‘The Report’ and the Untold Story of a Senate-C.I.A. Conflict

The spy chief came to the senators with a blunt warning.

A voluminous Senate report documenting the C.I.A.’s use of torture in secret prisons — set for release days later — could lead to riots, attacks on American embassies and the killing of American hostages overseas, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee during a conference call in December 2014, citing a classified assessment.

The call was part of a pressure campaign to keep the report under wraps, and it was having an impact. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic committee chairwoman, was wavering about making the report public, mulling an Obama administration suggestion that the release be postponed indefinitely. It seemed possible that the report, the product of more than six years of painstaking research, might never reach the American public.

But Clapper’s warning had the opposite effect, according to participants on the call, and ended up stiffening the lawmakers’ backs.

This episode is omitted from a new film treatment of the labyrinthine saga involving the Senate report — making a rare case of real life sometimes being more dramatic than the Hollywood portrayal. But the film, “The Report” (being released in theaters on Friday and on Amazon Prime on Nov. 29) is the first effort at a popular recounting of the tumultuous events surrounding the congressional investigation into the C.I.A. program and the inquiry’s conclusions, which found that the agency’s brutal interrogation methods — sometimes including torture — produced little or no intelligence of value.

The senators believed that the intelligence assessment Clapper was quoting flagrantly distorted what the Senate report had said, predicting dire consequences from the release of information that wasn’t even in the report. In their anger, they decided to push ahead and release the report.

Only the 528-page executive summary of the 6,000-page volume has been made public. Yet it is the closest thing to date to a public accounting for the C.I.A. interrogation program, the first time in history the government authorized the use of methods the United States had long considered to be illegal torture.

For the most part, the film sticks to the known facts — the producers provided an annotated script giving sources in media reports and official documents for various scenes. Its heroes and villains are sketched in black and white: Daniel Jones, a former F.B.I. employee and the lead Senate investigator played by Adam Driver, is the workaholic patriot risking his career — and perhaps his safety, the film hints — to get the truth out. The C.I.A. officers and Obama administration officials fencing with Senate staffers are portrayed as disingenuous or even malicious.

The film takes on the contentious fallout from the George W. Bush administration’s decision after the Sept. 11 attacks to approve the use of brutality in interrogations. While the Justice Department initially advised the C.I.A. in 2002 that waterboarding and other coercive techniques did not amount to torture, those legal opinions were later withdrawn.

Like other independent experts, Edward Peters, author of a history of torture and a retired University of Pennsylvania professor, said, “It was torture, no question,” and added, “But the people who ran the program were so ignorant of the history of torture they may not have known that.”

The film may scramble some viewers’ opinions of certain public figures, notably John O. Brennan, who served as counterterrorism adviser and C.I.A. director under President Barack Obama. He was a fiery fixture on MSNBC skewering President Trump during the Mueller investigation. But as played by Ted Levine, Brennan is accurately shown to be a fierce opponent of the Senate inquiry and its findings.

Through a spokesman, Nick Shapiro, Brennan said the film “fictionalizes much of what happened.” Brennan, who said he opposed the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the C.I.A., will not be influenced by blame or favor from shifting public opinion, he said.

The film shows C.I.A. officers physically entering the secure room used by Senate staffers to examine files and computers. That never happened, Shapiro said — though by all accounts C.I.A. officers did examine the contents of the computers Senate investigators used. Shapiro also said the film’s suggestion that the agency’s officers of what was then known as the Counterterrorist Center fled the building on Sept. 11, 2001, fearing another attack, was false.

James Mitchell, a psychologist who helped design the C.I.A.’s interrogation program and later personally participated in waterboarding Al Qaeda prisoners, is portrayed with dark vigor by Douglas Hodge. Mitchell (now an occasional television pundit who recently appeared on Fox News to weigh in on the impeachment saga) called the film “a work of fiction” but declined to comment further.

In 2009, Obama, loath to see his first term engulfed by arguments about the past, rejected calls for a national commission to investigate the C.I.A. program. As a result, the Senate report, completed by Democratic staffers after Republicans withdrew their support, is the closest thing to an independent evaluation of the C.I.A. program. Both the agency and Senate Republicans were highly critical of the report and its findings, and public opinion has also split along party lines.

For their part, Obama administration officials found themselves playing the role of the C.I.A.’s protectors, discouraging the release of the report’s executive summary and insisting on heavy redactions.

“They didn’t want it released,” said Senator Angus King, the Maine independent who voted with the Democrats and one Republican on the Intelligence Committee to approve the report. “I don’t think they ever would have released it.”

Clapper said he did not recall any details of the phone call with the senators but said that his major lesson from the tumult over the report was the “implications of retroactively raising a moral standard” — implying that it was an exercise in second-guessing intelligence officers who were following legal guidance at the time.

During his campaign for president, Donald J. Trump embraced torture, vowing to revive the use of waterboarding and “much worse” methods. It was the intervention of Jim Mattis, the retired general and Trump’s first defense secretary, that dissuaded the president from trying to reauthorize these techniques after the 2016 election.

Given that history, any account of the C.I.A. program and its aftermath lands in a charged political field. That will surely be the case with “The Report,” as it was when the International Spy Museum in Washington reopened in May with a room devoted to interrogation that offered contrary views of the C.I.A. program.

Curators tried not to offend either side in the bitter debate, making sure to include video clips in which the program’s architects defended it and opponents of torture denounced it. There was even a survey of museum visitors, asking them: “Would you be willing to have the U.S. government torture suspected terrorists if they may know details about future attacks?” Human rights advocates were outraged, arguing that the exhibit distorted facts and omitted crucial context. Museum officials, chagrined that some 60 percent of visitors voted in favor of torture, dropped the survey.

Vincent Houghton, historian and curator at the Spy Museum, said the new institution has taken the criticism to heart and it is planning major changes. “People say, ‘You’re celebrating torture,’” he said. “We’re not, but if people think we are, that’s our fault.”

At least one of the authors of the Senate report hopes that the dense document has a lasting legacy: to be a grim record of torture that can also be a warning.

It is, said former Senator Mark Udall of Colorado, “a resource for future leaders if and when they’re tempted to use it again.”

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