Scott Burns, The Report, Telluride Interview

See here for the full article featured in Telluride Magazine.

Intro audio

Public Discussion Video


Mark Danner and Scott Burns


MD: I got to say, I’ve been writing about this stuff since I guess 2003, and I was really kind of astonished by the film. I was kind of nervous going in in the way one is when one knows the subject well and I just thought it both really succeeded as a thriller, as a driving narrative and powerful suspense but at the same time I was really astonished; it seemed a kind of master class in how to dramatize a great deal of information. I just thought you did an astonishing job of that and made a really important film.

SB: Now I feel like I should have my tape recorder on! Thank you so much, that’s about the most I can hope for. So, should we just say goodbye and hang up or do I have to say things now?

MD: I’m afraid you have to say things, it can only go down from here you know. I guess I wanted to start simply by asking you whether, what the genesis of this story, the idea of making this into a film, where it came from? Did you originally want to tell the story of torture or was it the report that originally attracted your attention?


SB: Oh good this is going to be fun, you do know your shit. What happened was I had seen an article in Vanity Fair about Mitchell and Jesson and I was fascinated in some part because both of my parents are psychologists so I grew up with some awareness of the affects of that field and I was kind of blown away that psychologists would have created a program and then sold it to the CIA. As I started to do more research I realized that the CIA has a history obviously of employing psychologists, so I started there. When I realized that Swigert and Dunbar were their names in the report that, I wanted to talk to the people who wrote the report and see if there was more clarity they could give me. I also spent some time speaking to a guy named Nathaniel Raymond, who was a human rights investigator, and both Nathaniel and I wanted more information on what was behind the redacted bans. Although I obviously can’t tell anybody and do not know what’s behind the black bans because Dan Jones can’t tell me that. I did get to meet the guy who wrote the report and talk to him about some of the directionality of the program and where it came from and why we found ourselves there. Spent some time speaking to Senator Udall, Senator Whitehouse, Senator Levin, some of the other people who were involved from the military side, Colin Powell’s chief of staff as well as some really great journalists like Jim Risen and Jane Mayer who had done a ton of work in  Syria. Obviously Jane’s book is one of the best books written on this period. I just wanted to figure out why my country did this. When I was finally able to get in touch with Dan we sat down and had a drink and I said, tell me about how this thing got done. The story of telling the story seemed to me to be a better horse to ride than Mitchell and Jesson. In part because the CIA is so compartmentalized that you couldn’t tell the whole story by inhabiting only their point of view.


MD: And Dan, when did it come to you that he in a sense was the, the view point into this? The kind of innocent from the outside, the stand in in a way for the viewer? Was it after you first met him?


SB: It was little by little and all at once. It was from reading the report and looking at the footnotes and cross referencing and really beginning to see that there was a great deal of intellect behind how this thing was constructed and how this story was told. But then when I met him, because obviously the report doesn’t contain the very Kafka-esque odyssey this guy went on and that there are these legions of Senate staffers who do research for their Senators, that there’s an army of these people who go to work in DC every day and they’re tasked with all manners of things. And that Dan, in a sense, there’s a line in the movie about do you work for the reporter or do you work for me? And I think at that point Dan felt like he worked for both and that he wanted to get the right version of the story in front of people about why our country ended up doing this and what the CIA’s role in it was. And when I heard about the fact that, you know, the price he had to pay personally for that, that he ended up having to leave the committee because the Republicans were so unhappy with him when they were back in control that they were going to marginalize him, the fact that the CIA went after Dan with a criminal referral. That shouldn’t be the kind of torment that someone who is doing their job of getting the truth out should ever have to face. And suddenly instead of writing about these two sort of, you know, bizarre figures in Mitchell and Jessen I realized I would rather tell the story of a good guy. And that would be ... for a change.


MD: It’s a fascinating picture of Washington as well because in a sense you see a structure where the staff people are younger, and I should say I have met and interviewed Dan and there’s a sense in which you feel like the Senators hired their idealism. It’s with younger people. And then the idealism of course gets shut off by the kind of pragmatic realism if you want to call it, that of the Senators, and then finally of the President. I guess we should remind readers that this movie spans not just the Bush administration when the torture was committed, but very importantly the Obama administration when the report was mostly done. The person you expect to be the liberal hero, which is Obama and his administration, are actually the ones siding with the CIA and much of the redaction of the report and the final decision not to release the report itself but only the executive summary.


SB: Yeah that was a big revelation for me in the movie, for exactly that same reason. I realized that I could write a movie that showed, in a sense, what the cost of our partisan politics is. The cost is will we become incredibly ineffective at dealing with facts and admitting when we’re wrong and that the kind of calculus that both parties play at any given point in time leads to a sort of paralysis and series of half measures that don’t solve problems. I am thrilled that I was able to vote for Barrack Obama twice yet I look at the decisions that were made surrounding this report, or some of the issues surrounding the banks when he took office and it was the same rational of, you know, when do you want to hold people accountable, are you going to alienate other people, and you get into this kind of horse trading mentality that has so eroded the fabric of this country that it really is the explanation of why we find ourselves in such a divisive time. And that to me was really, you know what you said before is exactly right I think Senators do hire their idealism when they hire their staff. And then for Dan to ask to have that compromised, by wondering if there’s a softer version of the report that he could put out and the fact that he just was not going to let go of this thing even if the weight of his findings were going to drag him under, to me is what I want to believe public service requires of a person or at least asks them to do. And that to me was really profound.


MD: Let me just ask one last question. It really is the ground on which we kind of overlap in these questions you and I because as a journalist I believe strongly that if you get this stuff out, if people know about it then something will be done and I have to believe you have a similar belief about the film, that there is a kind of intrinsic value in letting people know about these things. But one of the contradictions I had to come to grips with in a decade and couple of books on this subject is realizing that that’s a liberal belief in the people that isn’t necessarily proven by the history of what we know about, for example, torture. That is that, it did come out and it wasn’t exactly as if the people rose in outrage about it. In fact, one thing we do know is that the more it was exposed and debated during the Obama administration in particular the numbers who seemed to support it seemed to rise, according to polls. I mean that’s a contentious subject but I wonder what you think about that and whether your greatest hopes for the films are that it will change people’s attitudes about this.


SB: Yeah, I’m painfully aware of…you know when I was speaking to I think Senator Whitehouse the first thing that he quoted to me, and I can’t do it justice, a quote from Napoleon where he says essentially this practice of torturing people needs to stop the poor bastards will say anything just to get us to stop. So it’s not news that these techniques are ineffective and yet we keep doing them, and I think we have to look at it and try to figure out why we keep doing that and was it easier to torture these people because they didn’t look like us. Why did we imprison Japanese Americans during the Second World War but not German Americans? Why didn’t we put them in internment camps? Is it easier to do these acts of brutality and revenge and all the things that I hope a society stands to prevent an injured party from doing for seeking retribution in that way? Not to mention the fact that when you speak to military people they will say that it makes their job harder, because there were Navy seals who helped me with the movie and they would say you know I have a Geneva convention card in my pocket, how am I supposed to pull that out if I’m captured when the world now knows what we did? I’m sure if someone from the CIA was on the phone right now they would say well the world should have never known what we did. But the world always seems to find out. So yeah, I guess my hope is that maybe the next time our country is in a position like that we’ll realize that people like Ali Soufan are right in that raport building and other interrogation methods are far more affective, or even what Mattis said, when he went to work for Trump, that you get more with a pack of cigarettes than you do with torture. That maybe we will question that, but I also hope that people will look at it and go, you know our system is broken but through the dust of it being broken you can see something that could work beautifully. That there are checks and balances, that Congress can hold the other branches accountable.


MD: You know I think one of my favorite parts of the movie is that when the story first broke and that people learned that the CIA had burned the tapes, the Committee was bipartisan and it voted 14:1 to investigate. That’s an incredible mandate and that gives me hope that our country can at some point put aside those issues and hold people accountable and from where we sit right now that’s a really important hope.

... The last thing I was going to say really is that it’s important to point out that the movie ends with a very hopeful nod to Senator John McCain, who was the most prominent American to have been tortured and who played a generally credible roll in this and who helped with Senator Feinstein, who is prominent in the movie, to draft President Obama’s executive order into law explicitly forbidding torture. I do think it’s important to underline that there is hope not only about separation of powers and oversight, but also a legal response did come out of this and one is left to contemplate that.


SB: Yeah, one of the moments I think was most profound for me in working on this project is I spent time with Dan and I would sense his feeling of deceit that 400 or 500 pages came out and only he knows what’s on the 6300 other pages and I think sometimes I felt the sense of sadness that so much of this story remains classified and kept from us. And then Jane Mayer said to me you know that’s such a glass half empty way to look at it, why can’t you look at it that they got out 500 pages and it is the largest study the US Senate ever did? And that I hope it changes, the culture of the CIA and obviously it’s disconcerting to have somebody who was so integral to the program now running the CIA. I guess my view is, I hope people walk away feeling hopeful that the bones of our government are sturdy and do provide direction to how we deal with things like this and yet to me it’s also a cautionary tale that obviously it can be coopted and that it’s fragile and that people don’t read the whole report and that’s kind of why I felt it was important to try to tell this story a different way. I remember when Nathaniel Raymond, the human rights investigator who helped me with the film, told me about George Washington’s order, I was blown away that like, from the beginning of this country, we were the people who did not do this even though the British had done it to our people. And when you look at what happened when the POW camps were liberated at the end of WW2, you know our guys were dead in the snow and had been mistreated horribly where we had treated the German prisoners with respect and accordance with the Geneva Convention at that time. Walter Winchell got on the radio and said look at what the Nazi’s did to our people, how come we’re treating their soldiers with respect? And the answer was: we’re not Nazi’s. And to me, like that’s the country I want to live in.


MD: Well said. I must say in the end the film, if it does have a message of American values at the end, it also seems to me to be a triumph of storytelling, that indeed you can redeem something by putting it into a comprehensible narrative that both reveals and persuades and that’s what I left the viewing of it with too, that my god you can tell a story and you can redeem a lot by telling a story. Congratulations.


SB: Well, thanks. You are right, that’s something you and I share; that’s what you hope when you sit down and you write a thing like this is that people will go and watch and feel like they saw a good story and then maybe a couple days later they’ll realize that that’s how people get changed. I think we have to believe that telling stories changes human beings, otherwise we’re in a really dark place.


MD: Yep. As Joan Didion said, we tell stories in order to live. Indeed, this film affirms that I think. Congratulations again and thank you very much for making the time, appreciate it.



The Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones spent six years investigating America's use of torture during the years after 9/11, finding a web of deceit and corruption. But after a life and death struggle with the CIA, only 525 heavily redacted pages were released.

Jones's story is told in The Report, starring Festival tributee Adam Driver and written and directed by Scott Z. Burns. Burns spoke with the award-winning journalist Mark Danner.

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