He contacted Daniel J. Jones, who compiled the original report and had since taken on an ongoing role liaising with the press, to question him on detail. Jones remembers those calls with a laugh. “The difference between Scott and even some of the best journalists I spoke with was his command of the material. He would say things like ‘isn’t footnote 505 in conflict with footnote 1216?’. It was that kind of in-the-weeds discussion. For somebody who has spent seven years in a basement and could now finally talk about at least the declassified portion of the result, it was great.”
We have laws for a reason. And the CIA completely undermined this narrative of who we are … It’s really unforgivable.
Scott Z. Burns
Meanwhile, that black comedy script wasn’t going anywhere. Torture just isn’t funny. “What happened is so grave and so wrong that it made me very, very uncomfortable to think about how I would have to make that film,” Burns says. The psychologists were a sideshow. The underlying outrage was that an agency of a democratic government was able to make its own rules without having to answer to anybody. “All of these people believed on some level they were doing the right thing,” he says. “But in any sort of organisation where there is no oversight and there are compartmentalised departments, there is the capacity for incredible moral and ethical drift. We see here what happens when people are not held to account.”
There had been tapes made of the “enhanced interrogation” sessions. They had mysteriously been destroyed, which was the subject of Jones’ initial investigation. But there were also transcripts of those sessions, which he combed exhaustively with a small team of researchers. What emerged clearly was that none of those prisoners who had been waterboarded or suspended from the ceiling for days had said anything useful; nothing corroborated the CIA’s story that one key al-Qaeda captive had “broken like a dam”.
What was done was not only illegal and immoral; it hadn’t worked. But when the report was released, Burns says, the CIA was ready with a counter-narrative and plenty of effective talking heads to take the message to TV talk shows. “They really got out there, with the result that 50 per cent of people in the US still think that these techniques were effective.”
His story turned out to be the battle to have the truth heard. “I found the story of Dan trying to get his report out to be incredibly compelling as a thriller,” he says. “That there is a guy who finds a truth and then somehow has to get it out in the world. What really got me going was that I thought I’d found a hero.”
At the recommendation of Steven Soderbergh, who had directed several of his previous scripts and is a producer on The Report, he asked Adam Driver to play Dan Jones. Driver had been a Marine, Soderbergh pointed out. “He said: ‘He’s going to connect with the nature of duty that the character has, that his behaviour is circumscribed by a kind of decorum and a chain of command. And Adam has a sort of rigour to his own work that is very similar to what Dan Jones does.’ And I found that to be true.”
Given that it deals with monstrosities, The Report is strikingly restrained. Driver is a vital but sober figure; Jones must surely have spent those seven years boiling with rage, but he loses his temper in The Report only once. Within the CIA, officers watch impassively as human beings are tormented in front of them. It’s a dirty job and they’re keen to do it. “Is their anger such that it removes all of their humanity?” says Burns. He agonised over showing any torture scenes at all, but was persuaded by a former general consul for the US Navy who had spoken out against the program at the time. “He said ‘if you do that, you’ve compounded the sin of the CIA when they destroyed the tapes. You need to show people what these things really mean’.”
There is no question that Jones, who now leads a non-profit organisation that investigates government accountability called Advance Democracy, is angry now. Nobody lost his or her job over any of this, he points out. A detainee died and the officer responsible was recommended for a performance bonus. “And no one ever got disciplined at the CIA for all the misinformation they provided to President Bush and then President Obama,” he says. Misinformation that led to so many deaths.
It isn’t enough, he says, to say that these were difficult times. “You pay people not to follow laws when it’s easy to do, but when you may have inclinations to do otherwise, right?” he says. “I mean, this is who we are. We have laws for a reason. And the CIA completely undermined this narrative of who we are, knowing how ineffective these techniques are but also knowing what it means to the core identity of America. It’s really unforgivable.”
The Report is now in cinemas.