The [Redacted] Review

Peter Kinderman (University of Liverpool) and Sara Tai (University of Manchester) watch a new film written and directed by Scott Z. Burns.
‘Nothing made sense. Once the psychologists turned up, nothing made sense.’

The Report is a movie about torture... about war crimes, revenge, greed, the misuse of science... and about laborious research and dry committees.

Readers of The Psychologist will know something of the background to the movie – it dramatises the misuse of psychological science in the torture of detainees during the American retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attack. The dramatic narrative is built around the work of Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), working for US Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence from 2009 to 2015, investigating the CIA’s systematic torture of terrorist suspects in the years following the September 11 attacks. The Committee’s report, when finally published, concludes that the so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ used by the CIA were ineffective, brutal and immoral forms of torture, developed with the help of psychologists, falsely legitimised by lawyers and then defended by the CIA and the White House.

The story of the CIA torture programme is a powerful one. And this movie is a quietly dramatic, certainly important, elegant piece of work. But it is necessarily focused on the painstaking legalistic process of poring through administrative memos to reconstruct the story of war crimes that the CIA, by destroying evidence and, well, by being the CIA, did so well to cover up. One consequence is that a tiresome number of times we heard the directorial device of: ‘So, what you’re saying is that the CIA knew that waterboarding didn’t work’, or ‘So, what you’re saying is that everything he supposedly revealed under torture was either a lie or something the CIA already knew’, or ‘So, what you’re saying is that he said whatever they wanted to hear to make it stop’. But these are necessary devices to tell a story that needs to be told – and in the hands of actors with the skills and attention-drawing charisma of Driver and Bening, they work.

Psychologists should not go to this movie to see a paean of praise for their profession. The CIA may have used greedy and venal psychologists as pawns, and those psychologists may have massively misrepresented the science to line their pockets and serve their masters, but the consequence is, as one character says, that; ‘once the psychologists turned up, nothing made sense’. These charlatans turned everything on its head – after promising that torture would reveal the truth, that they possessed the ‘secret sauce’, and then discovering that the detainees lied, the claim was made that; ‘that’s the truth; the truth is, he’s lying’. It doesn’t help when the corrupt engineers of torture are pictured in a Trumpesque private plane sipping champagne and discussing their profits.

Away from this movie, and the story of these two contemptible examples, UK psychologists recognised and condemned the abuse of detainees as early as 2005, a position praised in the 2015 Hoffman Report for the American Psychological Association. In 2015, in this magazine, Ella Rhodes reported on the Committee report itself – the eponymous heroine of the movie – acknowledging, again, the shameful role of members of our profession.

But it’s worth re-emphasising to what extent the two architects of the CIA programme (James Mitchell and Bruce Jensen) perverted the science. Even if torture were to ‘work’ – and all the evidence is that torture is ineffective – it would be illegal and wrong. But it doesn’t work. The scientific logic was ludicrous, as ‘learned helplessness’ is unlikely to induce cooperation, almost by definition – if we want someone to give us useful, actionable, intelligence, we need them to believe there is at least some light at the end of the tunnel. And we do actually know what does work. This was hinted at in the movie. Occasional nuggets of intelligence emerged from the CIA torture programme. But these were (clearly in the movie) the products not of CIA torture, but of painstaking fieldwork or through the interrogations of the FBI, conducted on entirely different precepts. ‘Rapport-building’ techniques (memorably illustrated to me by my colleague Laurence Alison as the offer of a Coca-Cola to a fearful and thirsty, and therefore grateful, detainee) yield useful information... but they don’t offer the opportunity for victors to persecute their defeated enemies, or, indeed, the innocent bystanders caught up in ‘extraordinary rendition’.

Benjamin Lee, writing in The Guardian, called The Report ‘an utterly absorbing film... an angry, urgent film... smartly conveying inhumanity and injustice’. We agree. It’s a movie we should all watch, especially if we call ourselves ‘psychologists’. We should watch it to remind ourselves never to cooperate with the CIA on a torture programme. We could also reflect on how important it is to step back, shift perspective, and question our own assumptions. We might want to reflect on a quote from George Washington, displayed at the end of the sorry debacle: ‘Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]... I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require.’ And we might want to reflect on the final statement; that no employee or contractor of the CIA has been prosecuted for their crimes, and some have been promoted. According to Wikipedia, Mitchell, now retired, spends his time ‘kayaking, rafting and climbing’. As a result of their torture, some of the detainees of the CIA are now deceased.

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