Common Dreams: Coinciding with Senate hearings finally, tentatively underway to close the “stain on the moral fiber of America” – among, it must be said, many, many others – that is Guantánamo Bay, a new documentary was just released chronicling the life, incarceration, abuse and CIA-decreed fate “he will remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life” of Abu Zubaydah, widely deemed “patient zero for the CIA’s torture program.”
This week’s hearings, “Closing Guantánamo: 20 Years of Injustice,” brought back to the discomfiting limelight the reality of the barbarous, “most expensive prison on Earth,” where, at $13 million a wretched head, 39 men and boys out of almost 800 held over two decades remain rotting there with no due process, despite two-thirds having never been charged with a crime and almost a quarter cleared to leave.
Advocates argue the abiding presence of this “human rights atrocity,” emblematic of America’s deeply immoral, hubris-driven Forever Wars and denounced even by survivors of those killed on 9/11, is also a reminder of America’s other, longtime, oft-denied crimes reflecting the hard truth that “racialized/colonial torture and liberal democracy are not strangers (and) Western human rights do not easily include those deemed not to be white.”
Within that historic context, Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney’s “The Forever Prisoner,” released this week on HBO, offers a grim parable for “how the rule of law was upended” in a betrayal of alleged ideals that asks, “Are we prepared to abandon our principles in order to defend them?”
Having successfully sued the CIA for unprecedented access to their records, Gibney opens his film with some especially horrific fruit from his labors: The moment when CIA agents at a “black site” in Thailand called Strawberry Fields – “as in, forever” – idly wondered if their torture of Zubaydah might kill him and, more seriously, if not, what his survival would mean for them.
In a chilling cable, the CIA reassures them: Zubaydah “will never be placed in a situation where he has any significant contact with others,” and should remain “incommunicado” for the rest of his life.
Thus did Zubaydah, a Saudi-born Palestinian, become the first allegedly high-value detainee subjected to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” aka torture. In the film, his lawyer describes him as fiercely intelligent, now deeply traumatized and, candidly, “not Hollywood innocent”; he fought in Afghanistan, forged some passports, arranged travel for some jihadists, and used over 30 aliases.
But the CIA wrongly believed he was the number three operative in al-Qaida, rather than the low-level, independent facilitator he was. Captured in a firefight in Pakistan in 2002, and shot trying to escape, he was first flown to the Thailand site and later shuttled among CIA sites from Thailand to Poland for several years before being sent to Guantánamo, where he’s been imprisoned for almost 20 years. A recent legal filing described his treatment over that time as a “parade of horribles.” He has never been charged with a crime.
First interrogated by the FBI using traditional rapport-building techniques, Zubaydah quickly offered valuable, actionable intel about an impending attack on Israel by people in Saudi Arabia, which the CIA was able to prevent.
Then the CIA, convinced Zubaydah knew much more for reasons nobody ever plumbed other than an empire-building, power-hungry pathology common to the species, ramped up the pressure. In this, they took the lead of CIA contractor James Mitchell, the misbegotten father of the torture program despite the fact he had zero background in interrogation.
When Gibney asks in the film about the morality or legality of the program, Mitchell blows him off: “If my boss tells me it’s legal, especially if the president has approved it, I’m not going to get into the nuances about what some guy in the basement or what some journalist thinks about it.”
Mitchell gave the CIA a list of suggested abuses – slapping, beating, stress positions, sleep deprivation, loud music, hanging by the wrists, waterboarding, walling (throwing a prisoner into the wall); Gibney says the DOJ signed off on them “through a kind of excruciating legal exercise,” and the CIA went at it.
In his own testimony to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Zubaydah said he was kept in a very cold, windowless, 4m x 4m cell with four halogen lights pointed into it.
Guards and interrogators wore all black uniforms, balaclavas and goggles to keep them anonymous and prevent him from establishing any sense of connection with them as individuals. They used hand signals to communicate amidst loud music on a ceaseless 15-minute loop or white noise to enhance “a sense of hopelessness.”
Zubaydah was often naked, cold, sleep-deprived and assaulted by noise and light. At first he was kept shackled hand and foot, naked, without food, strapped to a bed or chair as he was questioned, with cold water sprayed in his face to keep him awake.
Then he was given rice once a day and allowed to lay on the floor, still naked, cold, chained; after two months he got a a mattress and blanket, but if interrogators felt he wasn’t cooperating they took away the clothes and chained him again in the chair, often with a hood.
He was waterboarded for weeks at a time – once, 83 times in a month – both upright and strapped to a hospital bed, during which he repeatedly vomited, lost consciousness, and suffered leg and arm spasms.
He spent 11 days in a coffin-like box, and over a day in a smaller one requiring him to crouch, though he “cried, begged, pleaded” to be let out. He was put into another tall black box where he struggled to breathe. Even while shackled, he was repeatedly beaten, slapped, hung from his wrists, smashed against a plywood wall.
At one point he stopped breathing, literally died and had to be revived. At some point – it’s unclear when – he lost his left eye; he now wears an eye patch. In testimony, Zubaydah has said that daily, weekly, monthly, over two decades, especially at the start, he never knew what his captors planned for him.
“I was told that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied,” he said. “It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”
Remarkably, he documented his abuses in harrowing drawings – the floor, chair, coffin, waterboarding – and in diaries. Early interrogations were also videotaped by the CIA, who produced 92 tapes including 12 of torture; unsurprisingly, they later destroyed the tapes.
For Alex Gibney, most horrifying was the “wildly haphazard” process of interrogation – let’s try nudity, okay now let’s try no sleep – by a country “deploying torture as government policy for the first time in history…(It was) careless and reckless and ad hoc.” It was also illegal, immoral and demonstrably ineffective, resulting in terrorized detainees who “tell you exactly what it is that they think you want to hear.”
The CIA thought he was number three in al-Qaida, “which he wasn’t. But, ultimately, he says, yes, I’m number three…If you’re in the intelligence business, what do you want, the truth or somebody to tell you what you want to hear?”
Thanks to their staggering ineptitude, Gibney says Zubaydah remains in Gitmo “not because of what he did to us, but for what we did to him.” There, he faces “maybe the most existential horror of all, the stuff we make movies about when we’re trying to portray tyannical regimes: You don’t know what your future is.
That’s Orwell. It’s not the boot on the face forever, it’s that sense of eternally not knowing what is going to happen to you or why. That is soul-crushing.”
Last week, news emerged Zubaydah has petitioned a federal court for his release on grounds that U.S. wars in Afghanistan and with al-Qaida have ended; his lawyers argue if there’s no combat, how can you lock up “enemy combatants” forever? Meanwhile, true to the CIA’s long-ago vow to its Thailand torturers, Zubaydah “we do not hear from.”