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‘The Report’ Review—A Careful Examination of the CIA’s Interrogation Methods

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.


Michael J. Totten is the prize-winning author of nine books, including Where the West Ends and Tower of the Sun.


  1. "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.”

    Yes, this is the true fault line, as inconvenient as it is to admit. As with religion, it’s easy to pick enough outlying examples of monstrous, ideologically-motivated behavior to justify an entrenched position (whether anti or pro). What’s harder to admit is that 99% of people on all sides speak and act in good faith and according to their conscience.

  2. Today, the official line of the US government, including the CIA, is that “torture does not work.” And that’s why we don’t torture. It would make no sense at all for us to torture because, as we say, it doesn’t work, and why would we do something that we know isn’t going to work? We might torture if it worked, but it doesn’t, so we don’t. Please stop asking us about it.

    Speaking personally, however, if I knew a secret, and someone were flaying the skin from the soles of my feet very slowly with a razor blade, I think I would probably give up that secret before they reached my ankles. So, I don’t know what to tell you. The US government has been known to lie.

  3. Historically, respecting the laws of war tends to help you win. It’s counterintuitive but there it is.

    A great example is the Falklands War. When the British came up to Port Stanley, the Argentine commander had been ordered to fight to the death. His men had ammunition and food and could have held out for some time - they would have lost in the end, but they could easily have taken hundreds of British with them. Instead, he surrendered.

    Had the British been known for torturing PWs or shooting them out of hand, it is much less likely he would have surrendered. And the war would have gone on, and more British lives been lost. It’s not prudent to put your enemy in a position where he has nothing to lose.

    As a soldier I was taught, “you do not fight a war as though there’s never going to be a peace.” Chickenhawks tend not to understand this. The purpose of war, as Clausewitz said, is to make the enemy do your will. It’s the continuation of politics by other means. Politics is about, “I want you to do X,” and you try to persuade them; if you can’t persuade them and X is important enough to you, you go to war, and fight it in such a way that they say, “oh alright I will do X, there you go.”

    If “X” involves surrendering to someone who might torture them to death, or machinegun them into a ditch, they tend to fight harder and for longer than if “X” involves surrendering to someone who’ll move them away from the battlefield, give them a hot bath and food and generally treat them well.

    It’s easy to sit there with a beer resting on your large gut watching the evening news and snarl, “kill 'em all!” But if you actually want to win, a different approach is necessary.

    Your morals should be greater than the morals of your enemies. That makes him more likely to give up the fight and give you what you want. The laws of war are not about altruism, they’re about pragmatism.

  4. So unlike torture which doesn’t appear to work, the government will continue to lie because that does work.

  5. I’m a person who is of the opinion that certain forms of torture are worse a crime than murder. While I have not seen the film, i have read a fair deal about torture. It is true that it often fails. There are a lot of reasons for this besides those given in the above article.
    One, there is no clear bottom. Let’s assume someone is guilty. Even so, there will be a limit to the guilt, only so much he knows. Since the interrogator doesn’t know how much the captive knows, they keep going and going. This is just a waste of time. Obviously, after the point when all or most has been told, the captive just spins whatever story he hopes will temporarily end his torment. You can waste a huge amount of man hours and resources following false leads.
    Two, this is also provides no real exit for the captive. there is no truth that ends the torture, just creative stories that can sometimes put it on pause.
    Three, torture also compromises the interrogator. torture is a brutal business and it’s hard for the interrogator to keep his head. The worst is if the interrogator develops a taste for sadism. Then, the point of the torture is the torture not the information.
    Building rapport works because the interrogator can operate in a calmer environment, and pick up on the cues of the captive. He can suss out lies and truths.
    It is surgical. Torture is surgery with a chainsaw.

  6. Cool story about conventional warfare. Keep explaining how it applies to current anti terrorist strategies, how being just and fair to murderers of women, children, and innocent civilians benefits us and I’ll go get some popcorn.

    As for your service being used as some soapbox to preach from as you’ve been doing here lately…again, I say “cool story, random guy on the internet”.

  7. A good part of the Wehrmacht were murderers of civilians. We were nice to them, and those who’d committed crimes were given fair trials.

    But let’s put it another way: we tried being brutal to insurgents and terrorists. How’s that working out for us?

    Ike, it’s no shame not to have served. But what I would note is that in these discussions, those who have not served tend to say “kill them all!” and those who have tend to say, “well, it’s not quite that simple…” This isn’t universally so, but it’s a strong trend. Experience gives a certain balance to a person’s views.

    I note too that those who haven’t served and have no intention of doing so are quite often keen on starting new wars, while those who have - well, some are keen, but most aren’t.

    Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. But opinions informed by experience are more interesting and useful. Of course, no-one can ever stop virgins talking about sex.

    Mostly I just don’t like hypocrisy. I don’t like people who fly private jets lecturing me about climate change, and I don’t like people who have never served saying we should go to war. Hypocrisy is not confined to the limp-wristed left or the chest-thumping right.

  8. Ah well. I guess you “having served” (according to you. I myself am an active green beret/navy seal/ ranger/ seeing eye dog with over 6000 confirmed kills…see how easy that is?)makes you the ultimate authority on whether we should go to war or not.

    Which, for the record, is not an argument that I am making. What I said, is that in a fight/war one should match the others morals (and by that I meant intensity and tactics towards other combatants). This is actually not an armchair quarterback opinion. I learned it during half a lifetime being immersed in extremely violent environments. If you “fight fair”, you lose fights.

    And if being brutal to insurgents and terrorists is too much for you, friend, if your suggesting there’s a softer way, I don’t know what army you think you served in, but it sounds like the Salvation Army.

  9. Once again we see the intelligence community pursuing its own goals without recourse to the elected government. They think they know better than us, when time and time again they are exposed as not being any better than a layman, and in many cases worse. They just love playing the game of thrones, and always assume it’s worth the price they force us to pay.

    Before the war on Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put James Clapper in charge of analysis of satellite imagery, the most definitive collection system for information on WMD. In his memoir, Clapper admits, with stomach-churning nonchalance, that “intelligence officers, including me, were so eager to help [spread the Cheney/Bush claim that Iraq had a ‘rogue WMD program’] that we found what wasn’t really there.”

    This the same intelligence community who put Clapper up to lying under oath to Congress that intelligence officials were not collecting mass data on tens of millions of Americans. They were. No members of the intelligence community were ever arrested.

    In 2009, professional baseball player Miguel Tejada pleaded guilty to lying to Congress after giving false testimony about performance-enhancing drug use in Major League Baseball. “He admitted to lying to Congress and was unremorseful and flippant about it,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) told the Washington Examiner. “The integrity of our federal government is at stake because his behavior sets the standard for the entire intelligence community.” Massie was referring to Clapper, not the baseball player. Just to be clear.

  10. Once upon a time countries could go to war and be as brutal as they liked because what happened on the battlefield and in the villages of enemy civilians stayed on the battlefield and in the villages of enemy civilians.
    So it was possible to wage total warfare with the objective of destroying the enemy both their military and civil population both physically and psychologically.

    Then America had Vietnam and what happened on the battlefield and in the villages of enemy civilians no longer stayed there, it ended up broadcast on the evening news to Americans at home while they were having their dinner. The result was the US lost that war.

    The same thing is happening with the use of torture, you splash Americans committing torture across the American public’s awareness and it’ll alienate the voting public, you splash Iranians being tortured by Americans across the world media and the next time America asks for international support for a military adventure the reply will more likely be a polite no.

    In the modern world for an open democracy a policy of using torture will inevitably be turned into an own goal. In fact there’s a movie out . . .

  11. Torture is like pornography. Everyone knows it when they see it but it lacks a working definition. Almost all would agree that extreme pain, prolonged pain, with holding of nourishment, bodily injury and disfigurement constitute torture. What about discomfort and deprivation? Is being denied a comfortable place to rest torture? Is being subjected to countless hours of Alvin and the Chipmunks singing Christmas carols torture?

    What about psychological stress? Is telling one his love ones are dead torture? Is making fellow prisoners believe one has confessed torture? Is making one believe death is imminent torture? Is threatening one’s loved ones torture?

    Is torture relative to the threat imposed? In other words if someone knew where a nuclear device was hidden in a major city, does that remove the moral objection to torture?

    Objections to alleged torture tend to be flexible because circumstances and methods tend to vary greatly. Torture is generally counterproductive until it isn’t.

  12. The article and most of the comments here concern themselves almost exclusively with torture by government officials and entities.

    But let’s remember that there are other people in the West who are torturing prisoners for information; the drug cartels of Mexico and other Latin American countries.

    It’s difficult - perhaps impossible - to get meaningful data about how effective torture is for them as an intelligence gathering tool.

    But there is certainly anecdotal evidence that indicates that if you have a secret and a Mexican drug cartel tortures you, you are, by God, going to tell them the truth before you die.

  13. Democracy is messy. Let’s just think how many countries there are in the world where a report like this could even get done.

    This is an important point, and yes, the US is more open than many governments.

    But through the decades we regularly invade unnecessarily, back horrendous dictators, and torture.

    One reason we keep doing this is tipped off by the quoted sentence: Our certainty in our basic morality justifies all kinds of criminality. Entire wars like Vietnam and Iraq are downplayed out of a confidence in our virtuous motives. But brutal is as brutal does.

    This article’s purpose is to preserve the idea that there is a sharp dividing line between good and evil, us and them. It says we at least admit our atrocities, that makes us different. Rather than take comfort in a blanket sense of virtue, we need to look at the specific situations. Invading Iraq, 9/11 torture, were evil. That’s true regardless of what other ills exist in the world.

    The Iraq invasion and torture arose in the first place because we choose to military dominate the oil region. As long as we are a hegemon, situations will keep arising that tempt brutality and undermine our impulse to be decent. How many times are we going to say, “yes, a million dead Iraqis, but there was an honest Congressional report about torture” ?

  14. It’s reasonably well-defined in most countries’ military law. But more than what not to do, militaries have procedures on what to do. You disarm them, bind them, treat their wounds, get their ID and personal effects, hood them, and transport them to HQ to be talked to by the intelligence section.

    If someone is taken prisoner, there’s a thing called “capture shock.” If he’s just come off a battlefield then his adrenaline was right up, and after the immediate danger has passed there’s an adrenaline crash, there’s fatigue and shaking, pissing and shitting yourself or vomiting, etc. If you’ve been in a car crash or had to do CPR or something you know this feeling of adrenaline crash. Now imagine that at this point you’re tied up by armed foreigners who don’t speak your language, and taken away from everyone you know while hooded.

    At this point the PW has no idea what’s going to happen to him. Will he be beaten, shot out of hand, tortured? Legally you are not required to reassure him. You can’t threaten him, but you don’t have to reassure him and make him feel better. The adrenaline crash plus his own fevered imagination will do a lot. A person immediately after capture is very compliant and will generally tell you everything he knows. The smallest kindness - a sip of water or the like - will get him running his mouth off.

    This is the experience of police forces as well, by the way. Now obviously there are hardened criminals and experienced army officers who will behave differently. But when you get one of those you’ll also get a bunch of footsoldiers. Many people have the idea of a crime or intelligence breakthrough from watching TV, where one guy spills and then everything is solved. In truth it’s lot of small bits of information from here and there which they put together. It’s remarkable the work detectives and intelligence corps guys do. And capture shock in both the civilian and military worlds, the first 24 hours, elicits far more information than torture ever would.

    Most torture is done not to get information, but because the guards are bored and stupid. While a PW of North Vietnam, John McCain like many others was tortured after having been locked up for years already - anything he knew he’d either told them already or was hopelessly out of date and useless to them. But they tortured him for fun. Likewise the Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib - no useful information was got by stacking them into naked human pyramids, the guards were just having sadistic fun because they were bored and stupid.

  15. Not at all. The North Vietnamese subjected McCain to severe beatings in order to compel him to make a confession for propaganda purposes. McCain did confess, and when he refused to make additional statements, they beat him some more.

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