Watching the new Amazon movie “The Report,” which is streaming online, is an unusually painless way to discharge some of your civic duty. It is a dry and able dramatization of the life of a Senate investigation into the U.S. use of torture after Sept. 11, a style that fits the subject like a bespoke suit.
In 2008, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, serving then as now on the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, launched an investigation into the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of interrogations of terrorism suspects at overseas black sites. Feinstein was not a hero, just a seasoned senator trying to do the right thing no matter which party has the White House.
She delegated the work to a Senate staffer, Daniel J. Jones, whose small team read 6 million pages of classified CIA torture-related memos and reports.
Over several years, as “The Report” shows, Jones made three great discoveries:
The CIA had condoned torture before, and even directed it, but after Sept. 11, it was conducting it. And it did not work. Partly this was also because, in some instances, the CIA held and tortured people who had no information to give. We tortured bystanders.
Executive legal memos notwithstanding, “enhanced interrogation” was not just immoral but also illegal by the George W. Bush administration’s own lights, since it was only legal if the methods produced useful information.
And Jones discovered senior CIA staff knew torture was not working, knew it was illegal and sought to conceal it and their knowledge of it.
In the reputational lives of nations, this is about as bad a situation as can be. To the extent we think, rightly sometimes, America is exceptional, it is only worse. One measure of patriotism is standing up to it.
It did not happen by chance. There were senior people in the CIA, embarrassed and afraid after Sept. 11, who were directed to stop the next attack by any means necessary. That failure of leadership went almost to the top of the Bush administration. Two CIA contractors, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, sold bogus torture techniques, which the CIA’s acting general counsel called “sadistic and terrifying,” to a surprisingly incurious spy agency.
But once Jones has assembled a picture of this wickedness – so the people will be told, in the hopes it will never happen again – he and Feinstein hit a new roadblock. President Barack Obama’s chief of staff in his second term, Denis McDonough, wants the report suppressed, defanged and bowdlerized, to avoid antagonizing the intelligence community and Republicans who guard Bush’s legacy.
The Obama administration will be able to do more good by moving on and striving for bipartisanship, he contends.
We should bookmark that passage, because there may yet come a day when a Democratic president sits in the White House and is confronted with similar choices regarding what transpired in the Trump years.
The report was finally issued at the end of 2014 in a truncated form and using pseudonyms for some government officials. Did we ever have a moment of reckoning?
No one lost his job or went to jail. Some CIA officials connected with the torture program were promoted.
“One of the strengths that makes America exceptional is our willingness to openly confront our past, face our imperfections, make changes and do better,” Obama said when the report was released.
Five years on, that feels less like a statement than an open question.