HBO’s new documentary recounts the brutal CIA torture of Abu Zubaydah in chilling detail, but fails to focus enough of its fury at those running Washington, who were happy to let this atrocity happen.
Watching ‘The Forever Prisoner,’ by Academy Award winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, is at times an infuriating experience.
The film isn’t infuriating because it’s a flawed but damning reminder of America’s hypocrisy and brutality as it examines the birth of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program and the death of the delusion of American ideals. No, it’s infuriating because you know no one of any consequence will be held accountable for the gruesome crimes being exposed in heinous detail before you.
The ‘forever prisoner’ of the title is Abu Zubaydah, the alleged terrorist mastermind captured in Pakistan in 2002 who was savagely tortured by the CIA for months, and now resides in an endless legal limbo in Guantanamo Bay.
Zubaydah’s torture – which included isolation, sleep deprivation, freezing, beatings, stress positions, and 83 waterboarding sessions – is shown to have been the blueprint for CIA and US military torture programs from the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib in Iraq to Guantanamo Bay in the War on Terror.
Zubaydah was no innocent, but he also wasn’t the Al-Qaeda heavy hitter that the CIA claimed him to be. That said, he was a useful asset, as FBI agent Ali Soufan was able to extract vital information from him during the early, pre-torture days of his interrogation. As Soufan explains, it was non-torture interrogation techniques that got Zubaydah to identify Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as an Al-Qaeda leader and mastermind of 9/11.
But when word got back to CIA director George Tenet that it was FBI agents getting info from Zubaydah and not the CIA, the ever-territorial Tenet went ballistic.
So, FBI agent Soufan was out and, after a 47-day isolation period in which Zubaydah saw and spoke to no one – a clear indication that the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario so often used to justify torture was invalid – the CIA took over and the torture program kicked off.
The CIA man who developed the torture regime used on Zubaydah which became the playbook for America’s torture program, James Mitchell, is featured in ‘The Forever Prisoner’ and vehemently but poorly defends himself and his work.
As the film shows, the CIA was so desperate to create an “enhanced interrogation” system, they chose the eager Mitchell with virtually no vetting and despite the fact that he had no experience in actual interrogation.
Mitchell and his partner Dr. Bruce Jessen’s only remotely relevant experience was in working with the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Extraction) program, which teaches US military personnel how to avoid being captured and how to resist torture techniques.
The CIA reverse engineering SERE to create an interrogation program creates obvious legal and operational contradictions, as the program clearly states that torture techniques only extract false confessions and empty propaganda victories.
Not surprisingly, Mitchell and Jensen’s immoral and unethical torture program was also ineffective, as it failed miserably to garner any useful intelligence, but despite this they were paid an astonishing $81 million by the CIA as torture teachers.
The man who led the torture program and signed those checks was Director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, and he knew the evil and illegality he was perpetrating, as evidenced by his telling his subordinates, “Do not put your legal concerns in writing. Not helpful.”
Rodriguez and his Chief of Staff, Gina Haspel, were also the ones who illegally destroyed the videotapes of the Zubaydah torture sessions, against the advice of legal counsel.
Haspel and Rodriguez never faced any legal recourse for their part in the torture program or for destroying evidence. In fact, Haspel later became Director of the CIA and then Director of National Intelligence, while Rodriguez became wealthy as a consultant with an impressive car collection.
Deep State darlings like General Michael Hayden and John Brennan avoided consequences as well, as they’re now warmly welcomed on CNN and MSNBC and even get hailed by Bill Maher for being “heroes.”
Of course, George W. Bush was never held to account for his torture program, and liberals now adore him because he once gave a candy to Michelle Obama.
President Obama, too, gets a pass for his complicity after the fact regarding the torture program, as he refused to investigate or prosecute any of these individuals, instead only admitting that “we tortured some folks,” but then calling the torturers “real patriots.” I suppose that just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, one man’s torturer is another man’s “real patriot.”
Zubaydah has never been charged for a crime, but he still may very well deserve his lifetime imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay. But also deserving of that dismal fate are the Washington ghouls like Bush, Dick Cheney, Brennan, Michael Hayden, Haspel, and Obama who were either directly responsible, complicit or aided and abetted some of the worst acts of the War on Terror era.
While ‘The Forever Prisoner’ viscerally recounts the crimes committed upon Abu Zubaydah, often using his own drawings as a visual guide, like the establishment media, it unfortunately doesn’t do enough to shame those in Washington who were responsible.
As with Gibney’s Oscar winning film, ‘Taxi to the Dark Side,’ ‘The Forever Prisoner’ dutifully and skillfully exposes the depravity unleashed by the US in the wake of 9/11, but it’s ultimately a frustrating film because it fails to adequately target the brutal and barbaric elites who conjured the evil of torture and yet managed to maintain their reputations despite the blood on their hands.