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and the detainee who fingered Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as the mastermind of 9/11. The FBI didn’t torture him. Its agents manipulated him psychologically to brilliant effect while simultaneously building a rapport with him and ensuring he got the medical treatment he needed. (He’d been shot in the thigh, the groin, and the stomach with an AK-47.)
The CIA, however, wasn’t satisfied. The FBI is a law enforcement organization that deals with the past. It solves crimes and prosecutes criminals. The CIA is an intelligence organization concerned with the future. And so it took over prisoner interrogation and began using dramatically different methods. It brought in retired Air Force psychologists Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who announced that they could obtain even better results than the FBI by inducing “learned helplessness” in detainees and the so-called Three Ds: debility, dependence, and dread. The enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) they introduced included grabbing prisoners by the throat, throwing them against a wall, and subjecting them to cramped confinement, loud noise, stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, insects, and mock burials.
As unpleasant as this kind of harsh treatment was, defenders of EITs maintained that it fell short of torture. After all, the U.S. military used the exact same techniques on its own men and women during SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) training. They weren’t drilling into kneecaps, puncturing eyeballs, or burning detainees with blowtorches. Journalist Christopher Hitchens volunteered to be waterboarded so he could write an article about it for Vanity Fair. He even filmed the procedure. He was only able to tolerate it for a few seconds and afterward affirmed that it did indeed qualify as torture. But then he volunteered to be waterboarded again. Reasonable people can disagree about where rough treatment ends and torture begins, but it’s hardly unreasonable to argue that torture can’t be anything that Christopher Hitchens volunteered to experience twice. On the other hand, he did not volunteer to be buried alive in a coffin with insects even once, which suggests that EITs and torture are not perfectly discrete categories as defenders of the former tend to insist.
Both Jones’s report and the film about it argue that enhanced interrogation failed categorically, which seems implausible. Almost everybody breaks in the end. No person can tolerate waterboarding, stress positions, and insects indefinitely. “Suppose they wanted to know where a relative of yours was,” Hitchens said after his single brief experience, “or a lover. You’d feel, well, I’m going to betray them now. Because this has to come to an end. I can’t take this anymore.” For the sake of honesty then, opponents of EITs ought to concede that, if all other moral and ethical considerations are set aside for the sake of efficacy, harsh treatment can reliably yield results in a very narrow set of circumstances—if the interrogator knows for certain that the detainee has the information being sought, and if that information, once obtained, is verifiable.
But this was not how the policy was conceived or applied by the CIA. In practice, detainees produced bad intelligence along with the good and lied to mislead, to end their ordeal, or because their distress produces not clarity but confusion. “What if you didn’t have anything?” Hitchens pointed out. “What if they’d got the wrong guy? Then you’d be in danger of losing your mind very quickly, I think.” Notoriously, Khaled Sheikh Mohammad was waterboarded 183 times, and he told ludicrous lies to get his tormentors to stop. In one of his yarns, he sent a guy to Montana to recruit African American Muslims to blow up gas stations and start forest fires, perhaps not even realizing that there are virtually no black people, Muslims, or even cities in the white, rural state of Montana. The CIA finally realized he would never be honest, and he later admitted that he’d just told them what they wanted to hear. “If it works,” Senator Feinstein says in the film, “why do you need to do it 183 times?” A similarly bemused CIA officer asks the psychologists, “Why are so many of these guys lying after you work on them?”
The Air Force psychologists who designed the program had never interrogated anybody before. They were as green as a twenty-year-old rookie who had just joined the local PD, and they were operating purely on untested theory—always a dicey business, no matter how great it looks on a whiteboard. The CIA actually killed one of its prisoners, Gul Rahman, and the agency didn’t even know at the time if he was guilty or knew anything useful. As Jones puts it in the film, “They barely knew his name.” He was never charged with or accused of a crime. (A substantial portion of the detainees, roughly a fourth, were later determined to be innocent.) The CIA doused Rahman with freezing water, and he subsequently died of hypothermia. The agent responsible was promoted, and Jones claims to have proof that the CIA’s deputy director coached the officer in charge how to cover up what had happened—a revelation that suggests the CIA knew they had strayed outside acceptable legal and ethical boundaries. “Why would they need to cover it up,” Jones asks rhetorically, “if they were following standard operating procedure?”
The FBI never thought any of this would work. The Bureau at least thought it knew something the CIA didn’t. (It’s also worth noting that no law enforcement agency in the United States uses these sorts of techniques even on serial killers.) “There’s only one interrogation technique that works,” says the FBI agent in the film who initially (and successfully) interrogated Abu Zubaydah. “Rapport building. You get close to these guys, and they open up. But the CIA didn’t believe that.” Of course, manipulation and deception are part of the recipe, too, as all law enforcement officers know, and the FBI marshaled them against Abu Zubaydah to great effect. Agents played a recording of the detainee’s voice to demonstrate that they had placed him under surveillance. Then they brought in a whole case of additional tapes. The other tapes were blank, but Abu Zubaydah didn’t know that. He thought the FBI already knew everything, so he shrugged and told them what he knew. Police departments all over the country use techniques like this every day, and they do so because these techniques work.
The CIA, meanwhile, got nothing from Abu Zubaydah, even though they waterboarded him, buried him in a coffin with insects, then left him alone in a cell for more than a month without asking him any questions even though the country was on “red alert.” Innocent people got swept into the program. It was unavoidable. Police departments all over the world inadvertently arrest innocent people every day. The same happens during battlefield intelligence gathering. Literally anyone in the world can be arrested and questioned. So as a matter of policy distinct from an ethical thought experiment, Jones’s report revealed that the EIT program was not fit for purpose. It subjected detainees to mistreatment and suffering that violated moral norms and yielded no actionable information. It failed in its stated aims and on its own dubious terms.
The Report isn’t unbiased. It unambiguously takes the side of Jones, whose investigation becomes something of a crusade as fact finding gives way to a battle of attrition with an intelligence establishment eager to suppress his findings. The protagonist spends his days reading files and compiling a 7,000-page report, but the drama is never less than engrossing, following a template that recalls the best American political thrillers of the 1970s. Nevertheless, writer-director Scott Z. Burns is alive to the seriousness of the subject and (mostly) resists the temptation to sermonize. His film makes a persuasive case that the program really did fail and does an adequate job explaining the how and the why.
Nor is it a partisan or anti-Republican hit piece. It goes out of its way to exonerate at least parts of George W. Bush’s administration, including the president himself. We learn early on that Secretary of State Colin Powell was not told about the program because “he would blow his stack if he found out what was going on.” The president did not find out about it until four years after it started, and when he was finally told, “he expressed discomfort with the image of a detainee chained to the ceiling, wearing a diaper, and forced to go to the bathroom on himself.” After the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, President Bush said, “The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws, and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it, and I will not authorize it.” All of this is included in the film.
If the CIA’s arguments as they understood them at the time are given short shrift, it is probably because the EIT program has now been discredited not only by Jones’s Senate investigation but also by the CIA’s own internal inquiry, which arrived at the same conclusions. Nevertheless, this is never quite a straightforward morality play. Towards the end of the film, a CIA officer confronts Jones in a restaurant before the report has been made public. “You may not realize,” she says, “but we were trying to protect this country from people who want to destroy everything we believe in.” “You may not realize it,” he replies, “but we’re trying to do the exact same thing.” As always, Jones is given the final word, but this brief scene offers an acknowledgement that, notwithstanding the sinister portrayals of some of the CIA officials, the real villains in this story were the terrorists they were attempting to thwart.
The film could have used a bit more of this sort of thing, given the heightened threat assessment post-9/11. The CIA officers who believed the program was working were no more monstrous than civilians who believe to this day that it must have worked even if it did not. That almost half of Americans support the rough treatment of prisoners sounds disturbing. But the ICRC survey question merely asked respondents “Can a captured enemy combatant be tortured to obtain important military information?” If the question is understood to mean that the important military information in question would save innocent lives, it is no longer a test of decency but a moral dilemma. Few morally serious people would flatly claim that scores of innocent people must die to spare someone like Khaled Sheikh Mohammad the ordeal of being waterboarded. If, on the other hand, the question had stipulated that such “ticking bomb” cases are rare and that torture is seldom an effective means of obtaining intelligence, how many respondents would have given the same answer? To my knowledge, the question has not been polled in these terms, but this is the question The Report asks us to consider.
The ethical limits of permissible conduct are seldom clear and bright when free societies are engaged in asymmetric warfare with fanatical groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, or Hamas, who observe none of the norms of international law. But part of what distinguishes democracies from tyrannies and terrorist organizations is that debates about how to balance security and moral imperatives are played out at the highest levels of government, in the courts, and in the free press. One of the last lines in the film is among the best, and thank goodness it was included. Lest anyone come away thinking the United States is morally equivalent to those it is fighting (or wondering if the screenwriters might secretly think so), Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough says to a room full of senators, “Democracy is messy. Let’s just think how many countries there are in the world where a report like this could even get done.” There are certainly not very many.