The True Story Behind the Movie The Report

12 minute read

“Find out exactly what they have and read every word of it.” So says California Senator Dianne Feinstein, played by Annette Bening, to staffer Daniel J. Jones in Amazon’s upcoming political drama The Report. Sen. Feinstein sets Jones, played by Adam Driver, on an investigation of the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and “enhanced interrogation” — or torture — of suspected terrorists during the administration of President George W. Bush, ultimately a seven-year project that would nearly take over his life.

Written and directed by filmmaker Scott Z. Burns, The Report chronicles Jones’ real investigation on behalf of the Senate Intelligence Committee into the Bush-era CIA as well as the Senate’s subsequent struggle with the Obama administration to release what Jones uncovered.

Working for Sen. Feinstein, then the Chair of the Committee, Jones and his team reviewed around 6.3 million pages of internal CIA documents and wrote a roughly 6,700-page report on their findings — often referred to as the “torture report” — which remains classified to this day.

In 2014, the Senate voted to release a more than 500-page executive summary, which served as a basis for the film’s script. Some dialogue is even pulled from the summary itself.

The film lays out in graphic detail what Jones discovered: that the U.S. government’s detention and interrogation program was inefficient, needlessly brutal and intentionally hidden from policymakers and the American people.

The Report also depicts how President Barack Obama’s administration — specifically John O. Brennan’s CIA — worked to undermine the Committee’s efforts to make their findings public. Jon Hamm plays President Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who the film suggests repeatedly sided with the CIA after the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden improved the President’s chances for reelection.

Burns tells TIME he consulted the work of investigative journalists like Jane Mayer and James Risen, the autobiographies of CIA officials, interviews with military and law enforcement experts on interrogation, and interviews with the senators on the Intelligence Committee. But the primary source for the film was the declassified executive summary itself.

“I made a choice not to say at the beginning of this movie, ‘Based on a true story’. What I chose to say is that, ‘This movie is based on this report,’” Burns explains. “Before we can identify [whether] a story is true or not, we have to identify what the facts of the story are.”

Burns stresses that the report is about facts. “This is the CIA’s own accounting of their program, and it’s an amazing puzzle that Dan [Jones] was able to put together out of 6.2 million documents. And so one would think if there was a narrative that said this program worked, it would’ve been found somewhere in those 6.2 million documents.”

Here’s a brief overview of the real events behind The Report.

What did the “Torture Report” find?

Jones and his team found that between 2002 and 2008, at least 119 detainees were held by the CIA in covert locations around the world, known as “black sites.” The CIA admitted at least 26 of the detainees were “wrongfully” held.

According to the Committee’s executive summary, “interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others.”

Thirty-nine of the detainees were tortured. The techniques included “walling” (slamming a person against a wall), slaps, nudity, stress positions and sleep deprivation. Some were made to stay awake for as long as a week, and others were told their families were in danger or they were going to be killed. At least five detainees were subjected to unnecessary “rectal rehydration,” and at least three were waterboarded, which simulates the experience of drowning. The report found the interrogations caused “psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm.”

At least one detainee — Gul Rahman — died, possibly because of hypothermia.

Crucially, Jones’ team also found that the interrogations weren’t effective. Seven detainees provided no intelligence at all, and many detainees made up information, creating faulty intelligence. “Other detainees provided significant accurate intelligence prior to, or without having been subjected to these techniques,” the summary continues. Furthermore, Jones’ team found that the CIA exaggerated the effectiveness of the program and misled the White House, Congress and the American public.

The executive summary concludes that the program was mismanaged. What’s more, it was developed by two psychologists — James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, played by Douglas Hodge and T. Ryder Smith in the film — who had no experience as interrogators and lacked specialized knowledge of both al-Qaeda and counterterrorism.

Burns says he was first drawn to this topic after reading Katherine Eban’s 2007 Vanity Fair article “Rorschach and Awe”, which examines how Mitchell and Jessen developed the interrogation program. Burns’ parents are both psychologists, and he says he was interested in “the idea that a field of science that had largely existed to explain human behavior and heal people could somehow be used by this.”

The Report features prolonged scenes of Mitchell and Jessen’s interrogations of suspected terrorists, and includes some composite characters, such as Maura Tierney’s CIA official, because names in the executive summary were redacted.

How did the Torture Report come together?

The tapes investigation (2007-2009)

The investigation into the CIA’s interrogation program began in 2007, when the New York Times reported that the CIA had destroyed tapes of interrogations in 2005. Two years before Feinstein became Jones’ boss, West Virginia Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller was the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and he asked Jones to review the CIA documents to determine what was on the tapes.

Before working for Sen. Rockefeller, Jones had been an FBI analyst in the International Terrorism Operations Section. He and former CIA lawyer Alissa Starzak — who doesn’t appear by name in the film — dove into the CIA’s records for two years and delivered a report to the Committee in 2009 on their findings.

“Basically the members [of the Committee] found out that they had been lied to by the CIA,” the real Daniel Jones tells TIME. “That the techniques were far more brutal than they had ever described. That the whole claims of effectiveness related to the [origins of the program] were simply not true. And that there were all these other management failures.”

The larger investigation into the CIA interrogation and detention program (2009-2012)

In March 2009, in response to Jones’ report, the Committee voted 14-to-1 to launch a larger investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Sen. Feinstein had become the Chairman of the Committee at this point, and asked Jones to stay on to head up the investigation. He was initially told it would take about a year to complete.

Around the same time, Attorney General Eric Holder announced he was broadening a criminal investigation into the CIA, and as a result, the CIA said that no one within the agency was allowed to speak to Jones’ team. The Republican minority on the committee then pulled their support for the investigation, arguing it couldn’t get far without interviews. Jones and his team of four core members moved ahead, poring over millions of agency documents in a windowless basement room.

Over the years, Jones and his team wrote thousands of pages about what they found. Jones recalls having to beg other staff members to read the report, asking for their help on clarity and checking for typos. “We don’t have editors. It’s just us,” he explains.

They finished that 6,700 page document in 2012.

“The summer from hell” (2013)

Sen. Feinstein sent the report for comment and review by the CIA, other intelligence agencies and the White House. In June 2013, the Committee heard back that the CIA had major problems with the report and claimed it contained inaccuracies. Over the summer, Jones and his team began meeting with the CIA to work through these sections.

Jones describes the period as the “summer of hell.” “We knew what the facts were and we would basically say, you know, ‘The ocean water is blue. Here it is.’ And they would say, ‘No, we think it’s yellow.’ And I’d be like, ‘But here’s the picture, right? It’s blue,'” he explains.

Jones became so frustrated that Feinstein told him to stop meeting with the CIA. Jones remembers Feinstein instructing him to include the CIA’s objections in the footnotes of the summary, “ensuring the world knew the ridiculousness of their response,” he tells TIME.

The CIA files a criminal referral against Daniel Jones and his team (2014)

In early winter, the CIA accused the Senate of illegally accessing an internal review of its detention and interrogation program, known as the “Panetta Review,” and removing it from CIA facilities without authorization. The CIA’s own inspector general then opened a criminal referral after senators accused the CIA of improperly monitoring Jones’ team, per the Times.

In February, the CIA then filed a second criminal referral against Jones and his team, arguing that they hacked into the CIA and took the Panetta Review without permission.

In March, Sen. Feinstein gave a biting 45-minute speech on the Senate floor condemning the CIA’s actions. She confirmed that part of the Review had been copied and moved to the Senate’s office, because the CIA had destroyed the interrogation tapes and the Review had since disappeared off the Committee’s computer system.

Feinstein accused the CIA of conducting an unauthorized search of her staffer’s computer network, saying she was concerned the CIA may have violated the Constitution’s separation of powers principle. She requested an apology, and added that she viewed the criminal referral against Jones’ staff “a potential effort to intimidate.”

John Brennan strongly denied Feinstein’s accusations, saying, “nothing could be further from the truth,” per the Times.

But in July, the CIA’s inspector general found that the agency actually had “penetrated” the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computer network, and filed the criminal referral against Jones and his team was based on false information. The same day, Brennan apologized.

The Panetta Review came to the same conclusions as Jones’ investigation, but differed from the CIA’s official response. Jones tells TIME he thinks it should never have been withheld from the Committee. Jones says the Review appeared on his computer one day, either by a computer glitch or a whistleblower. He says a lot of documents slipped into the millions they were given access to, some having nothing to do with interrogation. It might have just accidentally come through.

The executive summary comes out (Winter 2014)

The Department of Justice dismissed the charges against Jones’ team. The executive summary then moved to the White House to determine what should be declassified. It came back heavily redacted, and the senators pushed to include more details and names in the version released to the public.

Finally, after a long back-and-forth with the Obama administration, the Senate released the executive summary on Dec. 9, 2014, shortly before Democrats lost control of the Senate.

“The Senators who are involved are the ones who make things happen,” Jones says. “I was just a staffer. It really takes Senators being courageous.”

In a 2014 op-ed in the Washington Post, Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., the former director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service whose name appears throughout the report, responded to the Committee’s findings with cutting words. “The report’s leaked conclusion, which has been reported on widely, that the interrogation program brought no intelligence value is an egregious falsehood; it’s a dishonest attempt to rewrite history. I’m bemused that the Senate could devote so many resources to studying the interrogation program and yet never once speak to any of the key people involved in it, including the guy who ran it (that would be me).”

Burns says that these conflicting narratives, between the CIA’s account of what happened and Jones’ discoveries, inform the conflict of the film. He’s interested in the question, “How do these two narratives battle it out in the real world and which one ends up getting purchased in the culture as the truth?”

What happened after the events depicted in The Report?

The film ends in 2014, after the Senate releases Jones’ findings. But the issues it explores persist in the present day.

In 2015, the Senate passed the McCain-Feinstein Anti-Torture Amendment, which banned any further use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on detainees.

In the spring of 2018, Gina Haspel — who, per the Times, oversaw the torture of a terrorism suspect in Thailand and was involved in the 2005 destructions of the interrogation tapes — was confirmed as the Director of the CIA

During her hearing before the Senate Haspel pledged not to restart the interrogation program.

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