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Gitmo’s Eternal Inmate Takes Center Stage in Alex Gibney’s New Documentary

Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney’s The Forever Prisoner reveals the brutal truth behind the nearly two-decade imprisonment of Guantanamo Bay inmate Abu Zubaydah — and the powerful men at the top of the American government responsible for his torture. We spoke with Gibney about it.

Filmmaker Alex Gibney at Build Studio on January 13, 2020 in New York City. (Gary Gershoff / Getty Images)

Interview by
Ed Rampell

The greatest misnomer ever in human history, as Alex Gibney’s disturbing new Gitmo documentary proves, is using the word “intelligence” in the name of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In The Forever Prisoner, Gibney chronicles the torture and imprisonment of Saudi Arabian Abu Zubaydah, who, after almost twenty years of imprisonment, has never been charged with a crime — one of only twenty-nine prisoners still behind bars at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The troubling film specifically probes the roles played by psychologists — as well as high-ranking government officials in both the CIA and the Justice Department — in Zubaydah’s enhanced interrogation.

A prolific producer and director, Alex Gibney has long specialized in making nonfiction films about corrupt elites’ abuses of power and human rights. The targets Gibney has fearlessly tackled in his prodigious oeuvre include, among many others, a war criminal in The Trials of Henry Kissinger; überlobbyist Jack Abramoff and GOP majority whip Tom “The Hammer” DeLay in Casino Jack and the United States of Money; clerical abuse in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God; and Big Pharma in The Crime of the Century.


ER

With The Forever Prisoner, you’re returning to the scene of the crime — that is, the subject you also pursued in Taxi to the Dark Side, your 2007 documentary about torture in Afghanistan, which you won the Oscar for. Why go back to the same topic?

AG

New information. And there’s an aspect to the story that I never properly understood — nor could I understand it, because the information wasn’t available. So I leaned into this one so I could tell a very specific story, the kind of origin story of the torture program in a way I couldn’t tell it before. Because we sued the CIA and got Ali Soufan’s book [The Black Banners (Declassified): How Torture Derailed the War on Terror after 9/11] unredacted, and we also got some other documents that helped us tell the tale.

ER

Who is Abu Zubaydah?

AG

Abu Zubaydah was the first high-value detainee captured post-9/11. I suppose Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi would be considered to also have been a high-value detainee, but he was never interrogated by the CIA. Abu Zubaydah was a high-value detainee captured in Pakistan in March 2002. The CIA, or some people at the CIA, felt he was number three at al-Qaeda.

He was whisked to a black site in Thailand, and because the CIA either didn’t recognize or accept that this really was Abu Zubaydah, and because they really weren’t ready to interrogate high-value detainees — despite having been given this job by the president not long after 9/11 — two FBI agents were sent to interrogate him, Ali Soufan and Stephen Gaudin, in late March 2002. He was worth interrogating because he knew a lot about operations.

ER

At various points in your film, as you just said, Abu Zubaydah is referred to as “a high-value detainee” or the “number three or four in al-Qaeda.” In your view, was Zubaydah even a member of al-Qaeda?

AG

It’s not my view — it’s a fact that he was never a member of al-Qaeda, much less number three in al-Qaeda. This was a fiction that was either believed or purposely perpetrated by the CIA. In fact, in order to get permission to waterboard Abu Zubaydah — legal permission — the CIA continued to insist that he was number three in al-Qaeda, even though the CIA at that point knew he was not.

ER

How did Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation lead to his torture?

AG

Early on, Ali Soufan and Stephen Gaudin got actionable intelligence from Abu Zubaydah very quickly. Within an hour Abu Zubaydah had cooperated and given them notice about an impending plot in Israel that could have cost human lives. They foiled that plot — they got that information back to the CIA. George Tenet was initially very happy, and he wanted to commend the CIA people who’d gotten this information. But when he found out they were FBI, he flew into a rage and insisted that CIA people be on the scene to interrogate.

Within a few days, James Mitchell — who was a contractor who’d never interrogated anybody — was sent to interrogate Abu Zubaydah. He began experimenting with harsh techniques, and over the next few months, the CIA would go to the Justice Department to try to get legal approval for a list of techniques recommended by Mitchell so that Mitchell and everyone involved in the program wouldn’t be prosecuted, because most people think of these techniques as torture — they include things like waterboarding, throwing, radical sleep deprivation, putting people into a coffin-shaped box for days at a time.

ER

What was “the ticking time bomb theory” that was used to rationalize the torture of Abu Zubaydah and others?

AG

It’s the idea that there’s a ticking time bomb and you can’t afford to play nice with terrorists because the bomb is going to go off, so you’ve got to beat them. The fact is that’s a fiction. It never happens like that. Most operatives are trained to resist for a short period of time. Then it’s assumed they’re going to give up the ghost. So that was the theory.

But it’s an odd theory in the case of Abu Zubaydah, because after interrogating him for two months, during which time he gave up a lot of very valuable information, the CIA made the decision that harsher techniques were warranted. So they warehoused him — basically left him alone for forty-five days — before they finally got legal permission to engage in these harsh techniques.

Now, you have to wonder — if there’s a ticking time bomb, why would anybody leave a detainee alone for forty-five days? It’s a nonsensical argument.

ER

You said that there was possible actionable intelligence regarding Israel, but did they ever come up with a ticking time bomb for Zubaydah vis-à-vis the United States?

AG

No. I mean, Abu Zubaydah helped to give information that resulted in the arrest of [the so-called “dirty bomber”] José Padilla, who was arrested coming into the United States at Chicago. But all of that was prior to the initiation of enhanced interrogation techniques or torture in August 2002.

ER

Was that intel obtained by using what in the film is called “the rapport technique”?

AG

That’s right, the rapport-building technique. Ali Soufan and Stephen Gaudin were able to get information about José Padilla, then they confirmed his identity by working with Pakistani intelligence, and Abu Zubaydah confirmed the identity by being shown a picture. So all of that was done in traditional fashion. In fact, all the valuable information that Abu Zubaydah gave up — and there was a good bit of valuable information, including the identification of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was the alleged planner of 9/11 — happened while he was being interrogated by Ali Soufan and Stephen Gaudin using rapport-building techniques.

Occasionally in that early period, James Mitchell would try to introduce sleep deprivation and so forth, which usually resulted in Abu Zubaydah shutting down. In other words, he’d refuse to cooperate.

ER

Are rapport-building techniques much more effective ways to get intelligence from detainees than torture is?

AG

Always. It’s the way to get the truth. What torture gets, and what we have identified for years, is false confessions. That is to say, the person being tortured always gives the torturer whatever they feel he wants to hear. And you can get them to say just about anything through torture.

But that’s not the purpose of intelligence gathering. The purpose of intelligence gathering is to find out real truthful, actionable intelligence — which is a combination of guile, analysis, and critical thinking.

ER

Although, maybe in the case of enhanced interrogation techniques, the cruelty itself is the point?

AG

It’s hard to adduce that kind of motivation. It’s clear that there were people fearful and angry, and they may have wanted visceral permission to lash out. But in point of fact, weirdly, this was a kind of carefully calculated program — or at least it was an attempt to be carefully calculated — even though the actual techniques themselves were almost nonsensical in terms of their goals.

It’s hard for me to reckon with whether or not cruelty was the motive. But to say that cruelty wasn’t intended or the infliction of pain wasn’t intended — it clearly was intended. They knew it was an infliction of pain; that was a legal argument made to try to evade any responsibility for this. John Yoo, I believe, said that as long as they don’t intend to inflict pain, then these techniques are okay.

ER

Are the sketches in Forever Prisoner all by Abu Zubaydah, and how did you obtain them?

AG

All the sketches that we used of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah were drawings penned by Zubaydah. Some had been disclosed previously; others we got through Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers.

ER

What is the SERE program and its relevance to Abu Zubaydah?

AG

SERE is short for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. It’s a program run by various branches of the US military to train people in how to escape if they’re captured, how to survive in the wild, and also how to resist during brutal interrogation techniques like waterboarding. Indeed, for some of our soldiers, we do in fact subject them to these harsh techniques — we waterboard them, throw them up against the wall, deprive them of sleep. The same kind of things that were used on Abu Zubaydah. The thinking was — and this was by the psychologist James Mitchell, who appears in the film — if we could retrofit those techniques, we could use them to produce information.

But they were never designed to produce information. They were always designed, whether it be by the North Koreans, Russians, Chinese, or whomever, to obtain false confessions for political purposes. So the idea of using this to obtain actionable intelligence was, in the words of one CIA officer, “dumb.”

And it was dumb because — take, for example, the idea of sleep deprivation — if you’re subjected to sleep deprivation for seventy-two hours, your cognitive abilities are almost nil; you’re hallucinating. How can anybody expect anybody, under those conditions, to give up truthful information? They don’t even know what the truth is.

ER

Who is James Mitchell, and what is his connection to Abu Zubaydah?

AG

James Mitchell is a psychologist who worked at the Air Force SERE program. He was hired as an independent contractor to advise on the initial interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, and then ultimately to design an interrogation program for Zubaydah, which included these enhanced interrogation techniques.

What’s remarkable about the hiring of Mitchell was that he was the only person considered for the job. And he was hired because, when Tenet was so angry that there weren’t CIA operatives on the ground, he reached out to Jose Rodriguez, who was the head of the Counterterrorism Center and said, “Get me somebody over there!”

Jose Rodriguez asked his lawyer, and his lawyer said, “My wife knows somebody.” On the basis of his lawyer’s wife knowing somebody, James Mitchell was hired. And ultimately, he was given a contract — or his firm was given a contract — worth $183 million.

ER

How extensive was the interrogation experience of Mitchell and psychologist Bruce Jessen in terms of conducting interrogations before they interrogated Abu Zubaydah?

AG

James Mitchell had never interrogated anyone in his life. Furthermore, he had very limited understanding or knowledge of groups like al-Qaeda and related groups that were operating in the Middle East. It’s shocking that he was put in charge of interrogations.

ER

What was it like interviewing Mitchell?

AG

Well, it was interesting. To be honest, I give Mitchell credit for sitting down to do an interview that was almost five hours long, first with myself, my coproducer Ray Bonner, and another coproducer named Cathy Scott-Clark. He answered questions at great length and in detail.

He’s clearly not full of regret — quite the opposite. But it was very interesting to get his point of view and recollections on these matters.

ER

Revolutionary psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon wrote about torture in Algeria, including the effect it had on the torturers themselves. How do you think torture affected Mitchell and other Americans who were involved in this?

AG

We know from letters that were coming back from the black sites that many people who were part of the CIA team were mentally brutalized. They were suffering a great deal of torment from having to watch what was going on. I suspect that Mitchell himself has been changed by that experience, and even he was offended and tried to curtail the torture in the early stages of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation, but the CIA made him continue.

There’s no doubt that when you’re involved with that kind of brutality, it does change you. That said, Mitchell does not express any regret to this day.

ER

Tell us about some of the other alleged leading figures in the CIA torture program.

AG

Jose Rodriguez was kind of a go-to figure who was head of the Counterterrorism Center. He was the one who was charged with finding somebody to lead a different kind of interrogation program. The key person, of course, was George Tenet, who was the one who authorized this program. And I think he did so for very parochial reasons.

If you think about it, when he got that first report from the black site in Thailand that they were getting actionable intelligence within an hour of questioning Abu Zubaydah, you would think, on the basis of simply national interest and patriotism, that he would have been delighted that that information was being obtained.

But seemingly his great upset was that it was being obtained by the FBI instead of the CIA. Well, why should he care? What does it matter? But for him, there was a parochial interest in being seen as the most forward-leaning section of the government. And also, I suspect, because he was smarting from having failed utterly to prevent 9/11, when the CIA failed to report the presence of two hijackers in the United States.

ER

Daniel Jones, who was portrayed by Adam Driver in the 2019 movie The Report, is a recurring interview subject in The Forever Prisoner. Tell us about him and the torture report he worked on and what its status is today. Is it still classified?

AG

An executive summary of the report has been released, heavily redacted. It’s available online. But the enormous amount of detail that’s in that report, which would really help us to understand precisely how this program was initiated, and also how badly it went awry, still remains classified — in my view, unnecessarily so.

Daniel Jones was the one who led the effort to understand what was happening, and he was the chief investigator and author of the so-called “Torture Report.”

ER

What’s next for Alex Gibney?

AG

What’s next for me is I’m doing a project on music. It’s time for me to take a break from the dark side.