Everyone should watch The Report. Take it from a Guantánamo Bay lawyer

Clive Stafford Smith
Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/AP

Here’s a quiz question: how many famous songs, or films, can you name that address the serious contemporary issues of torture and rendition? There aren’t many. When I think of music in connection with our US secret prisons, it is the kind blasted at prisoners at deafening volume, all day and night.

One such unfortunate was my client Ahmed Rabbani, a Karachi taxi driver sold to the US for a bounty, accompanied by the false accusation that he was Hassan Ghul, a notorious Pakistani terrorist. That was 10 September 2002; I saw him recently on my 39th visit to Guantánamo Bay where he has been held for 17 years without charge or trial.

Artists tend to be leery of entering the political fray, which is a pity, as surely art is just another medium that can bring power to the powerless. Happily, the weekend before I saw Ahmed, I heard a single from the first Who album in many years. The song is Pete Townshend’s take on the world’s most infamous prison: “Down in Guantánamo, we still got the ball and chain. That pretty piece of Cuba, designed to cause men pain.” The censors will never allow Ahmed to hear the song, and my own imitation of Roger Daltrey’s growl was a poor substitute. Yet Ahmed and the other men were thrilled that someone remembered they existed.

At the same time, Amazon has released The Report, starring Adam Driver as Senate staffer Daniel J Jones. Jones worked for Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), investigating the use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (“EITs”), which the CIA vehemently claimed did not amount to torture. All one really needs to know is that the Gestapo’s euphemism for torture was Verschärfte Vernehmung, which translates as “Enhanced Interrogation”. Various Nazis were hanged for applying “VV” to their prisoners.

The subject of The Report could barely be more dry: in real life, Driver’s character spent five years in the bowels of the CIA documenting the abuse of prisoners, writing his 6,400 page “report”. Yet the film is gripping and – as far as it goes – compellingly accurate. I likewise spent long hours in a windowless room reviewing classified evidence, and I empathise with Driver’s descent into paranoia when would-be whistleblowers accost him beside the concrete pillars of the subterranean Agency garage. As he encounters proof of the torture, the most incriminating papers begin to disappear. This prompts him to leak one document to a senator, who then reveals it in a public hearing. In turn, the CIA tries to have Driver prosecuted, and starts bugging the senators themselves in their cover-up.

The movie does not flinch from the torture to which the prisoners were subjected. Throughout, the action cuts from Langley and Capitol Hill to dark cells in Thailand and Afghanistan where American interrogators are inflicting unspeakable pain and suffering upon the men they (often wrongly) believe to be terrorists. It is exceptionally rare for a film to show US personnel torturing their captives, and the film-makers are to be commended for their courage.

The concluding battle comes between Senator Feinstein and President Barack Obama, the constitutional law scholar who insists on replacing Driver’s massive tome with a heavily redacted “Executive Summary”.

I discussed the film with Ahmed. Indeed, I told him that watching closely as the camera pans around the CIA basement I saw his picture pinned to the wall. He acknowledged it would be hard to tell the whole story of CIA torture in two hours, but felt that The Report missed some important details.

In the “Executive Summary” Ahmed is listed as one of 17 victims whose torture was “unauthorised”. The film might have considered whether torture is morally more or less acceptable if it has been “authorised” by the president. The larger omission is in the report itself. Daniel Jones did not talk to any of the victims: Ahmed asked how we would feel if an inquest into genocide in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia looked no further than the diaries of the murderers?

Ahmed will not be allowed to see the film in Guantánamo, but he has read the actual “Executive Summary,” as he appears in it several times. He was surprised that some CIA agents concluded he was not Hassan Ghul just 24 hours after he was originally kidnapped. Why, then, did they render him to the Dark Prison in Kabul? There, he endured more than 540 days of torture (he did not keep count, but the report helpfully told him). He learned that at some point in his misery, the US captured the real Hassan Ghul and brought him to the same prison. Ghul was “cooperative” and spent only two days there. He was later released back to Pakistan and went back to his terrorism, before being killed by a drone in 2012. Meanwhile, Ahmed was sent to Cuba, to rot as a “forever prisoner”.

Much more that could have been said, then, but given its subject The Report is a surprisingly entertaining film. Most importantly, it shines a light on an important story in recent history, and if we hide our sordid mistakes, we will be destined to repeat them.

  • Clive Stafford Smith is a human rights lawyer and founder of the charity Reprieve