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Top CIA 'Spymasters' Agree: We Can't Kill Our Way Out Of Terrorism


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As concern about terrorist attacks in Western countries increases, a new Showtime documentary explores some of the most intensely debated issues concerning the CIA's role in the war on terror, including enhanced interrogation techniques used on detainees and lethal drone strikes. What makes the film unique is that it's based on lengthy interviews with all 12 living directors of the CIA. Some former directors proudly defend the agency's controversial tactics; others are highly critical. Our guests today are Chris Whipple, the writer and executive producer of "The Spymasters" and Jules Naudet. Naudet and his brother Gedeon are the directors and executive producers of the film. The Naudet brothers also directed the documentary "9/11" about the attack on the World Trade Center. They happened to be filming firefighters in lower Manhattan when the first plane hit one of the towers. Chris Whipple is a documentary filmmaker and former producer for "60 Minutes" and for ABC News. "The Spymasters" is available on Showtime's streaming service and Showtime On Demand. Chris Whipple and Jules Naudet spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Well, Chris Whipple, Jules Naudet, welcome to FRESH AIR. I wanted to begin by talking about the issue of torture, the enhanced interrogation techniques that were employed on detainees after 9/11 and during the war in Iraq, which presented such moral and legal questions and have been hotly debated. And they're an interesting part of the film. And I want to begin with a clip from Jose Rodriguez, who was director of National Clandestine Services during the George W. Bush administration. And he's talking here about the use of black sites, these bases outside the United States where detainees were taken for intense interrogation techniques. We'll hear him speaking, and we're also going to hear one of our guests, Chris Whipple, asking some questions. Let's listen.


JOSE RODRIGUEZ: The black sites were instrumental in helping us gain very invaluable information.

CHRIS WHIPPLE: Some critics might say well, wait a minute, you wanted to be able to be abuse this guy. You didn't want any rules. You wanted to torture the guy...

RODRIGUEZ: Well, that's [expletive]. We get accused by human rights activists that we created these black sites in order to abuse people. In fact, by accepting prisoners, we actually became responsible for them - for their health, for them totally.

DAVIES: And that was Jose Rodriguez in the film "The Spymasters," which was produced by our guests Chris Whipple and Jules Naudet. Tell us a little bit about this guy Rodriguez. He is quite a character in this film. What was it like to talk to him?

WHIPPLE: You know, Jose Rodriguez is an extraordinary character, as you can see. He's a guy who does not mince words. He's a passionate defender of the so-called enhanced interrogation program. And it's - you know, the whole subject of the black sites is interesting because, you know, I think very few people realize that the CIA prior to 9/11 had almost no experience detaining prisoners or interrogating them. They simply were not in the business of being jailers. John Deutch, who was one of Bill Clinton's CIA directors, was fascinating on this subject. He said, you know, imagine that you're CIA director and they - somebody comes to you and says we've got these bad guys - we know that they're bad guys - with American blood on their hands. They're plotting attacks against the U.S. What would you like to do with them? Do you want to send them back to the United States, have them receive all the rights that American citizens have, read them the Miranda - their rights? It's the question that the CIA was confronted with immediately after 9/11.

DAVIES: And of course, Rodriguez is utterly unapologetic about using these harsh techniques. That wasn't the view of all the others that you spoke to, right, even though they got authorization from the Justice Department in some fashion to employ techniques like waterboarding.

JULES NAUDET: Yeah, but that was the fascinating part. You see two camps when it comes to advanced interrogation. You have what we call the wartime directors, which are the George Tenets, Porter Goss, Michael Hayden, during that time of Iraq and Afghanistan and the years following 9/11 where the threats keep coming almost every day. And then you have the other people who are - have been there at different times where these techniques were not employed. And the sharp contrast is quite apparent. The ones who were there - and George Tenet in particular with the people that were under him, such as Jose Rodriguez, claim that it is very - it was very useful, but also it was necessary. And where you see the difference is you have some of the older directors, such as William Webster, who was not only a federal judge but also the head of the FBI before becoming CIA director, and others really claimed that no matter if it works or not, it is against who we are as a people and against every value that we hold dear.

WHIPPLE: Let me just add to that, that we're not just talking about bleeding hearts here who were opposed to the use of enhanced interrogation or torture as they might put it. David Petraeus - nobody - nobody was responsible for more detainees than he was when he was commander in Iraq. And he is absolutely emphatic - emphatically against the use of those techniques. He says that it's been shown that the best way to get information is to become a detainee's best friend. It requires skilled interrogators and it takes time. He says that it will always come back and haunt you. You will be - you will cause much more harm than any possible gain you might get from torturing prisoners.

NAUDET: And yet you see, for example, Leon Panetta, who is quite vocal against enhanced interrogation, waterboarding in particular which he considers torture. But at the same time, as a caveat, like, a lot I believe do have is - OK, here is a scenario - tomorrow, you catch a guy who knows the location of a nuclear device that has been placed in New York City, and he's the only one who can give you the information. And Leon Panetta says, you know, it's - I have to be honest with you, it'll be very hard not to use every measure of our disposal in this situation. So I think as much as a lot of them would say they are against it, they always carve out that little scenario possible as, you know, what would we do if we're faced with the possibility of having no other options?

WHIPPLE: I don't know if William Webster would carve out that exception. Webster's eloquent in his opposition to what he considers to be torture and points out that the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual treatment. And if it's cruel we shouldn't be doing it.

DAVIES: You know, they always bring up the ticking time bomb scenario, where you have to get this information and you have someone who has it - rarely, if ever, actually happens. But if it does, you can only use these techniques if you have a place to do them and people who know how to administer them, which means you have to get them up and running beforehand. I guess that's the operational dilemma.

WHIPPLE: Well, that may be part of it. And certainly, the CIA was criticized severely for the - you know, the contractors who are hired to run this program. These are guys who had trained American pilots - airmen - to resist enemy torture, but they had no experience in actual interrogation. They had no knowledge - no special knowledge of al-Qaida. So the CIA came in for very severe criticism on that score.

DAVIES: You know, there's, of course, an intense debate about - apart from the morality of it - whether these enhanced interrogation techniques yielded useful information. And in the film, you talk about this Senate Democratic committee report, which said that in 20 cases where intelligence officials said it provided helpful information, they found in none of those was that true. You have an interview with George Tenet, the director during the Bush administration, who says absolutely wrong on all 20 cases. Is the record clear to you on this?

WHIPPLE: It's not clear. And in the end - at the end of the day, the truth may be unknowable. But yeah, it's - you know, there really is - there are two camps here diametrically opposed. George Tenet would say that in every one of those cases, evidence was obtained that saved lives and disrupted plots. Mike Morell would say that - you know, he gives an example of one of those 20 cases in which an al-Qaida terrorist prior to enhanced interrogation techniques told them the town where some al-Qaida terrorists were headquartered. After the techniques were applied, he pointed to the building where they were, which, as Morell said, enabled us to go in and take care of it. The truth is that we don't know what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would've told them, for example, if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had never been waterboarded because that never happened.

NAUDET: That Senate report caused quite a lot of uproar, especially with these - the three directors that were directly present during the enhanced interrogation period, which is George Tenet and Michael Hayden, Porter Goss. I think they'd take - these three in particular take a lot of objection to the fact that for them, the Senate report was not really after the truth. They said, you know, we were not - none of the principals were interviewed, which for them was a sign that it was - they were not really after the truth. And so there is - I don't think the evidence is clear one way or another. I think it's up to people who listen to what the directors have to say and then others will read the report and make their decision from there.

WHIPPLE: The report was based largely on communications paperwork - emails - there were six million documents that they looked at over a five-year period. But as Jules says, and as the directors point out, they never interviewed anyone involved with the program.

DAVIES: I know that you did a lot of research in preparation for these interviews. And you clearly wanted to get these former intelligence officials' views about the issues and their candid feelings. But they're used to making their case and summoning facts that support their version of things. For example, you hear Jose Rodriguez, one of these guys, say only three people were ever waterboarded. And I wondered how you handled it when you were hearing information that you thought was - well, if not wrong, at least in dispute.

WHIPPLE: Well, the answer is - we called them on it, immediately. We'd done our homework. We spent a year and a half on this project, and we researched it as thoroughly as we possibly could. And whenever we heard anything that was factually wrong or arguable, we called them on it. These are - these guys are grownups, and they seemed to - you know, they seemed to rise to the challenge, George Tenet in particular. I mean, fascinating guy, Shakespearean character. I mean, imagine having on your watch - warned about 9/11, then gone through the 9/11 attacks, then launched the enhanced interrogation program, launched the lightning attack, which many called the CIA's finest hour into Afghanistan that rolled back the Taliban and then had weapons of mass distraction. Imagine - this - George Tenet came to play. He had a lot to talk about. And for me, the great moments in the film are the human moments. And when I asked George Tenant was there ever a moment in all of this time that you blamed yourself for 9/11? And he - you could see the emotion in his eyes, and you can really look into that tortured soul of - and who wouldn't be if you'd spent every day prior to 9/11 trying to prevent what had happened and watched 3,000 people die and your hometown blown up, as he put it?

DAVIES: We're speaking with Chris Whipple. He was the writer and executive producer of the film "The Spymasters," based on interviews with 12 living former directors of the CIA. Also with us is Jules Naudet. He and his brother Gedeon were the directors and executive producers. The film is available on Showtime's streaming service and Showtime On Demand. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with the producers of the film "The Spymasters," which is based on interviews with 12 former directors of the CIA. With us are Chris Whipple, he was the writer and executive producer of the film, also Jules Naudet, he and his brother Gedeon were directors and executive producers. The film "The Spymasters" is available on Showtime streaming service and on Showtime On Demand. Another fascinating part of the film is - deals with warnings that the CIA brought to the Bush administration in the months before the 9/11 attacks. And I want to play a clip here. This is a montage with George Tenet, the former director, and Cofer Black, who was head of counterterrorism. And maybe you can just set a bit of the context. We're talking about mid-2001 when the Bush administration had just come to power. Give us a sense of the world events and the context for these warnings.

WHIPPLE: You know, it really goes back to the spring of 2001 when the Bush administration had just come into power. George Tenet submitted to the administration authorities that would permit the CIA to go into Afghanistan with a paramilitary operation and rip al-Qaida out by the roots and take down Osama bin Laden. And the word that came back when they submitted this plan was we don't want the clock to start ticking. I asked George Tenet, what does that mean? And he said, they just weren't quite ready to decide on what their terrorism policy was. Now, fast forward to July 10 and a critical meeting at the White House when George Tenet picks up the phone and tells Condi Rice, we're coming over. We're coming now. It was an urgent meeting. They laid out all the latest intelligence indicating an imminent attack.

DAVIES: Yeah, why don't we listen to that clip? This is George Tenet, who was director of the CIA in 2001, and Cofer Black, who was head of counterterrorism, talking about what was going on and their efforts to alert the White House to what they saw was a growing threat. We're also going to hear Chris Whipple asking some questions in this exchange. Tenet speaks first, and he's talking about the kind of intelligence they were seeing.


GEORGE TENET: Well, it's not just red lights. Red lights and chatter is a convenient way this is portrayed. There were real plots being manifested - the American Embassy in Sana'a's going to be bombed - British and American schools in Jeddah's going to be bombed. The world was on the edge of eruption. Now, what happens then in this period of time in June and July - the threat continues to rise. Public pronouncements by people in al-Qaida was there would be eight major celebrations coming. The world was going to be stunned by what would soon happen. Terrorists were disappearing, camps were closing, threat reportings on the rise, and this started building to a crescendo.

COFER BLACK: We decided the next thing to do was we'd pick up the white phone, call the White House - we're coming down right now.

TENET: I said, Condi, I have to come see you. It was one of the rare times in my seven years as director where I said, I have to come see you. We're coming right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Present at the July 10 White House meeting, our National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and other top officials.

TENET: So Rich started by saying, there will be significant terrorist attacks against the United States in the coming weeks or months. The attacks will be spectacular. They may be multiple. Al-Qaida's intention is the destruction of the United States.

BLACK: And I said, this country's got to go on a war footing now. I sort of slammed my hand on the table.

TENET: After it was over, Rich Blee and I sort of congratulated each other in the sense that I think we've finally gotten through to these people, you know? We have executed our responsibilities.

WHIPPLE: What happened?

BLACK: Yeah, what did happen? Yeah, what happened?

WHIPPLE: Essentially, nothing happened.

BLACK: Yeah, that's right.

DAVIES: And that's from the film, "The Spymasters," which is the product of our guests, Chris Whipple and Jules Naudet. How much of this is new? I mean, we'd heard about the daily brief with ominous warnings. Did we learn new information about these attempts to warn the White House?

WHIPPLE: You know, everybody talks about that famous August presidential daily brief headlined "Bin Laden Determined To Strike The U.S." But the July 10 meeting was much more important, much more critical, I think. And, you know, inexplicably, the 9/11 Commission never even mentions it, even though George Tenet testified about it behind closed doors. Tenet does write about it in his memoir, but it's a critical meeting. And if anybody who says that there was not new information here on July 10 should answer two questions - were they in the meeting on July 10, A, and, B, did they know more than the director of the CIA, the head of the Counterterrorism Center and the head of the bin Laden unit? It's a chilling picture that they paint.

DAVIES: Yeah, and Cofer Black says nothing happened. I mean, Condoleezza Rice was in that meeting. Did you try and get her on camera?

NAUDET: Yes, we did, actually. We reached out to her office, and the word we got back is that she stands by what she said in her book. And in her book, she says that the meeting remains fuzzy because there was a lot of these threats going on, even though she did rise the alert levels of U.S. embassies and U.S. assets overseas. But what's fascinating to me is it took so long just to - for her at first - when the story first came out - to acknowledge that the meeting even took place. And - but the White House keeps record, so we could see that. It's kind of astonishing, you know, when you don't remember a meeting where the director of central intelligence calls your office and saying I have to come and see you right now in 15 minutes - we're in your office because we have something. Something is coming.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Chris Whipple and Jules Naudet about their new Showtime documentary, The Spymasters." After a break, they'll talk about the claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Chris Whipple and Jules Naudet, who made the new Showtime documentary "The Spymasters." They interviewed 12 former CIA directors for the film and discussed the difficult decisions they made fighting terrorism and the continuing controversies surrounding some of those decisions.

DAVIES: After the 9/11 attacks, there's the build towards the invasion of Iraq. And George Tenet, the director at the time, was all over the intelligence that buttressed the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass instruction. What does he have to say about his role then?

WHIPPLE: You know, we asked him point-blank. We said, did you cook the books? And he said, look, if we'd wanted to cook the books, it would've been easy. We would've made a direct connection between Iraq and the 9/11 plotters, and we never did that. He would say that, look, every intelligence agency in the world reached the same conclusion and that, ironically, Saddam Hussein himself thought the CIA was so omniscient and powerful that he was convinced they'd never believe he had them and that Bush would never actually invade.

DAVIES: On the other hand, Tenet does make the case that, yes, while we got that wrong, it -he seems to say wouldn't have mattered because they were well on the path to going to war anyway.

WHIPPLE: That's right. This became, in the legend, the seminal moment when George Tenet said, Mr. President, it's a slam dunk, and off we went to war. Tenet would say that's not at all what happened. This was long after the decision to go to war had been made. That horse had left the barn. And they were talking about the public case that could be made to support the presence of weapons of mass distraction, which, of course, turned out to be completely wrong.

DAVIES: He says in the film that every other major intelligence agency believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But, you know, there's all this - these questions that have been raised since and even contemporaneously, to some extent, about what the nuclear authorities weren't finding in Iraq and the yellowcake in Africa and the aluminum tube stories and - do you believe that Tenet had access to this kind of information and that he really believed that the other nations - if it's true that their intelligence agencies believed that he had WMD, do you think that Tenet really believed that there - that this was the case?

WHIPPLE: I think viewers can judge for themselves. We really held his feet to the fire. And in particular, the famous slam dunk episode on the weapons of mass destruction - on the - specifically, on the - one of the most egregious failures that took place in - at that time, which was when Colin Powell's speech was vetted. Remaining in the speech was that claim that turned out to be completely false about the mobile biological weapons labs. That was based on that source known as Curveball, who, at the time - Tenet tells us the story about how their German - the German Bureau of the CIA knew full well that this guy was unreliable. They reported this back to the CIA, and Tenet swears that that information never filtered up to him - that he didn't have it. So you can look into his eyes and decide for yourself whether he's telling the truth, but George Tenet makes a pretty impassioned case.

DAVIES: You know, as you portray the tremendous stakes in the decisions that were at issue among these directors, you include some pretty horrific images from al-Qaida and ISIS executions. And I wonder if you could just talk a bit about your decision to use them, how you chose to use them and what it was like for you to view that material.

NAUDET: Well, I think the - from the very beginning, it was important that since this is a documentary whose message is - how far should we go to protect America? And so the idea was to show - what is terrorism? And unfortunately, it is some of these terrible images which we see, such as the images of the people jumping out of the World Trade Center. And as a person who was in the towers in September 11, I - this is one of the moments I remember the most, unfortunately - is these people jumping to their death.

DAVIES: Jules, you mention that you were at the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11. That day, you were actually, I believe, filming a documentary about firefighters and in Lower Manhattan when this remarkable event occurred. You want to just want describe that - the image that you captured and a bit about that day?

NAUDET: Of course. Well, my brother and I were doing - in the summer of 2001, were doing a documentary on a young rookie firefighter. So we had lived already for about three months, day in and day out, at the firehouse second closest to the World Trade Center - Engine 7/Ladder 1. And on that particular morning, I was out with the firefighters, filming them to a routine call in the morning a few blocks away when we heard this incredible roar coming overhead. And I remember raising my head and seeing the plane - the American Airline plane - that close that I could actually read American Airline on it - going incredibly fast, incredibly low. And all I had time to do was turn my camera as it reappeared behind a building and crashed straight into the World Trade Center - then, of course, like everyone, thinking it was a horrible accident, a stupid pilot error. But jumped into the fire truck with the firefighters I was following and ended up at the World Trade Center and filming from inside the lobby until the second tower collapsed upon us.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Chris Whipple. He was the writer and executive producer of the film "The Spymasters," which is based on interviews with 12 former directors of the CIA and other top intelligence officials. Also with us, Jules Naudet - he and his brother Gideon were the directors and executive producers. The film premiered on Showtime. It's still available on Showtime's streaming service and Showtime on-demand. We'll continue our conversation after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with the producers of "The Spymasters." That's the Showtime documentary which is about interviews with 12 former directors of the CIA and other top American intelligence officials. "The Spymasters" is available on Showtime streaming service and Showtime On Demand. We're speaking with Chris Whipple. His was the writer and executive producer of the film. Also with us, Jules Naudet - he and his brother Gedeon were directors and executive producers.

The film deals with drone strikes and notes that the CIA has never officially acknowledged that they engage in them. And I thought we would listen to a clip here. This is former director - CIA Director Leon Panetta, and he's talking about the decision of whether to fire a drone at a senior leader of al-Qaida, I guess, who was involved in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan - a horrific incident in which a double agent gained the confidence of the CIA and blew himself up and killed seven CIA operatives. So we're - this is Leon Panetta talking about the decision on whether to fire that weapon.


LEON PANETTA: Unfortunately, this individual had family and wife and children around him. And so one of the tough questions was, you know, what should we do?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Standby. Do not engage, do not engage the bomb.


PANETTA: If there were women and children in the shot, we normally would not take the shot. I remember calling the White House and they were aware that - you know, how tough a decision this is. And they basically said, look, you know, you're going to have to make a judgment here. So I knew at that point that that was a decision that I was going to have to make. I mean, I'm the one who's going to have to say Hail Marys here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, a direct hit, right there.

PANETTA: And it did involve collateral damage, but we got him.


PANETTA: These are tough decisions. And you're damn right, they are tough decisions. But, you know, this is a war.

DAVIES: And that's former CIA Director Leon Panetta in the film "The Spymasters," made by our guests Chris Whipple and Jules Naudet. You know, the director says there - former director - says collateral damage. The entire family of this guy was killed, right?

WHIPPLE: That's right. Well, this is classified, as is everything else about the lethal drone program that the CIA operates. And a couple of points to be made here. One is that we were shocked, I think, by the extent to which the CIA directors make life-and-death decisions every day. I think most people assume that you make that phone call to the White House and somebody at the White House decides. As you can see, in this case it was all on Leon Panetta. The second point to be made here is that this is really, you know, not a history of the CIA, although it covers one of the most controversial periods in its history. It's really about the humanity of these directors. And I think when you listen to Leon Panetta described that ethical dilemma that he had to work itself through - you know, fingering his rosary beads and saying his Hail Marys and making that decision - I think that's a real and very human moment.

DAVIES: And the other thing that's fascinating about that is the CIA doesn't admit it engages in lethal drone operations. And you have a former director on camera saying, yeah, I pulled the trigger, right?

NAUDET: Well, there's a - you know, this is kind of the worst-kept secret of the CIA. Everybody knows it, but no one wants to say it out loud. And we were quite surprised, and I think some of the directors were surprised themselves, as you'll hear in the film, where General Petraeus, for example, is saying, no, no, no, I don't know anything about that, I don't even know they exist. And Mike Morell, who was acting director twice, actually says, I can't - you know, I'm not going there, but I can't believe these directors are talking about it. So I think, you know, for the first time they talk about drone strikes, they talk about signature strike, which is another very complicated issue. And where - do you - they choose the targets depending not on who's there - because they don't know the exact identity of the terrorist there - but they look at the place and if it has held meetings with terrorists before, they look at the weaponry that the people are carrying, they look at the kind of cars that have come through, and then they make a decision - this looks like a terrorist meeting.

DAVIES: In other words, it's a signature of a typical terrorist meeting and that's why it's called a signature strike. They don't have an identified target.

NAUDET: Exactly, correct - which is a problem and we've seen it not too long ago where when such a signature strike took place, we ended up at the end finding out that two hostages, including an American, had been killed in these strikes simply because we didn't know who was there.

WHIPPLE: So the striking thing is not only that the directors are talking about the signature strikes - and also, by the way, talking about the targeting of Anwar Awlaki, the American citizen who was a radical jihadist cleric - not just that they're talking about this but they're passionate in their disagreement over these policies. I mean, Bob Gates thinks that signature strikes are out of hand, that they need to be reined in. And on the subject of killing al-Awlaki, both Judge Webster - William Webster, the former director - and Gates extremely critical of the fact that there is no judicial process involved - that there's this so-called kill list. But it's - as Judge Webster put it, that kind of decision should never be based on the signature of one person, no matter who that person is, even if he's the president of United States.

NAUDET: And yet Leon Panetta says - has no problem with that. You know, he says, let's remember, in World War II you had Nazis who were American. For me, a terrorist is a terrorist. It doesn't change anything.

DAVIES: You know, in addition to the moral and legal issues involved in drone strikes, there's a policy issue here which you explore about whether it's effective. And it's raised here in a clip that I want to play. And we're going to hear Jose Rodriguez, who was the director of National Clandestine Services during George W. Bush's administration, and Admiral James Woolsey, who was a CIA director in the early 90s. And we'll also hear Chris Whipple asking some questions. Let's listen.


RODRIGUEZ: I think this administration prefers killing prisoners rather than holding them captive. And the reason, I think, is because it's hard. It's hard to capture. It's hard work, and many would consider it dirty business.

JAMES WOOLSEY: They're killing a lot of people with, let's say, drone strikes that would better be captured and interrogated, so that we might have a chance of learning what the terrorist group is going to do next. You can't question somebody you've killed.

WHIPPLE: So in other words, the CIA is just - we're taking no prisoners.

WOOLSEY: I don't know that that's the CIA's position. I think that's the president's position.

DAVIES: And that was James Woolsey and Jose Rodriguez from the film "The Spymasters." It is the product of our guests Chris Whipple and Jules Naudet. It premiered on Showtime and is available on Showtime streaming service and Showtime On Demand. There is a point here, it seems, and the civilian deaths that drone strikes inflict certainly create enemies. What do the directors who approve these strikes say about this?

WHIPPLE: It's an extraordinarily effective weapon. It's extremely precise when you can put a 14-pound warhead onto a target within inches. What it does is it - generally, it reduces collateral damage, the killing of innocents. It also enables you not to put American troops in harm's way. So for all of those reasons, it's a tool that many of the directors defend. So the controversy then is, you know, are we - but are we failing to capture prisoners and interrogate them the way we used to? And that may or may not be the case. I mean, I think the Obama administration would say, we only target enemy combatants when they cannot be can captured. But I think the - some of the other directors are skeptical of that. Woolsey is, and I think Rodriguez makes the point that it's - that maybe it's just - it's a dirty business, and it's become radioactive, the idea of capturing prisoners.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. On the question of whether the CIA should be authorizing and executing drone strikes, George Tenet says in your film, you know, I asked the question, do you want civilian officials firing weapons outside the military chain of command? He says something like, we never got an answer, and off we went.

NAUDET: And that was a fascinating part, I think. To see that all these directors are asking, you know, themselves these questions that a lot of us can't. I think they're wrestling with the same kind of thing. I think - and for a lot of them, drone strikes are OK, and for others they think, you know, it's - maybe we're going too far. Some even want to say, listen, it's interesting that President Obama has a problem with torture and yet we have no problem with signature strike, which has collateral damage.

DAVIES: All of the directors say - and you have a montage in the film in which they repeatedly say, we can't kill our way out of this problem, terrorism. That's one point of agreement, isn't it?

WHIPPLE: Yeah, it's fascinating. And, you know, frankly the CIA directors were unanimous on that. And a really profound point, I think, that was made by John Brennan, the current director, and also Michael Hayden, who preceded him - you know, one of the - at the end of the day, Brennan says, you know, all the CIA can really do is provide time and space. Hayden agreed with that and said that, you know, unless the politicians and the diplomats can step up and have the imagination and the courage to find solutions to the creation of terrorism, then you get into this cycle where you just get to kill people forever.

DAVIES: You mean time and space so you can prevent attacks for a period of time, but unless you undermine the appeal of terrorists, it will still be there.

WHIPPLE: That's right. And Mike Morell was very articulate on this. He was acting director, and he was President Bush's briefer on 9/11. He was acting director under President Obama. Mike Morell said, you know, if you look at the history since 9/11, there have been two great victories. Our great victory has been the decimation, near defeat, of that al-Qaida core in Asia that came to our shores on 9/11. Their great victory has been the spread of their ideology all through Africa and the Middle East. So they have a great victory too.

DAVIES: Well, Chris Whipple, Jules Naudet, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NAUDET: Thank you very much.

WHIPPLE: Our pleasure, thank you.

GROSS: Chris Whipple and Jules Naudet directed the new Showtime documentary "The Spymasters," which is available on Showtime's streaming service and on Showtime On Demand. They spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Coming up, our TV critic, David Bianculli, reviews the new Bill Murray Christmas special. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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