Amazon Prime’s The Report: A Review

The Report is a docu-drama recently released on Amazon Prime, written and directed by Scott Z. Burnz.  The film follows Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), the staffer for the Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), who is tasked with leading an investigation into the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques following 9/11.  The movie flicks from Jones poring over pages of classified documents to dungeons where detainees are stripped naked, chained to the floor and made to endlessly endure Marilyn Manson.  Unfortunately, this storyline does little to accurately navigate this tricky terrain and shows little understanding of the difficult decisions presidents and politicians (of all stripes), as well as intelligence officers, had to make to thwart further terrorist attacks.

The Real Report

The movie is based on the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee's 6,700-page investigation into the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program.  The agency's ex-directors alleged the findings were "cherry-picked" from six million pages of documents and claimed the Committee did not once speak with or seek evidence from those who headed the CIA during the period in question.

While damning the intelligence-gathering methods, the real report does not provide a single recommendation for an alternative.  The "politicization" of the report that the CIA complained of was echoed by Bob Kerrey, former Democratic senator and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who stated the researchers "started from the premise that the CIA was guilty and then worked to prove it."

Senator Feinstein: On and Off Screen

Feinstein is depicted as all that is righteous and reasonable.  She's supportive of Jones but reminds him that he works for her and not the report and should not pursue his own agenda.  She's a progressive and believes in "oversight and accountability," making her willing to fight for justice.  But she's also a patriot, pursuing action through the appropriate channels and not wanting to create another Edward Snowden (whom she regards as a "traitor").  However, this hagiographic portrait of Feinstein leaves quite a lot out.

The Feinstein not seen on screen is the Feinstein who on May, 26, 2002 was quoted in The New York Times saying that the attacks of 9/11 were a real awakening and that it would no longer be "business as usual" because "the threat is profound," meaning "that we have to do things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves."  We don't see the Feinstein whom the CIA saw when they briefed her as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  Rodriguez Jr., a 31-year CIA veteran, certainly saw another side: "If Feinstein ... and other politicians were saying such things in print and on national TV, imagine what they were saying to us in private."  The Feinstein we don't see is the hypocrite who hid her previous support for the CIA to score political points.

The Effectiveness of EITs

The most serious charge the movie makes is that the CIA committed the most ugly and unspeakable atrocities knowing full well they would not yield results.  When briefing his boss, Jones explains, "The EIT programme never worked — not on anyone."  He characterizes the entire program as one giant cover-up and conspiracy.  "Once the CIA programme started, they had to keep telling people it worked even if it wasn't true," he says.  "Their own position was that if it didn't work, it was illegal ... so they misrepresented the results."

The notion that EITs aren't effective was described by ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden as "so untrue" that it "actually defies human comprehension.  We detained about 100 people, we had a Home Depot–like warehouse of information from those people."  He details how as late as 2006, half of the government's knowledge about the structure and activities of al-Qaeda came from harsh interrogations.  The effectiveness of EITs is echoed by five other CIA directors and deputy directors.  The movie seems to suggest that the usage of these techniques during a period when senior al-Qaeda operatives such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), Abu Zubaydah, and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh were captured was a mere coincidence.

What's the alternative?  The Report paints FBI agent Ali Soufan, a culturally sensitive Arabic-speaker, in a strikingly positive light.  His secret to obtaining critical information?  "Rapport building — you get close to these guys and they open up."  But the CIA say "relationship building" simply wasn't working, as detainees had received highly effective counter-interrogation training while in training camps.  According to a Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005: "Before the CIA used enhanced techniques ... KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, 'Soon you will find out.'"  Once the techniques were applied, "interrogations ... led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates."

When the film features good news (the finding and killing of Bin Laden), Feinstein isn't as celebratory as her compatriots. She's quickly on the phone to plead with the President to make it clear that EITs did not lead to Bin Laden and how he must ensure the CIA don't manipulate the moment "to sanitise their own past actions."

Jones assures Feinstein hat any connection between Bin Laden's assassination and the Agency's actions is just pro-CIA "PR." He claims the interrogations were ineffective and points to how those captured lied about Bin Laden's personal courier in Pakistan - Al-Kuwaiti. "Zubaydah even told us Al-Kuwaiti had NOTHING TO DO with Bin Laden, same with KSM and the others." This is indeed accurate. The duo did deny Al-Kuwaiti's senior role in al Qaeda. However, his name was extracted from detainees and the CIA then passed it on to Pakistani intelligence. With a name, a digital trail was created that led to Bin Laden's compound.

The movie's simplification also ignores how in this murky world, a lie can be as useful when it comes to understanding a terror network as the truth. Hayden smelled the scent of Bin Laden by the captives' response when he asked them about Al-Kuwaiti: "They were usually cooperative, they were usually truth-telling but in this case, almost emotionally, they tried to wave us off." 

Heroes & Villains

The Report isn't interested in really understanding when enhanced interrogation techniques work and when they don't -- it just lumps them all under a single banner and unequivocally condemns them as completely ineffective. This isn't a universe in which leaders have to make hard choices about whether to use these unpalatable techniques to protect the innocent. Instead, it just divides people into heroes and villains, with no shade in between. In a cafe, a CIA official confronts Jones: "I just want to tell you to your face that you and that report are garbage… You may not realize it but we were trying to protect this country from people who want to destroy everything we believe in." Daniel retorts, "You may not realize it but we're trying to do the exact same thing."

None too subtly, the CIA officers (the 'villains') who laboured day and night to (successfully) prevent another attack on the scale of 9/11 are compared to the bomb-blasting, heart-eating, throat-slitting theocratic fascists of al Qaeda who had an explicit policy to torture and terrorise innocent civilians.

The movie's inability to portray this is reflective of a misunderstanding of both the context of EITs and the nature of the enemy. At times, this makes it unintentionally funny. Tim Blake Nelson plays a physician's assistant who, after witnessing waterboarding, lambasts the methods: "Okay, what is gonna happen when one of our soldiers gets captured and takes out a card with the Geneva Convention on it and wants to be treated like a human being? You think his captors aren't gonna remember the way these people were treated here?" Do the filmmakers' really think that Islamist terrorists are less likely to behead their captives if they're reminded of their obligations under international human rights law?

Conclusion

Ultimately, The Report is a movie that portrays some of the greatest villains of the 21st Century as victims. By showing us scenes of severe suffering and hearing accounts of alleged abuses, Burnz is trying to elicit sympathy for the detainees. Even if the techniques did constitute torture and even if the worst excesses were true, why should we shed a tear for these detainees? KSM was the mastermind of 9/11 and was involved in planning a 'Second Wave' of attacks. Have those released shown any sympathy? 16.9 percent of those released from Guantanamo are confirmed to have returned to terrorist activities while a further 12.2 per cent are suspected of the same.

Feinstein decries the CIA's actions as "a stain on our values." What about Obama's drone program? Couldn't the dropping of bombs that (as a by-product) cripple and kill civilians also be construed as a "stain"? Instead, we hear Feinstein voice her support for the program. Obama's drones are estimated to have killed between 64 and 116 civilians, including children. Since no infants were ever interned for interrogation, why don't Barack's bombs evoke the same convulsions of conscience among liberal filmmakers?

There are genuine injustices which cannot be reconciled with the values the US stands for (such as Abu Ghraib) and there are real questions that need to be asked about the War on Terror. But dramatizing a dishonest, partisan attack on the CIA does little to answer these questions, particularly when there's a compelling case that EITs saved lives at a time when timebombs were ticking.

The Report is a docu-drama recently released on Amazon Prime, written and directed by Scott Z. Burnz.  The film follows Daniel J. Jones (Adam Driver), the staffer for the Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), who is tasked with leading an investigation into the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques following 9/11.  The movie flicks from Jones poring over pages of classified documents to dungeons where detainees are stripped naked, chained to the floor and made to endlessly endure Marilyn Manson.  Unfortunately, this storyline does little to accurately navigate this tricky terrain and shows little understanding of the difficult decisions presidents and politicians (of all stripes), as well as intelligence officers, had to make to thwart further terrorist attacks.

The Real Report

The movie is based on the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee's 6,700-page investigation into the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program.  The agency's ex-directors alleged the findings were "cherry-picked" from six million pages of documents and claimed the Committee did not once speak with or seek evidence from those who headed the CIA during the period in question.

While damning the intelligence-gathering methods, the real report does not provide a single recommendation for an alternative.  The "politicization" of the report that the CIA complained of was echoed by Bob Kerrey, former Democratic senator and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who stated the researchers "started from the premise that the CIA was guilty and then worked to prove it."

Senator Feinstein: On and Off Screen

Feinstein is depicted as all that is righteous and reasonable.  She's supportive of Jones but reminds him that he works for her and not the report and should not pursue his own agenda.  She's a progressive and believes in "oversight and accountability," making her willing to fight for justice.  But she's also a patriot, pursuing action through the appropriate channels and not wanting to create another Edward Snowden (whom she regards as a "traitor").  However, this hagiographic portrait of Feinstein leaves quite a lot out.

The Feinstein not seen on screen is the Feinstein who on May, 26, 2002 was quoted in The New York Times saying that the attacks of 9/11 were a real awakening and that it would no longer be "business as usual" because "the threat is profound," meaning "that we have to do things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves."  We don't see the Feinstein whom the CIA saw when they briefed her as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.  Rodriguez Jr., a 31-year CIA veteran, certainly saw another side: "If Feinstein ... and other politicians were saying such things in print and on national TV, imagine what they were saying to us in private."  The Feinstein we don't see is the hypocrite who hid her previous support for the CIA to score political points.

The Effectiveness of EITs

The most serious charge the movie makes is that the CIA committed the most ugly and unspeakable atrocities knowing full well they would not yield results.  When briefing his boss, Jones explains, "The EIT programme never worked — not on anyone."  He characterizes the entire program as one giant cover-up and conspiracy.  "Once the CIA programme started, they had to keep telling people it worked even if it wasn't true," he says.  "Their own position was that if it didn't work, it was illegal ... so they misrepresented the results."

The notion that EITs aren't effective was described by ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden as "so untrue" that it "actually defies human comprehension.  We detained about 100 people, we had a Home Depot–like warehouse of information from those people."  He details how as late as 2006, half of the government's knowledge about the structure and activities of al-Qaeda came from harsh interrogations.  The effectiveness of EITs is echoed by five other CIA directors and deputy directors.  The movie seems to suggest that the usage of these techniques during a period when senior al-Qaeda operatives such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), Abu Zubaydah, and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh were captured was a mere coincidence.

What's the alternative?  The Report paints FBI agent Ali Soufan, a culturally sensitive Arabic-speaker, in a strikingly positive light.  His secret to obtaining critical information?  "Rapport building — you get close to these guys and they open up."  But the CIA say "relationship building" simply wasn't working, as detainees had received highly effective counter-interrogation training while in training camps.  According to a Justice Department memo of May 30, 2005: "Before the CIA used enhanced techniques ... KSM resisted giving any answers to questions about future attacks, simply noting, 'Soon you will find out.'"  Once the techniques were applied, "interrogations ... led to specific, actionable intelligence, as well as a general increase in the amount of intelligence regarding al Qaeda and its affiliates."

When the film features good news (the finding and killing of Bin Laden), Feinstein isn't as celebratory as her compatriots. She's quickly on the phone to plead with the President to make it clear that EITs did not lead to Bin Laden and how he must ensure the CIA don't manipulate the moment "to sanitise their own past actions."

Jones assures Feinstein hat any connection between Bin Laden's assassination and the Agency's actions is just pro-CIA "PR." He claims the interrogations were ineffective and points to how those captured lied about Bin Laden's personal courier in Pakistan - Al-Kuwaiti. "Zubaydah even told us Al-Kuwaiti had NOTHING TO DO with Bin Laden, same with KSM and the others." This is indeed accurate. The duo did deny Al-Kuwaiti's senior role in al Qaeda. However, his name was extracted from detainees and the CIA then passed it on to Pakistani intelligence. With a name, a digital trail was created that led to Bin Laden's compound.

The movie's simplification also ignores how in this murky world, a lie can be as useful when it comes to understanding a terror network as the truth. Hayden smelled the scent of Bin Laden by the captives' response when he asked them about Al-Kuwaiti: "They were usually cooperative, they were usually truth-telling but in this case, almost emotionally, they tried to wave us off." 

Heroes & Villains

The Report isn't interested in really understanding when enhanced interrogation techniques work and when they don't -- it just lumps them all under a single banner and unequivocally condemns them as completely ineffective. This isn't a universe in which leaders have to make hard choices about whether to use these unpalatable techniques to protect the innocent. Instead, it just divides people into heroes and villains, with no shade in between. In a cafe, a CIA official confronts Jones: "I just want to tell you to your face that you and that report are garbage… You may not realize it but we were trying to protect this country from people who want to destroy everything we believe in." Daniel retorts, "You may not realize it but we're trying to do the exact same thing."

None too subtly, the CIA officers (the 'villains') who laboured day and night to (successfully) prevent another attack on the scale of 9/11 are compared to the bomb-blasting, heart-eating, throat-slitting theocratic fascists of al Qaeda who had an explicit policy to torture and terrorise innocent civilians.

The movie's inability to portray this is reflective of a misunderstanding of both the context of EITs and the nature of the enemy. At times, this makes it unintentionally funny. Tim Blake Nelson plays a physician's assistant who, after witnessing waterboarding, lambasts the methods: "Okay, what is gonna happen when one of our soldiers gets captured and takes out a card with the Geneva Convention on it and wants to be treated like a human being? You think his captors aren't gonna remember the way these people were treated here?" Do the filmmakers' really think that Islamist terrorists are less likely to behead their captives if they're reminded of their obligations under international human rights law?

Conclusion

Ultimately, The Report is a movie that portrays some of the greatest villains of the 21st Century as victims. By showing us scenes of severe suffering and hearing accounts of alleged abuses, Burnz is trying to elicit sympathy for the detainees. Even if the techniques did constitute torture and even if the worst excesses were true, why should we shed a tear for these detainees? KSM was the mastermind of 9/11 and was involved in planning a 'Second Wave' of attacks. Have those released shown any sympathy? 16.9 percent of those released from Guantanamo are confirmed to have returned to terrorist activities while a further 12.2 per cent are suspected of the same.

Feinstein decries the CIA's actions as "a stain on our values." What about Obama's drone program? Couldn't the dropping of bombs that (as a by-product) cripple and kill civilians also be construed as a "stain"? Instead, we hear Feinstein voice her support for the program. Obama's drones are estimated to have killed between 64 and 116 civilians, including children. Since no infants were ever interned for interrogation, why don't Barack's bombs evoke the same convulsions of conscience among liberal filmmakers?

There are genuine injustices which cannot be reconciled with the values the US stands for (such as Abu Ghraib) and there are real questions that need to be asked about the War on Terror. But dramatizing a dishonest, partisan attack on the CIA does little to answer these questions, particularly when there's a compelling case that EITs saved lives at a time when timebombs were ticking.