Friday, December 13, 2019

The Report: A Necessary Antidote to Torture Propaganda


Recently I watched Amazon Studios’s The Report, written and directed by Scott Z. Burns. It’s a superb dramatization of how Senator Dianne Feinstein’s staffer Daniel Jones spent five dogged years ferreting out the truth about the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, and provides an important corrective to Jack Bauer, Zero Dark Thirty, and other such pro-torture fantasy propaganda.

I’ve followed Americas descent into torture closely over the years and lobbied against it with Human Rights First, and in my opinion the movie did admirable work getting the facts right, and presenting them in the context of a gripping story. Given that this was a movie and not an essay, I don’t think Burns could have done much better. But I do think a few thoughts are worth noting as a postscript:

1.  Senator Feinstein’s reaction to the revelation that the CIA had hacked into her staff’s computers is best understood not as at attempt to thwart lawlessness, but as an attempt to protect the system the six-term senator is part of and identifies with.

2.  Then-President Obama’s “ban” on torture should be condemned, not praised. By treaty and federal implementing legislation, torture is illegal in America. A president has no more power to prohibit than to permit it, and purporting to do so has the insidious effect of converting torture from criminality into policy--as Obama’s “ban” has indeed done.

3.  To date, none of the architects of America’s torture regime has been prosecuted. It’s worth reflecting on what this failure means with regard our cherished myth that we are a nation under the rule of law and that no one is above the law. It’s worth reflecting on how even as America imprisons more people than any other country on earth, the worst punishment Americas torturers are likely to face will be a negative portrayal in movies like The Report.

4.  To date, the 6,700-page eponymous torture report of the title--The Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agencys Detention and Interrogation Program--has not been released for public review. Only a redacted summary is publicly available. And given the widespread acceptance that a “ban” and a desire to “look forward as opposed to looking backwards” would prevent any torture recrudescence, it’s especially important that the full report see the light of day. As Daniel Jones himself notes in a recent Washington Post op-ed:

Still, five years after the release of the torture report’s executive summary, and with many of the details about the CIA program still restricted from public view, former CIA leaders continue to defend the torture program as appropriate and effective. Their influence is felt in movies such as “Zero Dark Thirty,” and at the International Spy Museum in Washington, where children can climb into a replica of the CIA’s smallest confinement box and hear a former CIA official promote the torture program as “successful,” one that “saved American lives.” This is unacceptable and indicates that declassifying the full torture report is necessary.

I hope The Report will foster greater understanding that torture is illegal, immoral, and counterproductive. For more on this topic, here are some posts Ive written over the years, sadly still relevant today.


Thanks to Geri Danton for linking to a great article about the weirdness of Jones saying, “If it’s going to come out, it has to come out the right way.” It may be that Jones really feels that way. But as I argued in a talk to the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, the notion that whistleblowing isn’t “right is logically and empirically incoherent.

Thanks to Wes V for linking to this great Intercepted podcast interview with Jones.

Finally, a friend emailed me to point out that its not just that Americas torturers havent been punished; many of them have actually prospered, for example with Gina Haspel being promoted to Director of Central Intelligence. A point ably made in the movie but I should have mentioned it myself.


Geri Danton said...

Great review. I'm glad you made that point about Senator Feinstein, who never saw a surveillance program she didn't love until she found out it was used against her. And I often say that while Bush committed torture, Obama effectively decriminalized it, which is arguably worse.

However, I'm concerned that The Report uses one of the few examples where investigating government malfeasance through official channels actually worked instead of leading to it being buried and reprisals against whoever brought it up, leading to an attitude that whistleblowing is the wrong way to go. That's discussed in this review.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for adding that, Geri--agreed with all. I read the linked Intercept article at the time and should have thought to mention it myself.

Wes V. said...

I have had a complete change of mind over the torture or intense interrogation methods employed by the US. The tortured person will eventually confess to whatever his holders want.
Peter Boyles on KNUS 710 AM Denver, has talked about this for a while now. I would like to hear you on his morning radio show.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks Wes. Societies don't turn to torture in pursuit of actionable intelligence. They turn to it for emotional reasons. But as with so much of human nature, we tell ourselves appealing fictions about our motivations because the truth would be too ugly to acknowledge. As Reinhold Niebuhr said in "Moral Man and Immoral Society," the baser self has to deceive the better self to get the better self’s buy-in for behavior it would never otherwise agree to.