When Beth El Synagogue began scouting for candidates for its 2020 “Heroes Among Us” lecture, the focus was on individuals it believed were taking moral leadership on critical national issues.
The search ended with Daniel J. Jones, a former staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who investigated CIA interrogation methods of terrorist suspects following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
The committee’s years of work to uncover and document secret CIA torture practices formed the basis of the 2019 movie “The Report,” in which Jones is portrayed by actor Adam Driver. It put the spotlight on the critical importance of ethics and integrity in government, said Rabbi Avi Olitzky of Beth El.
Jones addressed a crowd of several hundred people Thursday night at the St. Louis Park synagogue, explaining how the young man who started out as a Teach for America middle school teacher ended up as chief investigator of the largest probe into the CIA in generations.
Unearthing the truth about the illegal use of torture was a personal moral conviction and a civic duty to prevent it from happening again, he said.
“This was a seven-day-a-week job for us,” Jones said, referring to himself and other committee investigators. “If we didn’t do this job, who would?”
Jones, originally from Pennsylvania, never set out to have a career that would make him the center of a major motion picture. Raised Catholic, he attended Elizabethtown College in his home state, where he majored in sociology and religion, he said. He was particularly concerned about poverty, which led to his teaching stint in Baltimore.
But the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center shifted his priorities. After finishing a master’s degree at Harvard University, he worked as an FBI counterterrorism analyst. He next took a staff position on the Senate Intelligence Committee at about the same time the New York Times reported that the CIA had destroyed videotapes of its interrogations on detainees.
For those who haven’t seen the film, “The Report” traces how this group of committee staffers and their Senate leaders pored over a whopping 6 million pages of CIA correspondence and documents to uncover what happened in those videotapes and in other interrogation sessions.
‘Torture is ineffective’
Their work led to three key conclusions, said Jones.
“One, torture is ineffective,” he said. “People will say anything to get the torture to stop.”
Two, the CIA repeatedly gave the White House and government officials false information about the utility of the information gained during the interrogations, he said. Third, the CIA “grossly mismanaged” the project.
Although investigators viewed torture not just as illegal but as morally wrong, the CIA argued that if torture prevented American deaths, it was for the greater good.
Jones said he doesn’t consider himself a hero, but rather part of a team of staff and senators who relentlessly sought to shed light on illegal practices and to maintain integrity of the nation’s top intelligence agency. He said heroes include the government workers and others who took professional risks by providing the team with tips over the years.
What is he most proud of?
“No one has been able to identify a factual error,” Jones told the audience. “There were no mistakes.”
Film ‘to reach so many’
Olitzky said honoring Jones is a continuation of the synagogue’s support for efforts to put a spotlight on, and to end, torture practices. The rabbi also appreciated that the film’s producer, Scott Z. Burns, is from Golden Valley. Burns offered a video introduction of Jones at the event.
Jones praised the thoroughness of the script, written by Burns, and the work of lead actors Driver and Annette Bening.
He said he left the Senate in 2016 and has since founded Advance Democracy Inc., a nonprofit that conducts international research related to accountability and transparency in government. For example, it is investigating foreign government interference in European elections, he said.
Jones also is founder of the Penn Quarter Group, a public policy research and investigative group based in Washington, D.C. He said he is thrilled that his seven-year investigation is getting a second wind.
“The film is going to reach so many more people than the Senate report did,” said Jones, noting that it will help ensure “lessons are learned.”