When Daniel Jones was asked by the Senate to investigate the extreme interrogation of suspected al-Qaeda operatives, he was thwarted at every turn. What he discovered would haunt him forever. Hugo Rifkind hears his incredible story.
For years, Daniel J Jones worked in a windowless room in Virginia, poring over documents detailing acts that can only be described as torture. Over and over again, he read about wall-slams and beatings, people waterboarded until their eyes rolled back and the liquid bubbled from their nose. Some were kept awake for days in bright rooms amid deafening noises, or had power drills placed against temples, or were forcibly rehydrated, rectally, or were nailed into coffin-sized boxes packed with crawling insects and left to scream.
All of this, Jones read, noted, catalogued, weekends and weekdays alike, late into the night. And then, when he'd finally get home at one or two in the morning, he'd crawl into bed next to his sleeping, neglected girlfriend and often unwind by reading Game of Thrones.
"Just to clear my head," he tells me. "I read the entire series. On my phone. In the dark."
But some of it, I say, is not all that different from what you were reading the rest of the time. Although right after saying that, I feel a bit foolish, because probably it was. Then I ask him how long it took to get it all out of his head.
"It will never be out of my head," he says.
It feels odd to be discussing torture in the sun-dappled courtyard of a London restaurant. We pick over the menu; we ponder whether to have drinks; we prepare to discuss a movie full of terrified, naked men, screaming in subterranean corridors. Jones, though, is surprisingly sunny. We're here to talk about the Scott Z Burns- directed The Report, a film in which Jones is played by Adam Driver, otherwise known as Kylo Ren from Star Wars. The film covers Jones' years as an inhouse investigator for the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, working mainly for the veteran Democrat senator Dianne Feinstein, played by Annette Bening. From his portrayal, I'd expected somebody intense from Planet Wonk – intense, cross, maybe even a bit dandruffy.
Instead, in what must be a rarity for real-life drama, he's almost certainly better-looking than the actor who plays him. What's more, he's chatty, wry, frankly fun. Although maybe, for a while, he wasn't. Particularly not when he almost went to jail. We'll come to that in a bit.
On America and torture, it's very easy to forget what we all knew when. Most of us probably recall the scandal of Abu Ghraib in 2004, when images of the abuse of detainees in an Iraqi prison were leaked and caused scandal around the world. Perhaps, though, we forget that the US line was that this was a rogue, freak occurrence.
"We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture," said President George W Bush at the time. The idea was that the brutality of Abu Ghraib was quite distinct from the "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EIT) used by the CIA on suspected al-Qaeda militants. Whereas the former was cruel, malicious and chaotic, the latter was supposed to have been careful, delicate and, above all, scientific.
It was Jones who, by studying the CIA's own records, found that this simply wasn't true. Rather, he found, the CIA's routine interrogation of al-Qaeda suspects had been every bit as grisly as Abu Ghraib, and at times far worse. Only that's not all he found, because he also discovered that, as an interrogation technique, it didn't even work. What's more, he learnt that the CIA itself knew this perfectly well, and kept pretending otherwise. This, we shall also come back to.
The fact that many people still, even now, consider it a debatable point as to whether torture works is, for Jones, a source of deep bemusement and frustration.
"There's an exhibit right now," he says, "at the Spy Museum in Washington DC. On torture. And it's like, 'Oh, who knows?' and I'm like, 'I spent seven years of my life producing a 7,000-page report!' Like, read it!"
The idea that torture works is also, of course, at the heart of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, to which The Report can be seen as somewhere between a companion piece and a corrective. Bigelow's film concerns the killing of Osama bin Laden, and along the way suggests very strongly that his whereabouts was discovered thanks to waterboarding. When the film came out, the Senate committee had received but not yet published Jones' full report, which stated very clearly that none of that was true at all. Except, it was in the movies.
"Maddening," says Jones. "It's propaganda, right? It's CIA propaganda." Yet he has, he says, complete sympathy for Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal. "They were the insiders," he says. "The CIA called them after the Bin Laden raid and said, 'Come on in, we have a project for you.' And everything the CIA told Kathryn and Mark, they also told the president of the United States! And Congress!" Jones tells me he saw the film with Senator Feinstein. "She walked out," he says.
Afterwards, along with Senator John McCain, Feinstein issued a statement calling it "grossly inaccurate and misleading". Jones' report, which proved this to be true, would remain unpublished for the next two years. Although we'll have to come back to that too.
Now in his early forties, Jones grew up in "the middle of Pennsylvania". After graduating, he spent three years doing Teach for America – the American equivalent of Teach First – in what he calls an "under-resourced" school in Baltimore. From there he went to the Kennedy School at Harvard, with a plan to study global poverty (before presumably fixing it) under the economist Jeffrey Sachs. This, though, was autumn 2001, and the day his classes began was 9/11. "And I switched to doing national security work," he says. "And I was certainly not alone in doing that."
His first degree, at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, had involved a study of marginalised religious groups, in that case Anabaptists. "Oddly," he says, "it applied to al-Qaeda and other groups, just the other way around." On graduation he was recruited into the FBI and spent the next few years working on counterterrorism. "It was a time when it was absolutely nonstop," he says. "It was in a group called the International Terrorism Operations Section." Although US-based, he was often in the UK. "I was here quite a bit," he says. "They were worldwide plots. And there's always a link to the US with a phone number, a cousin, whatever. It was a pretty hectic schedule. Sometimes seven days a week, missing holidays, things like that."
By 2007, though, he'd decided he wanted to see the bigger picture. "And there's no better place to do that than the Senate intelligence committee, right?" he says. "There are very few places in the US government that give you the 50,000ft view of what intelligence communities do." So he got a job there, and pretty soon became the committee's chief investigator. You know those people who make you wonder what the hell you've been doing with your life?
Actually, The Report is about two reports. The first came about at the end of Jones' first year working for the Senate, after a New York Times story stating that the CIA had destroyed videotapes of the "enhanced" interrogation of two of their first detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who both remain in Guantanamo Bay to this day. This came as a surprise to the committee, because despite having questioned the CIA about such interrogations often, they had never even been told there were tapes to destroy. Questioned as to why all of this had happened, the CIA protested that it hardly mattered, because records still existed of everything the tapes contained. Whereupon the Senate said, "Let us read them, then," and sent Jones and a colleague to write it all up. It took them a year.
"It was like the Encylopaedia Britannica," says Jones. "We read every piece and we wrote a report." At the back of it, he says, he put a spreadsheet timeline of everything that had been done to Abu Zubaydah. There were three columns: one, the time; the second, what they did to him; the third, Abu Zubaydah's reaction. "And it would say something like, 6.03am, waterboard is rolled out; 6.05, Abu Zubaydah is placed on the waterboard; 6.07, we started pouring ..."
Jones is in the middle of saying this when the waiter arrives with our lunch. I'm having a jackfruit salad. Him, the caesar salad, but with prawns.
"It was 17 days of pure torture," he goes on. "Including 83 waterboarding sessions. Sleep deprivation. Time confined in a coffin-shaped box. Or a much smaller box. Like a beer keg." And then, by contrast, despite this man's secret knowledge being apparently so vital for national security that all of this had been deemed necessary, he was left in isolation for 47 days.
All of this was a long way from the picture of gradual, scientific interrogation that the CIA had formerly presented to the committee. When the committee got that report, he says, he'd expected that their first reaction would be fury that the CIA had lied to them, for years, about what was going on in facilities around the world. Instead, it was horror at the content. "This was clearly torture," he says. "Regardless of your political views."
As a result, the committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, 14-1, voted to investigate the rest of the EIT programme too.
This time it took him three years. Being reluctant to let their documents leave their own premises, the CIA negotiated a complex agreement with the Senate that involved Jones and his team working in a sealed room on a CIA site, which the CIA promised not to access. Their computer network, the team was told, was isolated. Periodically, the agency would dump documents on it for them to scrutinise. There were 6.3 million of them. Quite often, says Jones, they'd give him stuff they clearly hadn't meant to, about other matters entirely. And, every night, when he finally left, a security guard would ask him if he was removing anything he ought not to be. And, every night, he'd say, "No." It was a ritual.
By the end, he was spending so much time away from natural light, he says, that he lost track of what season it was. Much like the people he was reading about, you could have told him it was snowing and he wouldn't even have known it was July. The long-suffering girlfriend was long gone too. As Driver puts it in the film, he was not a good partner.
The film covers many of the complications Jones and his team faced during this time, such as CIA obstructionism, and a parallel Department of Justice investigation that got in the way, with the Republican half of the committee pulling co-operation, supposedly as a result, halfway through. Never mind all that, though. The fascinating thing is what he was learning, which was not only that the CIA's torture programme had been huge. It was also that there was no evidence it had provided any actual intelligence. Like, literally none. Zilch. Not a bean.
At least 119 detainees were interrogated by the CIA, in sites in various countries. I probably don't need to list for you, yet again, the sorts of things done to them. At least one man had died. And yet, says Jones' three-volume report, it was all for nothing. Volume 2 focuses on 20 cases in which the CIA had, at various points, said these techniques had been required to learn this or that about either al-Qaeda or imminent attacks. Jones said he'd thought some were bound to be accurate, but instead he found that none was. "And," he says, "you begin to think, 'Am I crazy here?' "
He wasn't, though, and the CIA knew it. Among the millions of documents that his team studied, one was a report known as the Panetta Review. Conducted for Leon Panetta, appointed CIA director in 2009, it had come to much the same conclusions that Jones did, putting an end to "enhanced interrogation" precisely because it didn't work. As an internal, secret report, though, its existence had never been admitted, even to the Senate. To this day, Jones says he doesn't know why they gave it to him. Maybe, he says, it was a mistake. Or maybe somebody as yet unknown deliberately wanted him to see it. Either way, this was the document that could have sent him to jail.
By the end of 2012 the report was finished, close to 7,000 pages, and had been delivered to the Senate and shown to the CIA and the White House. That didn't mean, though, that the truth was out. Instead, a strange, semi-public slanging match began, with Feinstein and McCain leading the charge to publish, but the committee's Republican vice-chairman, the brilliantly named Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, thinking that the CIA had been hard done by. For Democrats, another complication was that one John O. Brennan, mentioned often in the report, was at the time going through confirmation hearings as Barack Obama's new CIA director.
He was at the helm by the time the CIA replied, six months later, claiming to have "detailed significant errors in the study" and demanding changes and retractions. At around the same time, Feinstein publicly complained about "persistent media leaks by anonymous officials regarding the CIA's response". One complaint was that the report was based entirely on documents and included no interviews, which was true, but rich, given that the CIA had systematically refused to be interviewed.
For Jones, the obvious foil to these attacks was the Panetta Review, which showed the CIA privately agreed with him, even while it publicly said it didn't. It was at around this time that he took a copy of the review from his office at the CIA and put it in a safe at the Senate. In the film, Driver simply ignores the ritual questioning from the security guard and marches out. In real life, I ask Jones, was this a thing he decided to do all by himself? Or was it a team effort? There's a long pause.
"I think that's one of the ones I leave off the table," he says.
As he did it, he says, he felt mainly relief.
"This is a report that not only is corroborative of our report," he says, "but goes further in many areas. And while that report exists, the CIA is out there denigrating our report? This is an organisation that destroyed interrogation videotapes. Leaving it at the CIA seemed to be not an option."
Almost certainly, removing it wasn't illegal, but it was a violation of the agreement between the Senate and the CIA. The real drama, though, began when another senator from the committee, Mark Udall of Colorado, mentioned the report in a public hearing, as a deliberate shot across the CIA's bows. In the movie, Adam Driver sits in the background as he does so. The real-life footage, which is on YouTube, is no less dramatic. You can see Jones sitting in the background, taking notes, poker-faced.
In response, the CIA raided Jones' office, to which it was not supposed to have access, and accused him, or at least his team, of having obtained the Panetta Review via a hack.
"Hilarious," he says. "Nonsense." Or, as Driver's fictionalised Jones puts it, "I can barely use Microsoft Word." In reality, I'm not sure he's quite that bad. "Oh, come on, man," he protests, when I probe his computer skills. As far as he knew, his team's computers weren't even connected to the CIA's network, given that this was what they had always been told. He could, he insists, no more hack into the CIA than I could. Either way, the film begins with him meeting a lawyer, fearful of his future and liberty, and Jones says this did, indeed, happen. The more realistic fear, though, was that he would be fired.
Instead, Feinstein fought back on his behalf. By law, the CIA is not supposed to spy on American citizens, least of all the Senate. By any interpretation, in raiding Jones' office, this was indeed what they had done. "Senate-CIA Dispute Erupts Into a Public Brawl" was how The Wall Street Journal put it. Feinstein accused the CIA of violating the constitution. Brennan retorted by flatly denying that the CIA had done anything wrong at all. Six months later, he'd apologise.
Or maybe The Report is about three reports. The last was the one Jones put together after all that; a 683-page summary of the 7,000 pages that had gone before. This is the one you can read, freely available online, and his great hope for the film is that people will. He left the Senate a few months after completing it. On his last day, Feinstein paid tribute to him from the Senate floor, ensuring he was remembered in the Congressional Record, the US version of Hansard. A few months earlier, the Senate had approved the Feinstein-McCain Amendment, which explicitly banned all the bad stuff, in law.
Jones still lives in Washington. Today, he divides his time between running the Penn Quarter Group, which calls itself "a research and investigative advisory", and Advance Democracy, a non-profit group that studies electoral interference. He won't discuss either in detail on the record. Last year, The New Yorker linked him with investigations into the Russian financial connections of Donald Trump. I daresay another character with his name might turn up in another movie before too long.
Looking back, says Jones, it's a story that typifies the worst and the best of America. "The worst being that we can engage in a torture programme. And the best being, like, how many countries would do a public report on a really embarrassing part of their history? And expose it?" He is an enthusiast for oversight, transparency and accountability, believing that the CIA was allowed to spiral out of control precisely because it was opaque and nobody could see what was going on.
And yet, liken him to other intelligence transparency enthusiasts such as Edward Snowden, and he gets decidedly thin-lipped. "Stolen documents are stolen documents," he says. Snowden went to a newspaper and fled the country; Jones worked for the Senate and reported back to it. As a last resort, he says, he can imagine a situation where, faced with major crime, and having failed with all law enforcement authorities, he might show a reporter an email. But this? He even picks me up for describing the revelation of the Panetta Review as a leak. "It's complete bullshit that's a leak," he says. "I worked for the Senate. I'm doing my job. It drives me nuts."
The film world, he has found, is not so different from the world of politics. "Actually, I find DC and Los Angeles to be extremely similar cities," he tells me. Both are industry towns. You can go to a party in DC, he says, and the conversation descends into "detailed lobbying on the farm bill subsidies, and you're, like, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?' " And then, he says, you can go to a party in glitzy LA, and people are talking about agents in much the same way. He's there once a month, he says. He also spends a lot of time in New York, San Francisco and London. He doesn't seem to have slowed down much.
It's two years now since he first met Adam Driver for a drink in the Roxy Hotel in New York. He met Scott Z Burns, the writer and director, shortly before. In its original iteration, startlingly, The Report was to be a dark comedy. Instead, Burns has condensed a hideously complex story into a gripping narrative, in a process that I suppose is analogous to what Jones himself did, twice over. Jones spent a lot of time on set. He'd sit working on his laptop, he says, and occasionally somebody would say, "Where's the real Dan Jones?" Then they'd ask if they could change some wording without skewing the facts, and he'd usually say, "No." According to Vanity Fair, the whole thing was filmed in 26 days, and on a budget of $8 million (£6.5 million). By Hollywood standards, this is so tiny it barely happened. When it premiered at Sundance last year, it was a hit. He hopes it makes more people read the actual report. Lots of surprising people haven't, he says, including most pundits and even politicians he's heard talking about it on the news.
"The thing that haunts me the most," he says, "is what's on the cutting-room floor." He's not even talking about the film here, but the report. The big one, at 7,000 pages. "No one is ever going to look at this again," he says. "No one is ever going to go through 6.3 million pages." So much stuff, he says, he had to leave out, because there simply wasn't the information. So he wonders, and will always wonder, how many other torture victims there were, feasibly even other deaths, about which nobody will ever know.
"We came across a photograph of a waterboard at another detention site," he says. "Buckets of water surrounding it. It looks well worn. Rusted. And there are no records of anyone ever being waterboarded at that site."
In the last stages of his last report, Jones went to the CIA and asked them if they could reveal what had happened there. Six months later, they told him they could not. Enjoy the movie. I did.
Written by: Hugo Rifkind
© The Times of London