The once-obscure official, whose loyalty is to American values and the U.S. government and not to any political party, shines in the spotlight.
Ambassador William Taylor? Yes — and George Kent and Marie Yovanovitch and likely several other envoys and officers testifying at the impeachment hearings.
But it also could describe Daniel J. Jones, a Senate staffer who dedicated the better part of a decade of his life, often in a windowless basement office, to shed light on the U.S. use of torture in the post-9/11 era.
The redacted result of Jones’ selfless service, a 525-page version of a 6,700-page report based on more than 6 million pages of evidence commonly called the Senate Torture Report, is the subject of a gripping film, “The Report,” that premiered locally Friday at the St. Anthony Main Theater.
Jones was an unannounced panelist at a recent MSP Film Society post-screening discussion that was moderated by Scott Roehm, director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) — an organization that’s a global leader in providing treatment to torture victims and, just as profoundly, preventing the further use of the illegal and immoral practice.
Introduced by the film’s writer and director, Golden Valley native Scott Z. Burns, Jones (played by Adam Driver), was met with a deeply appreciative ovation, reflecting his heroics depicted in the film. And perhaps more broadly, for the kind of quiet competence that inspires confidence in a shaken nation that there is still a cohort of patriotic public servants willing to do the right thing.
Without mentioning the impeachment inquiry directly, Jones said that, “One of the things that keeps coming up again and again is the lack of accountability; people have a certain sense that we are in an accountability crisis in our society right now.”
This crisis includes but transcends today’s issue facing Washington (and the world, really, considering the geopolitics of Ukraine scandal). But it predates this presidential era and was especially present in reckoning with the response to 9/11.
People “kind of have a sense that post-9/11 we were going to look forward, not backward, but they don’t have a full understanding of just how bad the lack of accountability was through this whole process,” Jones said. “We’re talking to audiences like this who follow the news, who are engaged, and it was a surprise to them. When it [the report] came out in 2014, it was front-page coverage all around the world.
“And the next day it wasn’t.”
But the ramifications still are. In fact, according to an NPR report this week, “Torture is a major reason there has still been no trial — and may never be one — for alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other Guantánamo prisoners.”
That aspect is also included in CVT’s “15 Facts about the CIA Torture Program” document, which provides detailed evidence on how the program “did not work,” was “never legal” and was “unprofessional and inept,” among other legacies of this national stain.
Torture doesn’t just afflict its victims: Many involved in the program are also broken, retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis told attendees at the screening.
And its institutional impact is important, too, Xenakis said. “The film captures something that those of us who have been in uniform have really established and [that has] grounded us. ... Most importantly ... we defend this country, we honor this country, we honor our democracy. And the fundamentals of that are the rule of law and accountability.”
Xenakis, a psychiatrist, seemed stricken that the practice could be hijacked by hucksters like contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who CVT reports did not have “any relevant experience as an interrogator, any knowledge of al-Qaida, or any science to justify their methods.” Burns, who mentioned that his mother was a psychologist, said that, “The notion that someone could weaponize that was really deplorable to me.”
His initial interest in the subject matter came from a Vanity Fair article, “Rorschach and Awe,” about the contract psychologists, Burns said. He even considered creating a dark comedy like “Dr. Strangelove.”
“But after Dan and I started talking, and I had a better understanding of what really went on, it became inconceivable to me that this was going to be any sort of comedy at all, and I wanted to tell a story about somebody trying to tell a story, and trying to get the truth out.”
The depiction of Jones trying to tell that story is gripping. Harder to watch — but necessary to see, in the film and in public-policy circles — are scenes recreating the torture itself.
“It really takes the power of narration and storytelling to penetrate culture and change culture,” said Jones, who later added that the prospect of torture returning “is a lot less likely after Scott Burns putting out this script and putting out this movie.”
Other movies about the era, including the Oscar-nominated “Zero Dark Thirty,” depicted a different image of torture, or as it’s often euphemistically, and wrongly, called, enhanced interrogation techniques.
Burns said that “The Report” wasn’t a retort to that film. “The narrative that I wanted to loose into the culture was that this is a story about right and wrong, not about right and left,” Burns said.
“There’s plenty of blame to go around here,” he added, naming the CIA and George W. Bush’s administration, among other institutions and individuals.
“There’s a whole list of people,” said Burns. “But we also should remember that even though Barack Obama got rid of this program, he did not hold people accountable. And that to me is the narrative. So it wasn’t about a corrective at all for me. It was about people understanding that the moment that we’re living through right now, is traceable to the failure to hold anyone accountable for quite some time.”
Whether witnesses currently testifying, who, like Jones, have the courage to uphold their country’s convictions, will result in accountability may indeed define this era — and in Burns’ formulation, perhaps the next.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.