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Five years ago, a report was released on the torture tactics used against suspects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, that investigation is the subject of a new film, “The Report.” Jeffrey Brown speaks with director Scott Z. Burns about why he thought the controversial topic could be made into a movie.
Five years ago, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report on the torture tactics the CIA used on terror suspects after the 9/11 attacks.
That investigation is now the subject of a new film, "The Report."
Jeffrey Brown has a look. It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Why did the CIA torture people, lie about it, and then hide it from history?
The story is straight from the headlines.
Better intelligence could have been obtained by more humane methods.
Their report, released by Democrats, contends the tactics failed to produce useful information.
A sweeping Senate report leveled damning charges against the Central Intelligence Agency.
"The Report" portrays the real-life six-year effort by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to uncover the CIA's use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects following the 9/11 attacks.
Those were implemented at the suggestion of two U.S. Air Force psychologists. The torture proved ineffective, but remained in practice at CIA black sites around the world.
Daniel Jones was lead investigator on Senator Dianne Feinstein's Intelligence Committee staff. Actor Adam Driver, known for recent roles in "BlacKkKlansman" and the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy, portrays Jones.
After 9/11, everyone was scared, scared it might happen again. It was my second day of grad school. The next day, I changed all my classes to national security.
Jones is the primary author of the report on torture.
Well, there are 20 findings and conclusions in the overall report, which can boil down into three key findings, overall findings.
One is that the techniques the CIA used, which most refer to as torture, resulted in false answers and didn't result in unique information.
Why are so many of these guys still lying to us after you work on them? Where's this special sauce? You have to make this work. It's only legal if it works.
Two is, the techniques were far more brutal than the CIA had described to Congress, to the president, to the Department of Justice.
We improve his treatment for a week or two, give him some hope. And then we go back at him hard and create a sense of helplessness.
And three is, the program was grossly mismanaged. The CIA didn't hold officers accountable for wrongdoing. They didn't set up appropriate guidelines.
Over and over again, we saw some significant management failures.
Scott Z. Burns wrote and directed the film. Best known for his screenplay "The Bourne Ultimatum," Burns also produced the Academy Award-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
Why did you think this might be a movie?
Scott Z. Burns:
You know, for me, it started out that both my parents are psychologists, and I grew up with some awareness of that profession as a thing that exists to help people.
And so when I read that people had figured out a way to weaponize psychology, I found that appalling.
We fundamentally disagree with the assertion that the program was poorly managed and executed, and that unqualified officers imposed brutal conditions, used unapproved techniques, and were rarely held accountable.
I also felt that my country had tortured people, and that that was antithetical to everything I had thought. And I know that may sound naive, because the CIA had done that at other points in history.
Jones and his team set up a secure room within a CIA facility to go through the evidence.
Paper has a way of getting people in trouble at our place.
At our place, paper is how we keep track of laws.
Investigators would face multiple hurdles put in the way by the CIA and other officials, including threat of legal action against Jones.
They can go after the next best thing, you.
The film's narrative follows Jones as he puts the puzzle pieces together.
When Scott first described to me his idea, which was this — almost this dark comedy of errors, in some ways, that was the only thing that made sense to me.
I think it's the struggle of somebody to get — to get the truth out.
And I think what happened with Dan I think is kind of a tracer bullet through our political system right now, that there are these systems and institutions that exists to provide oversight and accountability, and yet it took really Herculean effort on Dan's part and the other people, the senators on the committee, to get this story out.
According to the film, the CIA and the Obama administration actively tried to keep the findings from being made public amid other national priorities.
Actor Jon Hamm portrays Denis McDonough, President Obama's chief of staff. Annette Bening is Senator Dianne Feinstein.
When this administration took office, we faced the very real possibility of economic collapse. Do we spend our political capital on going around trying to find people to blame, or do we solve the problem?
Maybe the way to solve the problem is to hold people accountable. Do you ever wonder why history repeats itself?
Well, I think maybe it's because we don't always listen the first time.
Director Burn says he felt it was important to depict acts of torture.
You had to make some decisions about what you were going to show us, right, especially when it came down to those interrogation torture scenes.
How did you decide?
Well, it was probably the part of the film that I worked and agonized the most over through the edit and through writing, through every aspect.
I mean, there were early drafts where I wondered if we could tell the story without showing anything.
They water-boarded him 183 times, and then concluded KSM may never be forthcoming or honest. Everything they got from him was either a lie or something they already had.
Well, OK. So my first question is, if it works, why do you need to do it 183 times?
Maybe, when the report comes out, people will finally see that.
The reason why Abu Ghraib was such a sea change in this whole story is, people saw these things.
And, obviously, someone who works in a visual art form, pictures do paint thousands of words. And I felt, unless I show the audience enough of what really happened, they wouldn't truly understand the trespasses against the law and against human dignity.
But when I shot it, I tried to make it more about the torturers than the torture, because a lot of these people did do criminal acts. And it wasn't to elicit sympathy for al-Qaida.
In the end, after the years-long drama, Daniel Jones says the system worked.
We did get a report out. It's 525 pages. It has redactions, but we did get the report out. The report was released. And I think that's really to the testament of what the senators did of that committee.
They really were committed to this and committed to getting it out in public.
Do you feel that you told a positive story or a warning story? What is it?
Well, as a filmmaker, I don't feel like I get to decide what the audience should feel at the end.
I know how I feel, which is I am — I'm greatly buoyed by the fact that this country did put that report out. And Steven Soderbergh, who's a producer on this, has always said, I don't — I don't know that there's another country, other than maybe Canada or the U.K., that would — that would have even allowed this kind of investigation.
"The Report" is now streaming on Amazon Prime video.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Another movie to put on your list for this holiday season.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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