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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: New project puts torture program, and its Spokane architects, on silver screen

Coming soon to a theater near you: The cinematic story of the American post-9/11 torture regime, with cameos, at least, by Spokane’s interrogation entrepreneurs, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell.

Odd as that sounds, it’s true. “The Report,” a new film that aims to be in the tradition of 1970s political thrillers like “All the President’s Men,” is set for a theatrical release in November.

The film stars Adam Driver as congressional aide Daniel J. Jones, who authored an exhaustive and definitive 2012 Senate report on the Bush torture program after a protracted battle to pry the truth out of the CIA and other officials.

That report, relying heavily on interrogators’ notes and direct CIA sources, concluded that CIA officials had gone to great lengths to hide the truth of the program, and that torture produced no life-saving intelligence and damaged the standing of the U.S. worldwide.

I was not able to arrange an interview with the film’s writer and director, Scott Z. Burns, and I haven’t seen the film, but it appears Mitchell and Jessen play secondary roles.

Jessen is played by T. Ryder Smith, a stage and film actor with many credits in TV series. Mitchell is portrayed by Douglas Hodge, an English actor with extensive stage credits. They are named among the 15 cast members the production notes list as the “powerful ensemble that brings this essential story to life.”

Mitchell and Jessen are a pair of former Fairchild Air Force Base psychologists who built a multimillion-dollar business headquartered in downtown Spokane based upon applying long-illegal interrogation techniques that were briefly and disastrously declared legal by the Bush administration.

The men took techniques taught at Fairchild’s survival school, “reverse-engineered” them as information-gathering techniques for secret CIA prisons, and in some cases performed interrogations themselves. For example, several journalists reported that Mitchell was a firsthand participant in the repeated waterboarding – 83 times – of Abu Zubaydah, a key al-Qaida figure, and that Jessen was involved, as well. Tapes of those interrogations were destroyed by the CIA.

Reports also indicated that Mitchell sometimes wore a mask while interrogating another suspect. The men formed a company to carry out the interrogations and were paid more than $80 million by the government.

In the years since, Mitchell left Spokane and made public appearances defending their work, while Jessen apparently stayed in Spokane and remained silent. He was named the bishop of his South Hill ward in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2012, but resigned when the appointment was made public. A lawsuit filed against the pair by the ACLU on behalf of detainees was settled in 2017.

However large their roles in the film, Jessen and Mitchell indirectly played a large role in inspiring it. Burns, who also wrote the screenplays for “The Informant!” and “Contagion,” has said he was inspired to begin writing “The Report” after reading a Vanity Fair article about the pair in 2007.

That piece was among the first to begin unraveling the truth behind the “enhanced-interrogation” program and the role of the Spokane psychologists in developing and pitching the program to government officials.

“Without any real-world interrogation or intelligence-gathering experience, Mitchell and Jessen managed to get a contract in excess of $80 million to run an interrogation program for the CIA at a time when we were being told by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that our country was facing extraordinary threats,” Burns says in the production notes that accompany the film. “I found that absurd to the point of being funny, albeit in a very dark way.”

Burns eventually turned toward the story of the author of the 2014 report on the torture program produced by Senate Select Intelligence Committee – a withering report that lays out the dishonesty and ineffectiveness of the torture program in detail.

The report was politicized in the media, and turned into another both-sides argument, but anyone who takes the time to read the 600-page public summary of the full report, considers the sources upon which is was built and compares it to the factually thin rebuttal produced by Senate Republicans would have a difficult time honestly disagreeing with the main report’s conclusions: the government twisted U.S. and international law to excuse torture, lied and destroyed evidence to cover it up, and it didn’t work.

Burns met Jones, an aide to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who wrote the report, and the two clicked, according to production notes. Burns approached writing the screenplay as a practically journalistic enterprise, interviewing many of the key players in the story and doing other research.

The film includes depictions of several torture scenes, and it’s likely that the characters based on Mitchell and Jessen appear in some of those scenes. They include the extensive torture of Zubaydah, who was waterboarded 83 times.

According to the production notes, the interrogation scenes were focused not on the detainees, but on those carrying out the torture itself – on people like Mitchell and Jessen, on what they did as part of the program and on what it meant for all of us in the country that lost its moral compass in the war on terror.

“My goal wasn’t really about the detainees as much as it was about us,” Burns said in the production notes. “That’s why I always framed those (interrogation) sequences around the interrogators themselves. If you notice in those scenes, a lot of time is spent looking at the masked interrogators. Which raises the question, if you have to wear a mask, is it really justice?”

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