LOS ANGELES — It seems like a bad idea for a movie: A guy spends five years in the windowless basement room of a nondescript office building in Virginia reading through 6 million documents. He and his small team then write a 6,700-page report — with 38,000 footnotes and a table of contents that’s hundreds of pages long — based on what they learn. Only a handful of people ever bother to read the report, and it’s then basically locked away. The end.
But it isn’t just any office building; it’s a CIA installation. The documents are classified CIA emails and cables. And the report seeks to uncover information about the agency’s post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” program, a yearslong torture campaign in which more than 100 detainees were brutalized in secret blacksite prisons all over the world, and which remains a horrific stain on America’s reputation.
“The Report,” which comes out Nov. 15, tells the story of Daniel J. Jones, a staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee who was the lead author of the report — and who, by the time he finished, had become one of the CIA’s least favorite people.
“In other words, holy shit, what else are they lying about?”
The report itself remains classified, but in 2014, a 500-page summary was released that detailed shocking abuse and revealed that the CIA never received the kind of life-saving intelligence they claimed to have obtained via torture.
VICE News talked to the now 44-year-old Jones about his 6,700-page report, why more Americans weren’t upset by its revelations, and how to make a compelling film about a guy reading lots of emails. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did Sen. Dianne Feinstein, at the time the Democratic chair of the Intelligence Committee, choose you to head up the investigation?
I was viewed as a bipartisan staffer. I came from the FBI, where I’d been doing counterterrorism investigations. I was a data nerd, an investigations nerd — I was a safe choice. I think senators had an idea that I was less political than most; I briefed both Republican and Democratic members of the committee. Republicans were like, “Oh, yeah, we can work with him.”
And how many other people worked with you on the report?
I’d say there were four core people.
So four people read more than 6 million documents to write a 6,700-page report that had 38,000 footnotes?
It is kind of crazy when you think back on it, but that’s why it became an obsessive nonstop endeavor. I do remember being frustrated that I didn’t have a larger staff. But you work with what you have.
“Nobody's going through those 6.3 million pages again.”
You’re tasked with a sweeping investigation of a notoriously secretive agency doing something that was especially secretive even for them. Where the hell do you start?
With the detainees. It's not like we got 6.3 million pages of documents the first day; it happened over many years. We asked for detainee records first. So we’d get them for a detainee, dump them into a folder, and go through them. And then the next detainee, and then the next.
The report provides details about the torture of 119 detainees in all. Do you think there were more?
Oh, yes. Without a doubt. We made an early request that the CIA provide us with a list of all of their detainees, but the agency never could because they had no idea how many people they detained. One thing that haunts me is the stuff that didn't make it into the report — all kinds of allegations that we just couldn't corroborate. And those things are lost to history. Nobody's going through those 6.3 million pages again.
You think there were also more abuses?
The CIA maintains to this day that there are records of only three detainees being waterboarded, but there were clearly more than three people who were waterboarded. We found a picture of a waterboard at a detention site where there were no records of any waterboarding taking place, but it had clearly been used: There were buckets around it, it was old and rusted. When we asked the agency about it, they simply said they could not explain the presence of the waterboard. It just tells you how little we know, even with 6.3 million pages of documents.
The full report will first be eligible for declassification in nine years — though it may take much longer than that. What do you think the public’s reaction to it will be?
I think people will be overwhelmed with the amount of detail. Things that are covered in a few pages in the executive summary are given hundreds of pages in the full report.
“The CIA essentially cannot submit to civilian oversight, because it treats civilian oversight with disdain.“
How many people do you think have read the entire executive summary?
A lot of people bought the book version of it, which was on the bestseller list. But someone told me at the time, “You know, people aren't reading it. It just looks cool to have on your bookshelf.” And man, I gotta tell you, it's a huge disappointment to me that when I talk to people, even in the communities who you think would have spent a lot of time with it, they just haven’t. My bet is, globally, under 1,000 people have read the whole thing. I actually find academics or researchers or journalists overseas are far more familiar with it than the same kinds of people in the U.S.
And how many have read the full classified report?
Jesus, I think it would be 10, maybe. Maybe.
President Donald Trump presumably isn’t one of those people. He’s actually expressed enthusiasm for torture. Do you think he could lead the U.S. to use torture again?
I think it's unlikely, though some people say I'm naive about that. I think that if you read the report, [the ineffectiveness and immorality of torture] is an open-and-shut case. But if not many people have read it and learned the lessons from it, then maybe I'm totally off base.
Trump ignores or even ridicules the U.S. intelligence community when they present him with information he doesn’t like. What kinds of risks does that create?
I think the real risk is the numerous times he has unnecessarily released classified national security information to parties which he should not. Foreign governments may see this and become unwilling to share intelligence with us because they can't trust the U.S.
The current CIA director, Gina Haspel, ordered the torture of at least one detainee and later participated in the unauthorized and arguably unlawful destruction of videotapes of interrogations, thereby preventing them from being seen by congressional oversight committees. What does it mean that she could do all of that and still be nominated and confirmed as director?
It sends a message that you can violate your own director’s orders and not be held accountable for it, and then in fact be rewarded for it. Why? Because you're not listening to your director’s orders if you think they run contrary to protecting the agency.
“I mean, color me unimpressed. 'We won’t do this again.' Well, no shit. Your own agency says it was a complete clusterfuck.”
If you protect the agency among all else — and that means not listening to the president, not listening to the director of the CIA, not listening to agency lawyers — it's OK if your intention was to protect the agency's reputation.
Do you think Haspel has changed? She vowed never to begin another “enhanced interrogation” program in her confirmation testimony.
I mean, color me unimpressed. “We won’t do this again.” Well, no shit. Your own agency says it was a complete clusterfuck. And you had the largest report in Senate history about it. And you broke international and domestic law. So what a major leap for you to say you won't do it again.
What did you expect the public’s reaction would be when the report came out in 2014?
I knew that people would respond to the program being brutal, terrible, wrong, ineffective. But I always thought people would be shocked on a bipartisan basis about the lies the CIA told the Department of Justice and two presidents from two different parties. In other words, holy shit, what else are they lying about? How do we know that whatever the CIA is doing on nuclear proliferation or drone programs or other counterterrorism or whatever it is, that they're providing accurate information to the president of the United States? How can we trust this organization to act in a responsible and ethical manner in terms of providing accurate information to those who need to know it? The CIA essentially cannot submit to civilian oversight, because it treats civilian oversight with disdain.
The CIA does a pretty good job of using the media to make itself look good.
They did a major press job when the report was released. They had people on every television channel saying the report was wrong, even though they couldn't identify any factual errors. They'd say, “Well, they’re errors of context — it was a tough time after 9/11.” As if it’s OK to do really shitty, ridiculous things just because you're scared. You want an agency that responds soberly and effectively after a national security crisis, not one that does massively ineffective shit outside the boundaries of law.
Why didn’t anyone at the CIA stop the torture program when it was clear it wasn’t yielding any results?
The agency itself, decades before, had determined torture was ineffective. And then throughout the program after 9/11, there were people at the agency who were like, “This ain’t working.” But remember, the legality of the entire program relied on the techniques working. If they didn’t lead to captures, if they didn’t stop terrorist plots, then by the Department of Justice’s own legal opinions, the techniques weren’t legal.
The 2012 movie “Zero Dark Thirty” sold itself as the true story of how the U.S. found and killed Osama bin Laden — and it showed the CIA finding him thanks to information gathered by torturing detainees. You were… not a fan?
I actually saw it with Sen. Feinstein at a screening before it was released, and she got up and stormed out halfway through. Outside she happened to run into the president of Sony Pictures, and she told him the movie was totally false. The info the CIA gave the filmmakers while they were making the movie was not too far off from the lies the agency was telling President Obama and Congress at the time.
How did [“The Report” writer and director Scott Z. Burns] make a movie about writing a report? There must be some liberties taken to make it seem more dramatic than it was.
Things had to be condensed, and there are composite characters, but the movie didn’t need to be Hollywood-ized or dramatized. At one point Adam Driver asked if we were overplaying a certain scene, and I was like, “Well, what happened was actually far worse.”
”[H]opefully the film will make the impact that I thought the report was going to make.”
We only have two hours for the film, so one small scene may have to be representative of, like, 20 terrible things that occurred. So Scott was actually underplaying this. We’re not taking any liberties here.
Why is it such an uphill battle to convince people that torture is bad?
It’s maddening. Torture is like a plague that has always followed humanity. The idea that torture works has been Hollywood-ized, from “24” to “Zero Dark Thirty,” because it's really helpful if you have only an hour to tell a story to put a knife in someone and then they give up information. But as Adam says in the film, you get false information. We've known for thousands of years that torture actually does not work. And yet it sticks with us, we can't dislodge it.
Do you expect that longtime conception of torture to change now?
We did very well in the media when the report came out. We had front-page coverage literally all over the world, but it lasted for 24 or 48 hours — and then poof, it was gone. That's the news cycle. If you want to penetrate society, culturally, you need storytelling and narrative, so this film will reach way more people than the 500-page declassified summary of the report. And hopefully the film will make the impact that I thought the report was going to make.
Cover: In this March 3, 2005 file photo, a workman slides a dustmop over the floor at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)