Still from The Report | Amazon
Joel Whitney,  December 6

Propaganda, Anti-propaganda

On The Report and the history of the CIA onscreen

Still from The Report | Amazon
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In late 2005, when the dread of finding Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq dwindled, California Senator Dianne Feinstein joined a chorus of non-mea culpa Democrats who claimed to be victims of Republican manipulation. But when a torture scandal arose two years later, the senator would not be so easily fooled again. Rather than accept the CIA’s bouquet of rationalizations for waterboarding, confinement, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and other so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, or EITs, used on suspects rounded up in the War on Terror, Feinstein unleashed on the CIA a sober investigator, former FBI staffer Daniel J. Jones. A new feature film, The Report recounts Feinstein and Jones’s fight to uncover what really happened before President Obama ended the torture program with an executive order two days into his first term, a history that remains largely obscured.

Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, The Report is accurate and unambivalent on the fundamental question of whether torture worked: it did not. Nevertheless, the film’s urgency derives from its forceful recounting of how hard it proved—even for a veteran of the Senate (who headed the Select Committee on Intelligence)—to reveal a truthful answer to a simple question. If the torture yielded gains that saved lives, what were they?

The power of the same pen that ended the program under Obama is now in the pygmy hands of a president who gives zero dark fucks about the truth surrounding torture. In this light, The Report is an important corrective, even if its print equivalent is now being sold as a cheesy film tie-in.


The Report opens with Jones, portrayed by a seething Adam Driver, apparently in trouble. He confesses to a lawyer that while he didn’t exactly steal documents from the CIA, he did relocate them. His work had begun after the New York Times reported that high-ranking CIA officials destroyed interrogation tapes, pointing to a coverup. With a background in counterterrorism at the FBI, Jones was handed the investigation into torture and set up in a SCIF (or a “sensitive compartmented information facility”). Technically it’s a Senate office inside a CIA undercover site, one that his CIA hosts will illegally break into at the height of the dispute over his findings. 

The film crosscuts between the near-present—with Jones reading and explaining the paper trail to Feinstein and the audience—and the recent past, as Jones unravels the sordid story in memos and relives the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Black sites were set up immediately after, he explains, and the CIA petitioned to use torture before any prisoners were even in custody, while Secretary of State Colin Powell was reportedly kept in the dark. In flashbacks, moody establishing shots show us a conference room at CIA, where Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet scrambles to save his reputation after 9/11. When Attorney General Eric Holder launches a criminal investigation into the CIA’s torture program two years into Jones’s work, Republicans pull out of the Senate investigation; Jones’s staff is gutted, and no one involved in the torture program will talk to him.

This all makes for uniquely difficult-to-dramatize cinema, though director Scott Z. Burns keeps the story moving like bureaucratic warfare behind Driver’s focused wonder and alarm. Much of the real Jones’s work involved, of course, reading memos. As keywords from those memos loom and fade on the screen like shapes in the clouds, Jones and his small team begin to profile the detainees, their wistful headshots affixed to the walls in the windowless SCIF office. Many of the sepia-toned flashback scenes rotate around various color-coded black sites: Detention Site Green, Detention Site Blue (though apparently no Detention Site Sepia).

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is waterboarded 183 times, we are told, prompting Feinstein to ask Jones, mid-investigation: Why, if it works, do you need to do it 183 times?

Digging through documents, Jones learns that it was Ali Soufan of the FBI who ascertained the identity of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and that he did so the old-fashioned way, by “building rapport.” But in a flashback scene in a CIA office, we watch contractor-psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, make their case for torture. With academic backgrounds in family therapy and high blood pressure, and stints in the Navy behind them, the contractors flash a PowerPoint slide with the magical acronym SERE: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.

This is what the United States’ “very best men” teach SEALS and the other indoctrinated militants which it mass-produces: buzzwords, mnemonic tricks. As part of their pitch to intel paymasters, Jessen and Mitchell promise to “reverse-engineer” what soldiers are taught in order to resist hostile interrogation. This and their mantra of “learned helplessness” are described in whispers by their CIA promoters as the “special sauce” that will open the hearts, minds, and lips of terrorist plotters whom the country’s hallowed warriors are scooping up from the global battlefield. To anyone but a CIA officer desperate to eliminate red tape in the aftermath of a crisis, the shrinks are clearly bullshitting.

As Jones reads about these carnival barkers in the film’s present day, flashbacks show interrogations unfolding darkly in cave-like underground passageways; one prisoner is beaten, and another has his beard shaven and is left cold and naked, doused in freezing water. Other prisoners are hung in stress positions and forced to undergo the sensation of drowning known as waterboarding; some are promised mock burials, or confinement with terrifying bugs.(These scenes, along with a Deep Throat-like physician’s assistant who surprises Jones in a parking lot, are the film’s most heavy-handed bits.) Subsequently, the prisoners clam up. Or, to save themselves from drowning or other severe trauma and pain, they start lying. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is waterboarded 183 times, we are told, prompting Feinstein to ask Jones, mid-investigation: Why, if it works, do you need to do it 183 times? 

The crosscutting between the CIA’s fantasy of omnipotence and Jones’s horrified fact-check is effective. The rapid-fire dialogue of a scene where the CIA gets to voice its gripes with the torture report before its release is enhanced by Jones’s contrapuntal asides and translations. Justified by the specious legal reasoning of hacks like John Yoo, Jones tells us that the CIA considered their program legal if it worked. This means that CIA leadership was empowering its agents to commit illegal acts and continue them in secret until a suspect’s confession made an interrogator’s war crime “legal,” justifying it ex post facto. Think about that logic, applied liberally some 320 years after Salem.

The film’s choicest bits of dialogue underline the CIA’s fraudulently stupid moral reasoning. Bernadette, an agent played by Maura Tierney, is a counterpoint to Jessica Chastain’s Maya from Zero Dark Thirty. Having missed important leads before September 11 (the infamous August 6, 2001, memo is name-dropped early in the film), she has boosted the phony shrinks. Yet the baldness of their charade has begun to dawn on her. She complains to Jessen and Mitchell that one supposedly high-ranking detainee “lied to you to make you stop.” Mitchell calmly corrects her: thanks to the waterboard, “we now know he’s lying.”

“I thought it was meant to give us the truth,” she challenges. 

Yes, Jessen barks. “The truth is, he’s lying.” 


There are two kinds of CIA films: the boosters and the revisionists. Hollywood has long been important to wartime propaganda. After World War II, huge swaths of the media were co-opted in a large-scale penetration in which secret funding from a de facto anti-communist Ministry of Culture was doled out around the world. There were, of course, strings. In Hollywood, the CIA had at least one undercover agent embedded in a major studio, Paramount Pictures. This agent could get a script killed if it made America look bad, or get it rewritten if its patriotic messaging was salvageable. And the CIA worked with various studios to cultivate a theme it called “militant liberty,” another buzzphrase, one meant to guide filmmakers during the Cold War. Icons like John Wayne and John Ford signed on, promising the military and defense establishment to explicitly follow the aims of “militant liberty” in their representation of the United States in films that might be seen around the world.

The first movie produced by the CIA, a cartoon version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, was edited to the point of censorship to remove Orwell’s pointed critique of capitalist overreach. Comparing his work to that of Walt Disney, future Watergate crook E. Howard Hunt described in his memoirs not only censoring the film to advance the aims of the Cold War, but adding jokes and a happy ending in order to compete with Disney. As open secrets around this period of deep media penetration were threatened with explicit exposure, the CIA learned to mask its reactionary ethos under a fake sheen of New Left politics, which would affect its cinematic aesthetics.

The years 1967 and 1977 were two high-water marks for exposure of these CIA conduits, which tarnished the agency’s reputation. Its efforts to put the media “in a box” were placed, correctly, alongside its highly unpopular (but only slowly revealed) participation in coups, assassinations, and death squads in the developing world. In the 1970s, the Church and Pike Committee hearings showed how much worse it all was than the average member of the public knew. The destructive wastefulness of this anti-democracy agency was laid bare to the American taxpayers who had unwittingly, voicelessly sponsored it. And so a second kind of film about the CIA was born. There was a new hero: the journalist working toward exposure. The whistleblower. The archetype of this mode was not a Disney-lite cartoon, but a political thriller in the mode of All the President’s Men.

Paradoxically, the FBI-friendly alternative of The Report is ultimately a more sophisticated, historically accurate, “revisionist” film than Zero Dark Thirty.

When The Report lands on the question of how and how honestly—with or without severe redactions—the torture report will be released to the public, Burns cuts to a clip of Jones watching a news story about Zero Dark Thirty. What makes that film exceptional is that Bigelow and writer Mark Boals worked with the CIA, in the tradition of the militant liberty era of films of Ford and Wayne, but they did so in disguise, by taking on the dark style of the political thrillers that marked the second wave of films about the agency. Working through the liaison office the CIA created in the 1990s, Zero Dark Thirty’s filmmakers rewarded agents consulting on the film with expensive meals, and in one case, counterfeit jewelry. The tone of the film correctly makes you feel dirty for watching it, but it doesn’t disclose, naturally, that it’s deliberately misrepresenting the recent past. It may not bullish or naive about the United States’ role in the world, but Zero Dark Thirty must justify this ambivalent stance with the fallacy that torture works. For this reason, the real Feinstein walked out of the film after only fifteen minutes, describing its lies as insulting.

As a work of post-Church Committee CIA propaganda, Zero Dark Thirty won’t work unless it first convinces you it’s on your side. It promises you the truth in its style and its attention to detail, in its loyalty to the floor plan of bin Laden’s safe house. The film may not feel triumphant, but after Chastain’s Maya “gets” bin Laden, it’s implied that finally she, and we, can get a little rest, freedom (if not quite militant liberty) no longer back on its heels. Paradoxically, the FBI-friendly alternative of The Report is ultimately a more sophisticated, historically accurate, “revisionist” film. You can see it as anti-propaganda. But anti-propaganda is still propaganda, of course; and if you view it critically, which you must, The Report argues that it was a middle-of-the-road Senator who scolds young promoters of the Green New Deal for petitioning for a future and an FBI veteran who saved the truth of history. 


In The Report’s depiction of the torture program, a lot of the blame is placed on Mitchell and Jessup and their supposedly novel reverse-engineering of hostile interrogation resistance techniques. But this blurring of offense and defense was not new; during the Cold War, American use of torture was rampant. As a Green Beret in Vietnam, antiwar activist Donald Duncan was trained in alleged Communist torture techniques. After a litany of these techniques was taught to Duncan’s class, a fellow student asked the sergeant in command why the name of the class was Countermeasures to Hostile Interrogation. Confusingly, the sergeant had also told the class there were no countermeasures to most of these techniques. “Are you suggesting we use these [torture] methods?” the student asked. As Duncan recollects in his memoir The New Legions, the sergeant “looks down at the floor creating a dramatic pause. When he raises his head, his face is solemn but his eyes are dancing. ‘We can’t tell you that . . . The Mothers of America wouldn’t approve.’ The class bursts into laughter.”

When the CIA was born in 1947, it promoted torture in its first theaters, one of which was Greece. There, the agency created a Greek CIA equivalent called the KYP, which used torture to curb leftist support. After the 1953 CIA-backed coup in Iran, the United States created a secret police force for the Shah called SAVAK, which routinely tortured Iranians. Likewise, the United States sent infiltration agents from Munich into the U.S.S.R. to engage in sabotage. When the operation was infiltrated by double agents, suspects were routinely tortured. In Brazil, after the CIA overthrew leftist President João Goulart in 1964, suspected leftists were rounded up, death squads were formed, and suspects were tortured and killed on the U.S. taxpayer’s dime. In Uruguay, counterintelligence agent Philip Agee learned that one of his penetration agents in the police force was torturing a prisoner whose name Agee had inadvertently provided. The screams haunted him.

Our access to the truth about the post-September 11 torture program is not a foregone conclusion.

During the hunt for Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia, the CIA sent in Cuban exile-agents who tortured suspected leftist collaborators. Under Reagan, at least two Americans tortured General Ahmed Dlimi before he was killed in Morocco in 1983. In Nicaragua, the Contras routinely engaged in the torture of suspected leftists. “Rose had her breasts cut off,” went one retelling. “Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart.” In El Salvador in 1982, U.S. military advisers watched as their trainees tortured random prisoners who had been dragged from their beds in the middle of the night—and warned the trainees that having any pity was counterproductive. In 1992, Guatemala’s U.S.-trained counterinsurgents captured, tortured and murdered the leftist guerrilla Efrain Bámaca Velásquez. This became an international incident when his wife, the American lawyer Jennifer Harbury, petitioned the CIA with hunger strikes. And then, in November 2001, Libyan national Ibn Shaykh al-Libi was apprehended in Afghanistan and tortured in Egypt. Under duress, al-Libi told his torturers that Saddam Hussein was training Al Qaeda terrorists in the use of chemical weapons. This turned out not to be true. The toll? One million or so dead.

In January 2017, President Trump lent his support to the false history of torture the CIA has promoted. Within a week of his inauguration, the president told ABC News, “I’ve spoken . . . with people at the highest level of intelligence, and I asked them the question, ‘Does it work? Does torture work?’ And the answer was yes. Absolutely.” The president added, “If [my intelligence officers] do wanna do [it], then I will work toward that end. I want to do everything within the bounds of what you’re allowed to do legally. But do I feel it works? Absolutely I feel it works.”

The Report chronicles a battle over the truth of what was done in our names as citizens. As in the case of climate change; the American history of slavery, overseas interventions, and support for right-wing dictators around the world; and other areas we have enough shame to cover up; our access to the truth about the post-September 11 torture program is not a foregone conclusion. Although the reality star president has been hopefully depicted as at odds with the CIA, certainly when it comes to torture and its effectiveness, President Trump is wholly in sync. His pick for Director of Central Intelligence, Gina Haspel, played a central role in the use of black sites, torture, and in the coverup that resulted in the destruction of interrogation tapes. What’s clear is that officials are still trying to rewrite the history of the CIA’s torture program, and that the work The Report depicts is not really over.

Joel Whitney is the author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, and a cofounder of Guernica. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @joel_whitney.

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