War on Terror

To See How Our Last 'War on Terror' Went Awry, Watch The Report

The CIA and its defenders insisted that torture would help keep America safe. They were wrong.


"You have to make this work! It's only legal if it works!" yells a CIA functionary overseeing the torture of prisoners in overseas black sites.

She's yelling at the two smarmy psychologists who came to the CIA to design and encourage the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques"—torture—on the men the CIA had secreted away after the September 11 attacks. The psychologists had insisted these measures would result in the CIA learning new actionable intelligence to help keep Americans safe from new terror attacks. It wasn't working.

It seems unlikely that an actual CIA leader would yell something so on-the-nose, but this is The Report, a Hollywood attempt to dramatize not just the CIA torture that took place under President George W. Bush but the concealment of these tactics (from Congress and Bush himself), the fight by the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate what happened, and ultimately the Obama administration's failure to hold anybody to account for some truly terrible behavior.

The name of the movie is actually The Torture Report, but the word "torture" is cleverly redacted to indicate the secrecy level. The torture is not redacted from the movie, though; all of it (including waterboarding and a forced enema) is re-enacted in vivid flashbacks. The protagonist—investigator Daniel Jones, portrayed by Adam Driver—attempts to determine what happened at these CIA sites, why, and what laws might have been broken in the process.

The investigation itself (which was supported at first by almost the entire Senate Intelligence Committee only to see it become a partisan battleground during Obama's presidency) represents only half the movie. The other half is the massive struggle to try to get any of the information into the hands of the public. We see how the CIA attempted to block its release and even engaged in illegal surveillance against the Senate staff, then accused the staffers of hacking into the computer system of America's spy agency.

The movie's available now on Amazon Prime. It's a good time to watch it, given the American drone strike that just took out Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani. As information about the torture became public knowledge, the government's defenders insisted that this unauthorized and brutal behavior helped protect Americans and provided valuable actionable intelligence. But Jones' investigation showed that the torture failed to provide the CIA with any intelligence it didn't already have or was able to access by other means, a conclusion that was also reached by the CIA itself in an internal report (known as the Panetta Report after former CIA Director Leon Panetta). The investigation showed that many of the detainees the CIA tortured shouldn't have been taken in the first place and didn't even have useful information to share.

In hindsight, we can see that none of this helped stabilize the Middle East in any substantial way. We are most certainly not safer as a country as a result of the CIA's torture methods. One lesson of The Report is that people in positions of power have a vested interest in telling us that whatever brutal actions they back will help keep America safe, even if that's not really true.

And to be clear here, this is not a #Resistance movie. While The Report accurately portrays Senate Democrats as leaders who kept the investigation going, it also makes clear that the Obama administration is one of the forces working against them. Ted Levine plays former CIA Director John Brennan as a cocky and obnoxious jerk who seems interested only in protecting the CIA from criticism. Brennan, who tried to get Jones fired and possibly even charged with a crime, is unmistakably presented as a villain; his current critiques of the Trump administration do not shield him from criticism.

The film's handling of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D–Calif.), by a no-nonsense Annette Bening, is also interesting. The Report does not shy away from Feinstein's authoritarian streak. She declares at one point in the movie that she believes whistleblower Edward Snowden is a traitor, and she later mentions her support for Obama's secret drone warfare (newly relevant after Thursday's assassination). Nobody challenges her views, unfortunately, but the movie also pivots from giving her the big anti-torture speech at the end to showing an actual clip of deceased Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) giving a speech on the Senate floor opposing the use of torture by the CIA.

The Report ends on the dour real-world reminder that there's been no real punishment of the people involved in the decision to torture detainees—or even for the CIA staff who illegally snooped on Jones' work. The current director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, oversaw one of the black sites in Thailand where waterboarding occurred. Brennan is now a television news regular as an intelligence analyst and expert. Advisors who push the country in harsh and violent directions rarely pay a price when they're wrong. Keep that in mind as these same voices insist that whatever violence the Trump administration has in mind for Iran will make our country and the Middle East safer.