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“The Forever Prisoner”: Alex Gibney on How Patient Zero of CIA’s Torture Program Still Held at Gitmo

Web ExclusiveDecember 10, 2021
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In an extended interview with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, he discusses his new film, “The Forever Prisoner,” which tells the story of Guantánamo prisoner Abu Zubaydah, the first so-called high-value prisoner subjected to the CIA’s torture program, who has been indefinitely imprisoned since 2006 without charge.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our conversation about an incredible documentary that’s just been released by HBO called The Forever Prisoner.

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing about closing Guantánamo, the first hearing on the issue in eight years. The Biden administration has declined to send a witness to testify, so far has failed to outline a clear plan to close Guantánamo.

Since it opened in 2002, Guantánamo has been used to indefinitely imprison hundreds of, well, overwhelmingly Muslim men deemed suspected terrorists by the U.S. government, without due process, many of them never being charged. One of those still imprisoned at Guantánamo is Abu Zubaydah, his story told in the HBO documentary The Forever Prisoner. Again, this is the trailer.

UNIDENTIFIED: In 2002, FBI and CIA agents thought they had nabbed a diabolical al-Qaeda mastermind. Abu Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime. He was imprisoned in the secret CIA unit called Strawberry Fields — as in forever.

DANIEL JONES: Prior to 9/11, the CIA never captured or detained anybody. They weren’t prepared.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: People started looking for who was best to interrogate, and there weren’t any.

UNIDENTIFIED: Psychologist James Mitchell was the only candidate considered.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ JR.: I just took it for granted that they knew what they were doing.

UNIDENTIFIED: The CIA officers were certain he was holding back, because he wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear.

JOHN RIZZO: Something more aggressive had to be done.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: The lawyer’s philosophy is, “Tell me what you want to do, boss, and I’ll make it legal.”

JOSEPH MARGULIES: We asked him to draw what was done to him.

UNIDENTIFIED: Abu Zubaydah is put in isolation.

ALI SOUFAN: Everything that was happening was Mitchell’s experiment. Nudity has been approved. Sleep deprivation has been approved. Noise has been approved. The same song again and again and again.

UNIDENTIFIED: He spent 11 days in a coffin-shaped box. He was on the waterboard.

ALI SOUFAN: I mean, this is crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED: The best evidence of what happened is the video.

LAWRENCE LUSTBERG: What was the reason why you thought that it was important to have the tapes destroyed?

JOSE RODRIGUEZ JR.: I needed to protect the people who were there.

JOHN RIZZO: Destroying evidence would inevitably lead to accusations of a cover-up.

JOSE RODRIGUEZ JR.: It would make the CIA look bad.

UNIDENTIFIED: It was an impossible story to tell. So I sued the CIA to get materials unredacted.

UNIDENTIFIED: We saw constant manipulation by the CIA, misleading Bush, misleading Obama.

JAMES MITCHELL: If my boss tells me it’s legal, if the president approved it, I’m not going to get into what some journalist thinks about it.

UNIDENTIFIED: In America, we have this thing called innocent until proven guilty.

LAWRENCE WILKERSON: We were the leaders of the effort against cruel and unusual punishment. After 9/11, that’s out the window.

UNIDENTIFIED: Do the ends always justify the means? Are we prepared to abandon our principles in order to defend them?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the new HBO documentary The Forever Prisoner.

For more, we’re continuing our conversation with its director, Alex Gibney, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker.

Alex, welcome back to Democracy Now! Now, the advantage of a Part 2 is we really get to spend time looking at, well, this astounding — the footage you have, the information you got under the Freedom of Information Act. But again, if you could start off by explaining who Abu Zubaydah is and why you chose to make your film about him?

ALEX GIBNEY: So, Abu Zubaydah is a Palestinian who grew up in Saudi Arabia. In the — around 2002, he was a facilitator, moving people in and out of Afghanistan from Pakistan. And in 2002, he was captured in a raid by the CIA and FBI and sent to a secret site in Thailand to be interrogated, initially, for all sorts of reasons.

The two people who interrogated him were two FBI agents: Ali Soufan and Steve Gaudin. Ali Soufan, in particular, knew a great deal about al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-related operatives, and so was the perfect person to interrogate him. They interrogated Abu Zubaydah. And within an hour, he was cooperating and, indeed, gave them information about an impending plot in Israel. It was foiled.

George Tenet, the head of the CIA, was thrilled, until he discovered that Ali Soufan was an FBI agent, not a CIA agent. Why it made any difference, I don’t really know. But on that basis, he moved very quickly to try to put in a CIA team to interrogate Abu Zubaydah, and this team ultimately would go down the path of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, otherwise known to the rest of the world as torture. And the person sent who devised those techniques was a man named James Mitchell, a psychologist, who had been hired as a contractor by the CIA.

So, Abu Zubaydah is the kind of the patient zero, the first person to undergo this torture program that was initiated by the CIA. And that’s why his story is so important and so compelling to understand how and why this happened.

AMY GOODMAN: And, I mean, just to go back, you have Ali Soufan and his partner questioning Abu Zubaydah. Abu Zubaydah is in very bad shape. He has been shot a number of times. It looks like he’s not going to make it. The word comes back from the U.S., “You are to keep him alive at all costs.” He’s sent to a hospital with Ali Soufan at his side, like his brother, like his relative, continuing to talk. This astounding moment when Ali Soufan gets word that because they’re FBI and not CIA, and George Tenet wanted credit, that they are to be pulled off this team, and this other group, no telling who they were, were going to move in, if you could talk more about that?

ALEX GIBNEY: It’s a little bit astounding. I mean, as I said, you know, Ali Soufan was getting incredible information. In addition to an impending plot, very early on, they also, you know, got from Abu Zubaydah the identity of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the fact that he was, in fact, the mastermind, or the alleged mastermind, behind 9/11. So they were getting torrents of information. But for some reason, what was more important than anything to George Tenet — and this was a kind of CIA operation, even though FBI agents were doing it — what was more important than anything to George Tenet was to be able to take credit for this. And so, on that basis, he dispatches this team. It’s one of the mysterious things about this.

And the person that they dispatched, who would ultimately invent these EITs, initially experimenting and then codifying them, was hired almost on a whim. I mean, you know, George Tenet gets furious. He turns to one of his lieutenants, a man named Jose Rodriguez, who ran the Counterterrorism Center. And he asked his lawyer, “Jeez, do you know anybody who might be good at this?” And his lawyer says, “Well, you know, my wife knows a guy.” His wife knew a guy. They didn’t go through some kind of extraordinary, you know, vetting process; they just hired the first person that Jose Rodriguez’s lawyer’s wife happens to know. And that was a psychologist named James Mitchell, who happened to have done a paper for the CIA.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go to a clip from your film, The Forever Prisoner, where we hear from James Mitchell, the retired Air Force psychologist, chief architect of the CIA’s torture program. This clip begins, though, with the FBI agent Ali Soufan.

ALEX GIBNEY: You call this guy Boris. Is Boris his real name?

ALI SOUFAN: No. I cannot talk about him, and I cannot even mention his real name.

ALEX GIBNEY: This is Boris. His real name is James Mitchell. He also wrote a book about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. But Mitchell’s book had the full cooperation of the CIA, because Mitchell was the inventor of EITs, the acronym for what the CIA called enhanced interrogation techniques, and what the rest of the world called torture.

JAMES MITCHELL: 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, because they’re free to trade places with me anytime they think they can do a better job of protecting Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s psychologist James Mitchell. Alex, the involvement of Mitchell and Jessen, these psychologists, would eventually really blow up the American Psychological Association, as well, with the involvement of psychologists with torture — you know, the American Psychological Association, the largest group of psychologists in the world. But back to this beginning, if you can first tell us about how you got information? Here we see Ali Soufan saying, “I’m not going to tell you his name. It’s Boris.” But you then come up with all this information and go back to Ali Soufan to really reveal what was going on here. How did you get the information? And lay out what you learned about these secret torture prisons and, ultimately, Abu Zubaydah going to Guantánamo.

ALEX GIBNEY: Well, the simple answer is we sued the CIA, and the CIA, remarkably, backed down. And I think they backed down because it was just too embarrassing. I mean, the fact was that Ali Soufan had written a book in which he had contained — which contained a great deal of information about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. But that book was — while it was not at all redacted by the FBI, it was heavily redacted by the CIA, page after page after page just black. Ali Soufan, rather than go through 10, 15 years of a battling with the CIA, chose to publish it with those redactions intact in order — as a kind of a protest. We, though, sued the CIA to get that unredacted. And one of the reasons I suspect that they backed down was that, I mean, it was clear that the redactions were purely punitive. For example, they would redact the first person singular pronoun “I” — “I went here, I did this,” but “I” would be redacted. So I think going before a judge would have been hugely embarrassing for the CIA. So, they unredacted his book, which meant that Ali Soufan, for the first time, could talk about what happened.

And indeed, as part of our FOIA process, we also got Ali Soufan’s original interrogation notes, which gave contemporary evidence of exactly what Abu Zubaydah was saying at the time. We were able to get videotape of Abu Zubaydah himself. And we got an extraordinary amount of cables back and forth from the black site to CIA headquarters with all — and, indeed, one of the other things we got were drawings done by Abu Zubaydah at the behest of his attorneys to show what had been done to him. We had his diaries. We had other documentation of what had happened to him.

So, with all of this data, newly acquired data, which had never been seen before, we were able to tell this foundational story of Abu Zubaydah. But it really took some work. And also with the extraordinary help of Ray Bonner, an investigative journalist, who launched the suit with me, and this great clinic out of the Yale Law School called the MFIA Clinic, which helped to do a lot of our legal work, we pushed forward, and we were able to get an extraordinary amount of information that finally shed light on how this program, this torture program, came to be.

AMY GOODMAN: I encourage people to go to our website at to see our latest interview with Ray Bonner. Alex, Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times. I mean, you go from the treatment by Ali Soufan, who is holding his hand, who’s speaking to him in Arabic, of course, in the hospital and getting unbelievable amounts of information, to these men covered in black, moving into — when we say torture, if you could go into what that torture was, the horror of the torture?

ALEX GIBNEY: Yeah, I think that “horror” is is a pretty good word for it. I mean, they claim to be operating in a kind of scientific fashion, but the fact was that James Mitchell and his partner, Bruce Jessen, who came later, once these techniques had been legalized, they had never conducted an interrogation before. And while they had observed waterboarding as part of the SERE school to help train people to resist the depredations of authoritarian regimes, they had never administered waterboarding. But they proceeded on waterboarding Abu Zubaydah 83 times. Now, some people will say that waterboarding is a kind of simulated drowning. There’s nothing simulated about it. It’s drowning. You are literally forced — you put a cloth over somebody’s head, you immobilize them, and you pour water down their nose and throat until they’re breathing water. And when you breathe water, you drown. That’s what they were doing. And they did it to him 83 times. Brutal.

They would also put him in a coffin-shaped box, where he — for days at a time, where he would defecate on himself. They would slam him up against walls. They would subject him to sleep deprivation for 72 hours. Now, people say, “Sleep deprivation, it sounds like, well, you just get a little bit tired.” You began to hallucinate. And the fact is, if you cannot sleep for an extended period of time, you die. So, all of these techniques were being employed simultaneously and with a kind of reckless abandon, because nobody had really done this before.

So, yeah, it was brutal torture, for nearly a month. And Abu Zubaydah still is haunted by this. Every night, he wakes up — or, I don’t know if it’s every night, but often he’ll wake up screaming, because he feels he’s drowning.

AMY GOODMAN: And the artistry of Abu Zubaydah, can you talk about his drawings?

ALEX GIBNEY: His drawings are very — I was talking to his lawyer, Joe Margulies, about this. I said that they’re very — they’re very skilled. Joe wasn’t willing to weigh in on their aesthetic accomplishments, but I will. I mean, I think they’re exquisitely expressive in terms of what happened to him. And they’re very valuable, because — well, for one very key reason.

There was, at one time, a tremendous amount of evidence about what was done to Abu Zubaydah from the very beginning, when the CIA arrived in Thailand in early April. They videotaped every interrogation session, including all of the torture sessions, the waterboarding sessions. Well, after the Abu Ghraib scandal came out, and everybody — there was such a huge uproar over it, the CIA, or a number of people inside the CIA, without any legal authorization, decided to destroy these videotapes. So there is no record now. Evidence of a crime was destroyed.


ALEX GIBNEY: In fact, one of the people —

AMY GOODMAN: One of the people, Gina Haspel?

ALEX GIBNEY: Yes, one of the people — at the behest of Jose Rodriguez, Gina Haspel made sure that those videotapes were destroyed. As we know, Gina Haspel became CIA director under the Bush administration. So there was hardly anybody held to account for destroying evidence of a possible crime, which is kind of one of the staggering things about this entire episode, that no one, really, at the CIA, nor Mitchell, the contractor, have really been held to account for what it was that they did. And because this program was made legal by what I would regard almost like mafia lawyering — as Larry Wilkerson says in the trailer, “Tell me what you want to do, boss, and I’ll make it legal.” That’s kind of the legal process that operated here. But, you know, beyond that, this idea that Jose Rodriguez and Gina Haspel would just destroy these tapes, I mean, that’s, in my mind, illegal. You can’t destroy evidence of a possible crime. But nobody was held to account, which is maybe one of the most shocking things about this.

And indeed, the full record of what happened to Abu Zubaydah, and indeed the whole torture program, is still heavily classified, because the CIA, you know, has put the fear of God into so many people to try to prevent the truth from being told, which is, I think, one of the most enduring lessons about this story and, indeed, one of the reasons I made the film. The fact is, there can be good reasons for keeping things secret. You protect sources and methods. But everyone agrees that you can’t use the classification process in order to hide mistakes or to hide crimes. And that’s precisely what was done here. And so, I would hope that this film might lead people to demand the ultimate declassification of the full Senate torture report.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is what I wanted to get to, is what you’re hoping with your work. I mean, Alex, you won an Oscar, an Academy Award, for Taxi to the Dark Side, and you move from that to this film, The Forever Prisoner. At the heart of your work is the inhumanity, the corruption of this dangerous what is called patriotism after 9/11, and what you’re hoping will happen right now.

ALEX GIBNEY: OK. So, a lot of my work deals with this issue of the end justifies the means. To me, once you decide that the end justifies the means, you’re on the path to corruption. And if you say, “I did this for patriotic reasons, so everything I did is OK,” it’s not OK.

But I think the other thing I hope will happen to this film is, frankly, the closing of Gitmo. The fact that Gitmo, Guantánamo, is still open is an outrage. And let’s take it in the case of Abu Zubaydah. One of the things we discovered in doing this story was a cable sent back from the black site to Langley, just before they were about to torture Abu Zubaydah. And they said, “Look, if he dies, don’t worry. We’ll cremate him. Nobody will ever know. But if he survives, we want your assurance that he’ll never get to talk to anybody again.” They get a cable back from HQ at the CIA that says, “Rest assured, he will remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” That’s a direct quote. Now, that’s called indefinite detention. That’s the kind of thing we accuse reprehensible authoritarian regimes of doing. But that’s what we’re doing at Guantánamo, because Abu Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime, nor has he ever been able to challenge his detention.

In fact, even the Supreme Court recently, earlier this fall, were shocked, a kind of — I would argue, in a kind of Claude Rains fashion. But they were shocked that he had never been afforded the basic principle of habeas corpus, which is the essence of the rule of law. So, one of the things I hope will happen as a part of this film is that we’ll finally have the courage to shut down this affront to the rule of law which is Guantánamo.

AMY GOODMAN: And the latest news that the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing about closing Guantánamo, the first on the issue in eight years, the Biden administration declining to send a witness to testify, so far failing to outline a plan to close this? And you have Abu Zubaydah himself now petitioning to be released, saying the War in Afghanistan and against al-Qaeda is over.

ALEX GIBNEY: Yes, that’s absolutely true. And there’s also a Supreme Court case pending to decide whether or not Abu Zubaydah will actually finally be able to speak. This is a legal case revolving around the black site, the torture site in Poland. The question is: Will Abu Zubaydah be permitted to speak about what happened to him? And yes, will he be permitted to finally, you know, have his habeas petition heard to see whether he can be properly released, as he should be, in my view?

AMY GOODMAN: Alex Gibney, I want to thank you for being with us, Oscar award-winning filmmaker, his latest film, The Forever Prisoner, which tells the story of Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value Guantánamo detainee, as he’s called, subjected to the CIA’s torture program following the 9/11 attacks. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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