Judy Woodruff: A new HBO documentary that debuted this week tells the story of a man who was once considered the chief operative of Al Qaeda and the US efforts to justify torture in the name of protecting Americans.
Amna Nawaz recently met with director Alex Gibney.
It is part of the Canvas series dedicated to art and culture.
Amna Nawaz: Abu Zubaydah was the first high-ranking prisoner to undergo a CIA program of enhanced interrogation methods, methods called torture, both here in the US and around the world.
After Zubaydah was captured in a shootout in Pakistan in 2002, he was sent to the so-called “black places”, secret prisons run by the CIA around the world. He has never been charged with a crime, but has remained in detention for the past 20 years, mostly in Guantanamo Bay, while a team of lawyers are fighting to get him released.
A new documentary entitled “Prisoner Forever” explores the story of Abu Zubaydah and US actions in the name of national security.
The creator of the film is Oscar-winning Alex Gibney. And now he’s joining me.
Welcome to News Hour. Thanks for being here.
Alex Gibney, director, Prisoner of the Eternal: Thanks. Glad to be here.
Amna Nawaz: Abu Zubaydah is considered a high-ranking prisoner in the United States. Tell us a little about him. What did the US think he knew made him valuable?
Alex GibneyA: Well, some CIA members thought he was number three in al-Qaeda.
This made him a very valuable prisoner. Other CIA members actually felt that he was more of an independent broker than he really was. He was taken to a secret location that we now know was in Thailand, in the north of Thailand. And he was interrogated first by FBI agents and then by a group from the CIA, eventually a gentleman named James Mitchell.
Amna NawazQ: When the FBI is interrogating, does it offer them any useful information?
Alex Gibney: He provided the FBI with information that turned out to be useful almost immediately, and it was about an impending attack, in this case on Israel, funded by people from Saudi Arabia.
And the CIA managed to prevent this attack. Thus, he immediately offered valuable, actionable information using traditional methods of building rapport that had nothing to do with torture.
Amna NawazA: Then the CIA is still convinced that he is withholding information. We don’t quite understand why, but they decide to increase the pressure.
This man you mentioned, James Mitchell, plays a much more important role in this operation.
I just want to play a little clip here. This is how you represent it in the film.
Alex GibneyMitchell was the inventor of the EITs, an acronym for what the CIA called Advanced Interrogation Techniques and the rest of the world called torture.
JAMES MITCHELL, Former CIA Contractor: If my boss tells me it’s legal, especially if the president approved it, I’m not going to go into the nuances of what some guy in the basement or what some journalist thinks about it, because they can switch places with me anytime they think they can better protect the Americans.
Amna NawazAlex, how did this man, how did James Mitchell end up on the black CIA website, where Abu Zubaydah is being interrogated? What is his interrogation experience?
Alex GibneyA: That’s a really good question.
He has absolutely zero experience in interrogation, none. He had never questioned anyone in his life. However, he made a distinguished career as a psychologist who spent time at the so-called Air Force SERE School. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.
So he watched and was part of a school that taught people – taught people to resist torture. But he himself never interrogated.
Amna NawazA: Regardless, Mitchell submits the list to the CIA. These are the recommended methods that they should consider.
This list includes things like hitting detainees, erecting walls that basically push them against the wall, stressful postures, close confinement, sleep deprivation, and water riding.
For most of us lay people, this sounds like torture, but of course the US has signed the Geneva Convention against Torture.
The Justice Department signs the whole thing. How did it happen?
Alex Gibney: Well, that’s part of the story of The Eternal Prisoner.
This happens as a result of excruciating legal exercises in which they use the rationale or rationalization that since we do these things to our own people, how bad can it really be? Because we are really working on the water boards of some of our soldiers to show them what to expect if they are captured by a terrible regime.
But these are exercises. Moreover, these methods almost always lead not to people telling you the truth, but to the fact that they are telling you exactly what they think you want to hear.
Amna NawazSo, the Justice Department is actually giving the green light to James Mitchell and the CIA investigators who are arresting Abu Zubaydah.
What happens next? What does this mean for his interrogations?
Alex Gibney: This means that they are doing these techniques, including water sports. And in a few weeks, he made a board of water 83 times.
Indeed, one day he dies. He literally stops breathing, and he needs to be revived, returned. And at some point, James Mitchell, who, after all, was kind of the architect of these methods, even turns to the CIA and says that we … we were constantly flooding him with water, and he was in great pain. We don’t think it’s worth doing this anymore.
And the CIA is pushing for a sequel. And they keep throwing water at him over and over again.
Amna Nawaz: You know, people will watch this story. They will be following the news over the past 20 years to learn about these methods and to say that in times of war, in the name of national security, the US will always and probably always do ugly and terrible things.
What would you tell them?
Alex Gibney: I would say two things. First, these methods are immoral.
I would say, secondly, they do not give the truth. They are unreliable. They tend to give what investigators want to hear. The CIA considered him the third number on al-Qaeda, but he is not. But ultimately he says yes, I’m number three in al-Qaeda.
So, you have to ask yourself, if you are in the intelligence business, what do you want, the truth, or someone to tell you what you want to hear?
Amna Nawaz: Meanwhile, we hear nothing about the man in the center of all this, Abu Zubaydah. What does the future hold for him?
Alex Gibney: This is a good question.
It is located at Guantanamo Bay. He has never been charged with a crime. He was never allowed to appeal his detention. And one of the things that we found while working on this documentary was a telegram – or a series of telegrams going back and forth from a black site in Thailand to the CIA in Langley.
And the CIA reassures the interrogators who fear that Abu Zubaydah may someday reveal what happened to him, rest assured – and this is a direct quote – that he will be left without contact with the outside world for the rest of his life. “
And so far, this has been the case, although, interestingly, his name recently surfaced in the Supreme Court, and a certain number of judges wondered how it was possible that someone could be held in custody for 20 years without being able to challenge his detention. ?
Amna Nawaz: Documentary film “The Eternal Prisoner”.
He will debut on HBO and HBO Max.
Alex Gibney, thank you very much for being here.
Alex Gibney: Thanks.