Released in December 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture did not last in the public imagination too long. News moves so fast nowadays, and December 2014 already marked a shift in Congressional power. Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, the political thriller The Report is an attempt to return our attention to where it belongs.
Unlike many other political dramas, no characters have personal lives. Burns is all about the process of the investigation, and his entry point is Daniel L. Jones (Adam Driver), a former FBI agent and Senate Intelligence Committee staffer who, under the guidance of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), was the report’s primary author. In the course of Jones’ investigation, he comes to see how the CIA used enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorist detainees, but got no actionable information from them. This proves a controversial position, so Jones finds himself fighting against the CIA and the executive branch as they attempt to suppress the report from becoming public. We were so close to never learning the truth, and The Report dramatizes that period with a stellar cast that also includes Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, and Maura Tierney.
Daniel J. Jones may not work in government anymore, but he’s reliving those days on a press tour. I recently had a chance to sit with him and Scott Z. Burns to talk about the film, plus a whole lot more, including how Zero Dark Thirty is a total fiction.
Brightest Young Things: How did you feel when you started to see a dramatic depiction of something that you’ve just spent so much of your life researching? How did you react to it?
Daniel L. Jones: Well, I just have so much gratitude for Scott for putting this on paper and then directing it on film, I’m so glad actors like Annette, Jon, and Adam tell the story. The [Senate committee] staff were tasked by to document this piece of history, and to get a piece of that documentation that we put together, 6,700 pages, get at least part of it out publicly, just to make sure it never happens again. We were front page coverage everywhere in the world the day that report came out. The next day we weren’t, and people move on and forget about it. People really need story and narrative. That is the thing that penetrates culture, and Scott’s film is going to reach millions of people in our report.
I don’t know how many people I’ve reached around the world, honestly, right? But [the report] came and it went, yet the lessons in it are too important to be forgotten, which is why I have so much thanks and gratitude.
BYT: Did this film change how you thought about film’s power?
Jones: Well, yeah, it’s definitely changed my view of film. I was a fan of film before, particularly a fan of Scott’s and [Steven Soderbergh’s], and so many others who were involved in this project. But yeah, no, this film is a testament to the power of [film]. We’ve been on a little bit of a media tour of late. We meet with really bright, engaged people who don’t actually know this story. They remember reading an article, a newspaper article about it, but they forget the details. They won’t forget the details after the way that Scott tells them, right? Now it’s going to stick with them. I just find it super gratifying that people are engaged. They love the film. We got a standing ovation at Sundance. Actually, almost every screening I’ve attended, the film gets a standing ovation which is really incredible.
BYT: I have a question for you, Scott. I’ve lived in D.C. for a while. I’m a bit obsessed with movies that get D.C. right and get D.C. wrong. Whether it’s something in No Way Out, where he takes the train from Union Station to Georgetown and there’s no metro in this neighborhood. Just dumb little stuff like that. I noticed this movie really got D.C. right, both in terms of just how it looks and in terms of the dialogue itself. I was wondering, were you worried the film would be impenetrable, or have too much jargon?
Scott Z. Burns: I think the commitment that I made at the beginning of this, both to myself and to Daniel, was that I wanted this to be accurate in any way and every way that I possibly could make it. I wanted to know what the inside of the senator’s office looks like. I wanted to try and communicate to the audience that there are these rooms called SCIFs where conversations that we never get to hear go on. I wanted them to understand the protocol of a staffer, you know? I guess I felt that at some point when you go into the weeds, you’ve got to decide, “What from the weeds can I drag out into the light of day and share with the audience?” That was the exercise on this film.
BYT: If you got to tell this in a mini-series or you could have done a three hour cut, is there anything either of you would have liked to put in the film?
Burns: There were things in the script that we ended up not including in the cut. I really wanted the movie to be about two hours long. I feel really strongly in a movie like this that you don’t want to overwhelm the audience. There were things that when I saw them, it felt like it was starting to get redundant, that they got the point that the program didn’t work.
The goal was always to communicate three things. One, torture is ineffective. Two, torture is not something this country, by its very design and its original ideas, was ever a thing we were supposed to participate in. Three, we’re living in a time where there is a crisis of accountability. This time started before 2019, that it’s the knock-on effect of years of failing to hold people accountable, so there’s this divisive battle between congress and the executive that is tearing apart the fabric of our country.
There certainly could have been the mini-series version that went down a lot more rabbit holes. In the end, what I really felt strongly about was having a theatrical experience. Having people go and see this together and sit in a room and experience it and have the lights come up and have them look at each other and go, “Wait a minute, there was a time not that long ago when Senator McCain and Senator Feinstein could reach across the aisle and get something done.”
BYT: One scene that I felt was truly fascinating is the one where Senator Whitehouse, while in his last days in office and the Democrats retain control, decides that [the Committee] must put out the report while they still can. Were they worried that they would lose the opportunity? If the Democrats had kept the Senate, what do you think would have happened?
Jones: What a great question. That is a fantastic question. Once the CIA was going on the attack, we lost some Republican support. There was a belief that if Richard Burr took over the chairmanship, he would not allow the report to be released. When Richard Burr did take over the chairmanship, he did this remarkable thing whereby he called back all of the classified reports that had been sent out to the intelligence agencies, he called them all back to the senate. As far as I know, that has never been done in history. Imagine the Iran-Contra report, the classified version of that that went out saying, “Okay, we want all the versions back from that. We want to erase this from your databases.” It’s remarkable. So the senators were right to be concerned.
As for your follow-up, if it was likely the Democrats would have held the senate and Senator Feinstein was not under any rush then to get the report out, I don’t think it would have come out that December. It would have been another drawn out, lengthy process. No, in some ways [the 2014 mid-terms] forced everybody’s hand to act.
BYT: Going back to the movie for a second, since you’re not exactly as well-known as Diane, is there anything that people don’t know about you that Adam Driver maybe captured accurately? Did you ever think, “Wow, that’s totally me,” that people wouldn’t recognize unless they knew you?
Jones: My friends and acquaintances have watched the film and say, “[I recognize] these little mannerisms here and there.” But Adam’s so talented that he could probably walk in this room and pick up on things that we’re not conscious of, and play any one of us in 30 minutes. You’d be like, “Wow, I never realized I move like this out a lot or I cross my arms like that.” He’s just that perceptive of an actor. But now that people point it out to me I thought, “Oh yeah. I guess I do do that.”
BYT: How did you feel about the characters in the CIA were portrayed? Do you think they were portrayed as almost evil characters, or just kind of banal, not understanding what they’re doing?
Jones: From talking to Scott, I learned when you have a seven year project with tons of characters throughout, you can’t keep introducing new ones. Amalgamation is the tool that you need to use, and I thought it was a very fair. The Tim Blake Nelson character represents multiple CIA officers who came out of the woodwork to say, “Look at this memo. Look at this email. You have to look at what happened in April of 2004.”
Those were people who were really helpful. Then you have Joanne Tucker, who also plays a CIA officer who confronts Adam with, “Screw you and this report. It’s never coming up.” I also had people come to me like that. Scott couldn’t put 20 of those people in the film, so these are representations. I totally get that. It’s not a documentary, but do those people accurately reflect characters that were in my life as an investigator? Absolutely.
Burns: Yeah. Michael C. Hall plays CIA a lawyer that’s based on about half the people over there, as far as I can tell. So even though there were different lawyers towing the line over the course of this time period, there was a fairly consistent point of view, as lawyers would maintain while defending the CIA.
So again, if I introduced a new lawyer every two or three scenes, it would have been very confusing. Not only that, but when you get an actor as amazing as Michael, you want to give him room to really build that character. You want to see his frustration and his engagement over time.
BYT: This question is for both of you although I think you’re going to look at it from different points of view. One thing that I noticed in the film is that it references Zero Dark Thirty explicitly. There’s a part where Adam Driver sees discussion about it on TV, or a CNN clip. Do you see this film and this report as a partial response to Zero Dark Thirty?
Burns: My reason for putting that scene in there is really simple, which is it was a thing that happened. To ignore it wouldn’t be fair or accurate. That was the guiding principles of the process. I know from having spoken to Dan that at some point during this seven-year odyssey, he wakes up and wanders through the outside world and sees everybody in line going to see this movie. The narrative that he has in his head that he’s been working on, using classified material, is different from the narrative that the movie espouses. That was it. I just wanted to show the power of cinema as an influence on popular culture, and on how we come to understand stories.
Jones: The movie was definitely a part of my experience. I think it’s such a pivotal piece in the whole journey of the story. We had documented a program whereby the president of the United States, President Bush, was completely misled by this program. His vice president, Dick Cheney, wasn’t given accurate information about this program. We had that information, we were documenting that information.
During this period of time, the Osama Bin Laden operation happens. We see the CIA recycle the same types of misinformation, but this time to president Obama. It was just absolutely shocking to me to think that this was something they would continue to do, knowing that [the Committee] was doing this investigation. I also thought [the film] would help us, it would help Republicans see this perhaps as what it is, an absolutely bipartisan issue. Here’s the CIA misleading President Bush, and here’s the CIA misleading President Obama. There was an early perception that this was a Bush-Cheney problem, and this was a Bush-Cheney program, partly because Cheney wanted to own it.
BYT: Yes, there’s that whole scene where [Bush lawyer] John Yoo puts the intellectual for enhanced interrogation techniques in place.
Jones: But this really started at the CIA. Bush wasn’t even briefed until April of 2006. By that point, most of the detainees had already gone through the program, which is remarkable. Anyway, when I saw the UBL operation go down in the classified briefings that were being shared, and then I look at the CIA’s own records. They’re completely contrary, and that is Zero Dark Thirty. What I do love about Scott (I’m going to totally nerd out on this) is how there’s a footnote in the report, that after the UBL operation happened, it was massively compartmented. This was in May of 2011.
BYT: I’m sorry, what does compartmented mean in this context?
Jones: Let’s say three of us have top secret security clearances. Then only two of us have covert access, which is even smaller. Within that covert access, there’s another code and now it’s just you. That’s compartmented. The Osama Bin Laden operation was massively compartmented. If a hundred people in the U.S. government knew about it, I would be shocked because even they didn’t know what they were training for.
Nonetheless, the CIA does a big briefing about this operation, months before in March. Who do they give that sensitive operational brief to? Their public affairs shop. What’s one of the major things that public affairs shop is supposed to do? They’re supposed to connect the Bin Laden operation to the CIA’s detention interrogation program. The propaganda is so thoughtful. This is before the operation happens, and they’re thinking about how they can tie this to their torture program. It’s remarkable. I actually thought people across the aisle would be outraged by this.
I know [screenwriter] Mark Boal. I like him. I’ve never met [director] Kathryn Bigelow, but I’ve heard lovely things about her. I have no ill will towards them. The same classified bullshit that the CIA was giving to the President of the United States, the Department of Justice, and Congress was the same classified bullshit they were giving Mark Boal.
If you’re him, you call the CIA and say, “I’m doing this great movie. It’s called Tora Bora. It’s about your failure on Bin Laden’s escape out of Afghanistan.” Then they call you back and say, “Mark, I like this idea about doing a movie about a CIA’s failure, but how about you do one on a CIA success and I give you exclusive access about the operation that led to Bin Laden?” They were used.
Jane Mayer has this great line in a Frontline episode about this where she says, “Filmmakers are easy marks for the CIA. The CIA are people who work with foreign governments. They get foreign leaders to betray their country, to give them secrets. Do you think they cannot manipulate Hollywood filmmakers to tell a propaganda film that’s not based on fact?” So I see Mark and Kathryn as victims, not as people who we should be saying that they went off and did this crazy narrative.
BYT: It’s great this film is getting across to millions of people, and more people are going to get fired up about it. But what else can people do to better educate themselves? How can they pay attention and not be manipulated so easily?
Jones: I hope people see The Report and get interested and seek out there is a real senate report out right now. I’m really thankful for Amazon because now there’s a reprint of the book now with Adam Driver’s face, so hopefully that will sell more copies. They’re doing an audiobook, too, for those people stuck in traffic in Los Angeles and New York.
BYT: Did you read the audio book?
Jones: Scott and I did read a section of the audiobook.
Burns: Almost the whole cast did. It’s so easy to become cynical in times like this. In fact, cynicism can be the only informed response when you see how far we’ve drifted from any civility, any understanding in the world that there are things called, “Facts.” What I really hope is that people come to remember that there are facts at the bottom of it all, and that you need to go and find those. Truth is an arrangement of facts that explains what happened, and that we need to return to a time where we start with facts and only then we can draw conclusions.
That’s what’s terrifying to me. I had always believed that confirmation bias, which has been around for a long time, was something that you could inoculate people against with facts. Now we seem to have a strain of confirmation bias that is resistant to facts. I hope the movie stands against that.
BYT: To what extent did you seek or think about people that are portrayed in a negative way in the film? I read an interview in The Guardian with James Mitchell, who championed techniques like waterboarding, where he basically said, “This report doesn’t show our successes.”
Jones: I love this. This is like John Brennan saying, “When I was at the CIA, I was so against the torture program.” Show me the paper. The agency had all the time in the world. They had all of 2013 to produce some success that they had claimed was actually accurate. We looked at twenty of the most frequently cited cases that the CIA said, “Without torture, we would not have captured that person or disrupted this plot.” It was the same BS as the UBL operation. In each and every instance, we found that the information either came from a detainee before they were tortured, or from traditional methods of signals intelligence, pulling data out of the air, or cooperating witnesses.
Burns: What I find fascinating about this question and this kind of inquiry, and it’s something that we’ve experienced now really since Sundance, is people feel obligated to ask us a question like, “How do I respond to Mitchell or Brennan saying ‘The program worked’?” I guess my question for them is: didn’t your own organization do the Panetta Review? I’ve not read it, but I know that Daniel has. I know that Senator Udall has. You have it in your possession. It’s the work of your own people assessing your own operation. If you really believe that this was effective, why don’t you declassify it so we can all see what you said about it? No one ever asks them that question.
Jones: Let’s be clear. If you can declassify the Senate’s Torture Report, you can declassify the CIA’s internal report. It’s based off the same information. There’s nothing here but political will and avoidance.
BYT: One thing I really appreciated was at the very end, all you get from Senator Feinstein is, “Thank you.” It struck me as a simple, meaning gesture, particularly in the world of government. Did you really strut down the Mall afterward? Can you talk about those last days?
Jones: It was more of a skip. No, she added this a piece in the congressional record when I left which was really sweet and nice of her, which goes into detail about my work in the Senate. There’s this great line where, she used to tell me while working on the report, “You look terrible.” Each time she’d say, “You look worse than the last time I saw you.” Those words are in the record: “Every time I saw him he looked worse.” But she saw what it took to get this out and she was very kind. It was more than a “thank you,” but I did leave after. Senator Burr had taken over the committee and it was clear that I had an invitation to leave. I had spent fifteen years in the intelligence community and I felt like, just, it was time. I think Senator Burr thought it was time, too.
The Report opens in D.C. theaters November 15.