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Scott Z. Burns On 'The Report'

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A new film shows one of the darker chapters of the U.S. war on terror after September 11. It's called "The Report." And it's the story of how the CIA came to adopt the use of torture as part of its intelligence-gathering operations and how the Senate Intelligence Committee brought this program to light through an investigative report.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE REPORT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK. But if nobody who actually worked on the program is going to talk to us, how do we investigate?

ADAM DRIVER: (As Daniel Jones) So we have the files, their emails and cables, their memos. We have to use their own communications to tell the story.

MARTIN: That's Adam Driver there playing the Senate staffer who led the grueling six-year investigation. That staffer's real name is Daniel Jones. And earlier this week, he talked with All Things Considered about the impact of that report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DANIEL JONES: We were front page of newspapers around the world for 24 to 48 hours. But given the news cycle - and then it's gone. And what you really need is narrative and storytelling to penetrate culture. And I hope that this film is a piece of that.

MARTIN: Crafting that narrative fell to Scott Burns. He wrote and directed the movie. And I spoke with him recently about that weighty responsibility, turning a 6,000-page report into an on-screen story that people could connect to.

SCOTT Z BURNS: It started out really as an exploration of the program that these two psychologists sold to the CIA after 9/11, claiming that they had some sort of magical special sauce that would make people talk. And, you know, what that really was was medieval torture. But eventually, I was led to the report. And also I became aware of Daniel's story and this incredibly Kafkaesque odyssey he went on to get this study out into the world.

MARTIN: So let's talk about why he spends these years in these kind of soulless rooms putting the pieces together, reading emails, reading memos. What was he trying to answer?

BURNS: This all began because at one point, there was an awareness in Congress that the CIA had made tapes of various interrogations. And they had asked to see them. And those tapes were destroyed by officers at the CIA after that request had been made known. And Daniel began with a two-year investigation into what was on the tapes. He presented those findings to the Senate intelligence committee. And the conclusions of Dan's initial study were so alarming that that committee voted 14-to-1 to have him go forward.

And that sent Dan on a five-year odyssey to look at the entire scope of how this program came to be. Was it effective? Was it legal? What sort of obfuscations went on between the CIA and, really, two administrations - both Bush and Obama - and Congress and the American people?

MARTIN: I want to ask about the interrogation scenes. They're obviously disturbing. I imagine you had to make some difficult decisions about how to treat those, what to depict, what not to depict. Can you walk us through how you approached those scenes?

BURNS: Yeah. It's probably the part of the movie that caused all of us the most reflection. And, you know, there were early drafts that I did that didn't include any of those scenes. And initially, I had thought that that should be my goal.

MARTIN: Why?

BURNS: I think that's personal for me. I didn't really want to be on set and asking people to do brutal things. I didn't want the audience to have to look at that. And then I had a conversation during my research with a gentleman named Alberto Mora, who was the Navy's general counsel during the program. And he said, are you going to show these techniques? And I said, I'm not sure. I'm still trying to sort that out.

And he said, but if you don't do it, aren't you perpetuating the sin of the CIA in this? Aren't you concealing what this really looks like? And I was persuaded that I have to use the tools of a visual medium to make sure that people understand what exactly was done to these men and that it was done without gaining the intelligence that would save lives as the CIA had told us it would.

MARTIN: So Dan does all this work over six years, comes up with these very important findings. And there are all kinds of interests who don't want to see that released. Why?

BURNS: Well, I think there are two sources of pushback. The first one is obviously the CIA not wanting to be seen as having conducted a program that was this brutal and this ineffective. I think beyond that - and the agency may have had influence in this - was this fear that they tried to inculcate into Congress and the Obama presidency that by revealing these things, it would cause ISIS and the people in the region who want to hurt us, that it would somehow fire them up in some new way and cause damage to the coalition that we had put together to fight ISIS. None of that happened when the report came out.

MARTIN: And the Obama White House was more interested in looking forward, not in the past.

BURNS: Yeah. You know, Barack Obama said that we should turn the page. And I think this goes to the heart of a big question that America needs to face. And it became one of the larger sort of issues that the film has to take on is, do we believe in accountability? Does Congress exist to hold the executive branch accountable?

That larger issue really began to influence my thinking about this story, that when you never hold anyone accountable, then you allow these things to continue. And I think some of the difficulties we're seeing in just how the government can operate find their antecedents in these past events. You know, history isn't discrete, you know, events. They have a knock-on effect.

MARTIN: Scott Burns - he wrote and directed the new film about the CIA's enhanced interrogation program. It is called "The Report." Thank you so much for talking with us.

BURNS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF METHENY-MEHLDAU QUARTET'S "TOWARDS THE LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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