A new HBO Max documentary takes a detailed look at what the U.S. was willing to do to combat terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“The Forever Prisoner” centers on Abu Zubaydah — a Palestinian who was captured in a firefight in Pakistan in 2002 and then sent to a secret black site in Thailand that had been set up by the Central Intelligence Agency.
He was the first detainee who was subjected to what the agency called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including sleep deprivation, putting him in a fake coffin, being kept naked in a cold room and waterboarded 83 times in a single month.
Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime, but he remains at the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. “The Forever Prisoner,” directed by Alex Gibney, airs Monday night.
The interrogation techniques used on Zubaydah were justified in the aftermath of 9/11 due to the “real fears” coming from the U.S. intelligence community, Gibney says. Shortly following the al Qaeda-coordinated attacks, deadly anthrax attacks targeted U.S. senators and media figures, and then the shoe bomber incident took place on American Airlines Flight 63.
“Everybody was on edge,” Gibney says.
What the CIA truly knew about Zubaydah at the time of his capture varies across the board, Gibney says. Some knew Zubaydah as an independent facilitator, which is what Gibney says Zubaydah actually was, while others believed him to be a top leader in al Qaeda.
“There are people in Washington who are convinced that he was the number three in al Qaeda, that he was actually right after Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri,” he says. “They were convinced he was about as big a fish as you could get.”
The U.S. nabbed Zubaydah in Pakistan, sent him to Thailand, and as “The Forever Prisoner” shows, FBI officials questioned him. Within minutes of interrogation, Zubaydah gave the officials useful, actionable intelligence about a plot against Israel funded by Saudi money, Gibney explains.
However, then CIA director George Tenet, who was initially thrilled about the new information, “flew into a rage” when he discovered Zubaydah was being questioned by FBI agents instead of CIA agents, Gibney says. Bureaucratic infighting ensued, he says, leaving Tenet to believe Zubaydah had more information than he let on even as FBI agents insisted they were making progress.
James Mitchell then comes into play. Mitchell, a central player in the documentary, is a psychologist who had worked for years at the Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. Some military personnel attend the school to learn how to survive capture, escape imprisonment or live off the land if you get lost in battle. Part of the training involved SERE students serving as the victims of authoritarian techniques, such as waterboarding.
“The thinking was that you could retrofit those techniques and turn them into interrogation techniques,” he says, “which is kind of jaw dropping in retrospect because those techniques themselves were well known not to produce actionable intelligence, but to produce almost always what the interrogator wanted to hear rather than what the truth was.”
That’s because the victim will do or say anything to make the torture stop, Gibney explains.
The CIA became convinced by psychologist Mitchell that these techniques would get Zubaydah to talk, he says. In the documentary, Gibney uses a sound clip of Mitchell defending the decisions.
“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 said, “because they're free to trade places with me any time if they think they can do a better job of protecting Americans.”
Mitchell and his team got legal authorization from Washington to utilize these “extremely harsh tactics” on Zubaydah, he says. As the documentary reveals, all evidence from Zubaydah’s interviews are destroyed — so all anyone can go off of is drawings the prisoner drew of his own captivity.
“What struck me over and over again was just how brutal it was. I mean, imagine being locked in a coffin for five days, defecating on yourself,” Gibney says. “Being waterboarded 83 times, he actually died. He stopped breathing and had to be brought back to life after one of the waterboarding sessions.”
Ultimately, these tactics against Zubaydah did not produce any new or usable intelligence. The CIA still argues it was worth it and claims information initially obtained from Zubaydah by an FBI agent named Ali Soufan was actually acquired through the enhanced interrogation techniques. Gibney calls those claims “a lie.”
“There was no information obtained through enhanced interrogation techniques that had any value in terms of stopping attacks,” he says. “The only value it had was to convince the CIA that he didn't have that information, after all.”
The documentary describes how these interrogation techniques become standardized, used on many other suspects going forward. As for Zubaydah, he could be detained in Guantanamo Bay for the rest of his life.
His military lawyer, Chantell Higgins, argues Zubaydah’s imprisonment without a trial — and subsequently, his “legal limbo” as former general counsel for the CIA John Rizzo puts it in the documentary — goes against his human rights.
“In America, we have this thing called innocent until proven guilty,” Higgins says. “... It's just inhumane to detain someone and not give them rights. Period.”
Gibney says recently, the Supreme Court justices were “shocked” that Zubaydah had not been permitted to challenge his detention.
A number of CIA members were asked for comment in the documentary but did not make themselves available for interviews, Gibney says.
“The CIA will see [the documentary] today along with everybody else in America, and I'd be delighted to hear from them with any comment that they might have,” the director says.
Putting together “The Forever Prisoner” revealed to Gibney the failures of intelligence when it comes to using enhanced interrogation techniques.
“I think it's a terrible stain on our reputation going forward because we've never really reckoned with what it is that we did,” he says.
While a torture report was conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the CIA has not reckoned with their transgressions and tried to most details of the report secret, he says.
The documentary makers sued to get some of the information provided in the report.
“It seems to me that as a nation, in order to go forward and do better in the future, we have to be able to reckon with mistakes we made in the past,” Gibney says. “But as far as the CIA is concerned, the stakes are classified. They're not discussed. And that, I think, is something that has to change.”
This segment aired on December 6, 2021.