The Lancet: Truth and torture in the war on terror

November 30, 2019
By George J Annas
The Report, Scott Z Burns new thriller, adopts one of two conflicting narratives about post-9/11 torture by the USA. The “Cheney–Brennan narrative” is that torture is a “black art” that must be deployed in national security emergencies to save lives. The counter narrative, the human rights and science-based narrative, is that torture is a crime against humanity that produces only false information. When images of torture become public, they are horrifying and provoke outcry. For example, the 2004 photographs from Abu Ghraib of US Army troops brutally abusing Iraqi prisoners were devastating to the reputation of the USA. The Abu Ghraib photos taught the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was running its own torture programme at “black sites” around the world at that time, that videotapes of waterboarding could not become public.
The threat to the CIA posed by the videotapes prompted then head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, and his chief of staff, Gina Haspel, who is now the CIA’s director, to authorise their destruction, an action only made public 2 years later in 2007. This knowledge prompted the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by the Democratic Party Senator Dianne Feinstein, to initiate an investigation. In March, 2009, the committee voted 14 to one—bipartisanship in the investigation was a central goal of Senator Feinstein’s—to open a wider investigation into the entire CIA detention and interrogation programme.
Senate Committee staffers, under the lead of Daniel J Jones, were sent to work in a top secret bunker-like basement room in Virginia to review 6·3 million pages of CIA classified documents. After the US Department of Justice announced that it would begin a criminal investigation into the CIA’s actions, the CIA stopped cooperating with the review as did the Republican members of the committee. In 2011, the Department of Justice cleared CIA employees in 99 cases of alleged mistreatment of prisoners. At the end of 2012, portions of a 6700 page report were sent to the White House and CIA for comments. It took more than a year to get agreement on what material in the executive summary should be redacted—including the names of the people involved in torture—and what could be released to the public. The redacted summary version was ultimately made public in December, 2014. The process of writing the report, the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, and vetting the executive summary is the focus of The Report.
Does this timeline suggest a compelling narrative frame for a thriller? There’s long been an appetite for spy movies, from the exploits of British secret agent James Bond to American CIA assassin Jason Bourne. And with the TV series 24, torture became a form of entertainment. American audiences often applaud destructive and illegal actions in the name of keeping us safe. As Don DeLillo has his narrator observe in The Names: “If America is the world’s living myth, then the CIA is America’s myth…the agency takes on shapes and appearances, embodying whatever we need at a given time to know ourselves or unburden ourselves.”
Nor does the CIA rely on others to surround it with myths—the agency is involved in creating fictional narratives to both support its clandestine work and to serve as “cover stories” for it. In one well known example, the CIA worked with the screenwriter for the 2012 movie Zero Dark Thirty (directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Jessica Chastain), whose thesis is that torture was instrumental in locating and killing Osama bin Laden. This narrative is debunked by the Senate report itself that found all the information obtained by the CIA torture programme was either already known by the CIA or was false. Of course, movies must be entertaining. But a torture movie should also, I think, be in the service of the counter-torture narrative, which also has the advantage of being true.
Writer–director Burns, whose previous screenplays include The Informant!, Contagion, and The Bourne Ultimatum, certainly has the experience to build a spy thriller around torture. He also has a deep sense of the absurd, which might have attracted him to this material in the first place. His interest was piqued when he read a 2007 article in Vanity Fair by Katherine Eban about CIA contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. The two were paid US$81 million by the CIA to design an interrogation programme—an assignment for which they had no qualifications—but that the CIA believed was needed immediately to prevent another 9/11. Burns’ inclination was to write a dark comedy focusing on these two hapless characters because he found their emergency hiring “absurd to the point of being funny”. Instead, after studying the Senate report (the primary source of material for the movie) and speaking with Jones, the lead investigator for the report, he shifted away from the comedic and clueless psychologists to Jones, “who had done his job for years on end with more integrity than seems humanly possible”, according to Burns.
The narrative he built around Jones, convincingly played in the film by Adam Driver, is a kind of David and Goliath struggle, with Jones being thwarted at every turn by the CIA itself, which resisted all attempts at accountability. The film is a dramatisation of events, not a documentary, and although it strives for accuracy, some characters are composites and some dialogue is fictional. And, of course, the stars of the movie matter a lot to its success—both on the big screen and streaming on Amazon. I don’t think they could have done better in choosing Driver for the lead. He plays his part as a remarkably focused Senate staffer, and dominates the screen and the story. Equally persuasive are Annette Bening as Senator Feinstein and Jon Hamm as Denis McDonough, former US President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.
The narrative follows the chronological order of the events in Washington, DC, from 2009 to 2014, with flashbacks to torture scenes in the black sites, mostly set in 2002–04, which are filmed with a hand-held camera. Sterile government-issued office furniture provides a stark contrast to medieval underground torture venues. Showing the torture is critical because it exposes the brutality and inhumanity of what the CIA has been fighting so hard to keep hidden.
The contract psychologists who were hired to design and execute an interrogation programme for the CIA’s black sites are played as bumpkins who are matched in obtuseness only by the agents who hired and supervised them. When they discuss “learned helplessness”, a natural response is that helplessness is not something they had to learn. When waterboarding victims, they dress up in head-to-toe black rubber outfits, with black goggles over their eyes. They look like they’re just getting ready to go trick or treating and you can’t help but think that director Burns saved at least some of the original dark comedy shots of the contract psychologists for the movie. Whether you think torture “works” or not, it certainly did not work in their hands. As Senator Feinstein asks in the film: “If waterboarding works, why do you have to do it 183 times?” The film itself concludes with anti-torture statements by Senator Feinstein, Senator John McCain, and a quotation from George Washington condemning the torture of prisoners. In 2015, the McCain–Feinstein amendment, outlawing torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” was signed into law by former President Obama.
Ultimately, this is a story about the writing and release of a particular congressional report and the attempts (mostly successful) of the CIA to suppress it. But anyone who thinks no other federal agency would go to such lengths as the CIA did to avoid disclosure and accountability need only look at the agency that is a direct creature of 9/11. The US Department of Homeland Security simply refuses to cooperate with congressional attempts to reverse its brutal and ongoing zero tolerance policy that encourages separating children from their parents at the southern border.
I strongly recommend that you see this movie. Lawyers and physicians should read the report as well. They will find, contrary to a factual error in the script, which has a physician’s assistant tell Jones that the American Medical Association “wouldn’t let doctors be involved”, that physicians and lawyers were intimately involved in virtually every aspect of the CIA’s torture programme, including determining that the suspected terrorist was “medically fit” for torture; monitoring the torture to try to prevent death and serious injury, developing novel torture techniques, and participating in torture itself. The legacy of post-9/11 torture lives on at the continuing pretrial motions of accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. Almost two decades after their capture, it seems unlikely that any of them will ever come to trial because the “evidence” against them was obtained by torture. And it also seems likely that the major use of the full torture report will be at the Guantanamo military tribunals that possess two of the three known copies of the report—all the others were destroyed at the direction of the now Republican-led US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The third copy is in the presidential library of Barack Obama. Under the Presidential Records Act, this copy is not eligible for declassification and public release until 2028, almost 25 years after the torture depicted in The Report.
The Report: Written and directed by Scott Z Burns Amazon Studios, 2019. In cinemas and streaming on Amazon Prime Video from Nov 29, 2019
First published in The Lancet

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