‘It’s soul-crushing’: the shocking story of Guantánamo Bay’s ‘forever prisoner’ | Documentary

From “a black web site” in Thailand in 2002, CIA officers warned headquarters that their interrogation strategies may end in the demise of a prisoner. If that occurred, he can be cremated, leaving no hint. But when he survived, might the CIA supply assurance that he can be stay in isolation?

It might. Abu Zubaydah, the company mentioned in a cable, “won’t ever be positioned in a state of affairs the place he has any vital contact with others” and “ought to stay incommunicado for the the rest of his life”.

So opens The Forever Prisoner, an HBO documentary by Alex Gibney, which tells the story of the first high-value detainee subjected to what the CIA calls enhanced interrogation strategies (EITs) and what the relaxation of the world is aware of by an easier, uglier phrase: torture.

Almost 20 years after that dehumanising cable, the CIA has proved pretty much as good as its phrase. Zubaydah, by no means charged with against the law or allowed to problem his detention, is incarcerated at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. The election of Joe Biden has performed nothing to sign an finish to his purgatory or standing as a non-person.


“He faces the horror that some folks at Guantánamo face, which is possibly the most existential horror of all, past even a prisoner who’s given a life sentence,” Gibney says in an interview at a Washington lodge a mile from the White Home. “You don’t actually know what your future is.

“Your future is perpetually undefined. You don’t know whether or not you’re ever going to get out or whether or not you’ll ever get a proof of why you proceed to be there and that’s the stuff we make films about once we’re attempting to painting tyrannical regimes.

“That’s Orwell. It’s not the boot on the face perpetually, but it surely’s that sense of eternally not figuring out what’s going to occur to you or why. That’s soul-crushing and has obtained to be psychologically destabilising in some actually potent approach the place you simply don’t know.”

Few would dispute that, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist assaults on New York and Washington, Zubaydah was an individual of curiosity (“He’s not Hollywood harmless, as even his lawyer would say,” Gibney notes). The Saudi-born Palestinian had fought in Afghanistan. He solid passports, organized journey for jihadists and had information of terrorist plots. He used greater than 30 aliases and was seen as a grasp of disguise.

However when Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan in March 2002 (he was shot whereas attempting to flee), he was wrongly demonised as a high-level al-Qaida operative slightly an impartial facilitator. He was whisked to a secret location in Thailand for questioning by males obsessive about how you can stop one other 9/11.

Gibney says: Abu Zubaydah was affected person zero for the CIA’s torture programme. That’s the purpose to research his story since you learn the way the rule of legislation was upended. How we went down a highway the place we had been extra fascinated with listening to what we needed to listen to, which is what torture tends to provide you, slightly than what the information actually had been.”

Zubaydah underwent enhanced interrogation strategies at the palms of CIA contractors, together with 83 functions of waterboarding in a single month alone. In an account he gave to his lawyer in 2008, Zubaydah recalled: “They saved pouring water and concentrating on my nostril and my mouth till I actually felt I used to be drowning and my chest was nearly to blow up from the lack of oxygen.”

Abu Zubaydah, date and location unknown.
Abu Zubaydah, date and site unknown. {Photograph}: AP

He additionally spent greater than 11 days in a coffin-sized field, and 29 hours in an excellent smaller field simply 21 inches large, 2.5 toes deep and a pair of.5 toes excessive. The documentary contains photographs of brutal therapy drawn by Zubaydah himself in addition to entries from his pre-capture and post-capture private diaries.

The US was deploying torture as authorities coverage for the first time in historical past – and it was wildly haphazard. Gibney provides: “The CIA wish to faux that it was a scientific programme rigorously calibrated by rigorous scientists. That’s not true in any respect. It was simply improvised. ‘Let’s attempt 24 hours of sleep deprivation. That’s not working. How about 48 hours? How about 72 hours?’

“Properly, your thoughts turns to mush after 72 hours of sleep deprivation they usually might have requested one of their very own specialists who would have mentioned, really, your cognitive potential nearly disappears at that time. So why would you interrogate anyone after 72 hours of sleep deprivation? It’s nonsensical. Clearly once they had been on the waterboard, they didn’t know the way far to go.

“What horrified me once I obtained into the particulars of this was how careless and reckless and advert hoc the complete factor was. It was simply shoot from the hip. ‘Hey, let’s attempt a bit bit of nudity right now. How about some chilly water? Oh, that’s not working. Let’s attempt the outdated cling ‘em from the wrists.


“‘Let’s put him in a field the place he’ll defecate on himself for 4 or 5 days. Which may work. Let’s play music actually loud. How about some Crimson Scorching Chili Peppers over and time and again?’ That was a interval the place formally EITs had not been legally permitted so that they’re simply improvising their spitballing.”

For Gibney, the case gives a stark demonstration that there are guidelines in opposition to torture as a result of it’s each immoral and fails to supply fact-based proof.

“Over the course of doing documentaries for a quantity of years, I preserve coming throughout this phrase ‘noble trigger corruption’. As soon as folks suppose they’re doing one thing for a noble trigger, they permit themselves to begin bending the guidelines, like planting a joint on a on a perp you possibly can’t get every other approach after which the subsequent factor you already know, you’re killing folks.

“I’d hope that individuals would start to grasp that the notion of the finish justifies the means is rarely a good suggestion as a result of when you settle for that, it means you’re principally permitting your self to upend the very ideas that you just’re claiming to uphold.”

Camp 5 at the US military’s prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Camp 5 at the US navy’s jail in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. {Photograph}: Thomas Watkins/AFP/Getty Pictures

He interviews James Mitchell, a retired air pressure psychologist and the chief architect of the EITs, who expresses no regrets for doing what he noticed as his patriotic obligation.

Mitchell tells the film-maker: “If my boss tells me it’s authorized, particularly if the president has permitted it, I’m not going to get into the nuances about what some man in the basement or what some journalist thinks about it, as a result of they’re free to commerce locations with me any time they suppose they will do a greater job or defending Individuals.”

Gibney additionally sued the CIA to un-redact former FBI agent Ali Soufan’s e-book, The Black Banners: How Torture Derailed the Warfare on Terror after 9/11, and gained entry to Soufan’s interrogation notes about his time with Zubaydah. This enabled Soufan to talk extra freely than earlier than and shed new mild on the case.

Gibney displays: “The rationale for [the torture] had all the time been that Abu Zubaydah was fully uncooperative. What was revealed in the new Ali Soufan interview, alongside together with his interrogation notes, was that inside an hour or two of interrogating him, he gave them an ongoing plot.

“That was in Israel funded by the Saudis, they usually helped to cease that plot. So figuring out that you just’d must conclude he was fully cooperative: he’s giving them an ongoing plot that they will really cease. However the conclusion reached by the CIA was simply the reverse.”

Zubaydah was taken to additional black websites in Poland, Guantánamo Bay, Morocco, Lithuania, Afghanistan and again to Guantánamo Bay, the place he has been held since 2006. Someplace alongside the approach in CIA custody he lost his left eye; he now wears a patch.

Unable to talk to him instantly, Gibney might solely talk through his legal professionals. “On the one hand his lawyer calls him a diva and says he’s a person of fierce intelligence, a darkish sense of humour, but in addition anyone who has been deeply traumatised. He has fierce complications, he has nightmares of drowning, not surprisingly.

It emerged final week that Zubaydah has petitioned a federal courtroom for his launch on grounds that US wars in Afghanistan and with al-Qaida are over. A authorized submitting describing his therapy over the previous 20 years as a “parade of horribles”.

For the time being, nevertheless, he stays in a authorized twilight zone, out of sight and out of thoughts besides when film-makers comparable to Gibney pressure America to re-confront the stain on its ethical authority. The director casts Zubaydah as the origin story of America’s defining failure of intelligence and the betrayal of its beliefs.

“I hope that this can be a get up name,” he says. “While you undergo the issues that they put Abu Zubaydah by and in addition the approach through which it was performed in such a ham fisted, careless and admittedly silly vogue, I hope folks will say, ‘I can’t consider this actually occurred and that we allowed this to occur’.

“Moreover, I hope the mental response will likely be to say Guantánamo as a jail, as a spot exterior the legislation, is a few sort of merciless joke and we’ve obtained to close it down as a result of it’s not who we aspire to be. He’s there in Gitmo not as a result of of what he did to us however for what we did to him. That’s why he’s being saved silent.”

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