A new HBO documentary, The Forever Prisoner from acclaimed filmmaker Alex Gibney (streaming Monday, Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. ET on Crave in Canada), is a gripping tale of the torture of Abu Zubaydah by the U.S. government following September 11, 2001, labelled the “origin story of America’s failure of intelligence” and the refusal to “listen to anything but what we wanted to hear.”
“The disposition to only listen to what we want to hear is at the heart of I think where a lot of our policy goes wrong,” Gibney told Yahoo Canada. “We have certain expectations about how the world should work and we try to cook the books of intelligence in order to get to that place.”
“Sadly, torture is the perfect method for that aim because when you torture somebody you don't get the truth, you get the person at the other end of that torture to tell you whatever it is that you want to hear, because they just want to make the torture stop.”
Zubaydah was the first high-value detainee subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs) by the U.S. for ties to Al-Qaeda after 9/11, but while he has never been charged with a crime, Zubaydah is still being held in U.S. custody at Guantánamo Bay.
During his initial interrogation in Thailand, Zubaydah provided valuable information to FBI agents Ali Soufan and Stephen Gaudin using standard interrogation methods, but was still subjected to waterboarding and other forms of torture by CIA agents.
CIA officials were certain that Zubaydah was “holding back” because he was not telling them “what they wanted to hear,” all under the guise of former CIA director George Tenet wanting this to be a success story for the CIA.
“It becomes very parochial, he only cares about his own agency,” Gibney said.
“You have to ask yourself, why is the Central Intelligence Agency, the department of the government on which we depend to give us accurate information about the world around us, why is the Central Intelligence Agency cooking its books, and only giving us what they think we want to hear?”
'How dumb it was, how reckless, how careless'
The filmmaker sued the CIA to get access to un-redacted content from Soufan’s book “The Black Banners: How Torture Derailed the War on Terror after 9/11," which reveals that the EITs were ineffective.
An interview with Soufan in the film tracks his initial interrogation, leading what he describes as “borderline torture” the CIA was using, which then even crossed that line.
Dr. James Mitchell was the inventor of EITs, a psychologist who lacked experienced in interrogation and was largely unvetted, but was given the resources to establish these techniques.
“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 a basement or what some journalist thinks about it because they’re free to change places with me anytime they think they can do a better job of protecting Americans,” Mitchell says in the film.
Mitchell was brought on board after Jose Rodriguez, the former director of CIA's Counterterrorism Center, was tasked with finding someone to head the interrogation program. A lawyer in the counterterrorism division happened to be married to another CIA employee who worked in the office of technical services and knew of Mitchell, who had written a report based on what was believed to be an Al-Qaeda manual and included details on interrogations.
Included in the film are clips of depositions from officials during a 2017 court case involving this program, including Rodriguez being asked how he concluded that Mitchell was qualified for the position.
“Rodriguez says, ‘Well, I just took it for granted he knew what he was doing.’ He just took it for granted he knew what he was doing? It's shocking, really,” Gibney said. “How dumb it was, how reckless, how careless, it's incredible.”
At one point in the documentary, Mitchell gets emotional and says:
“I thought there was going to be a major catastrophic attack that was going to kill millions of Americans. I thought that my government had asked me to stop it, and I felt responsible for doing that.”
While Mitchell maintains in the film that he will not call these techniques torture, Gibney believes that ultimately, Mitchell feels he was put in a “difficult position” but he saw his actions as a “patriotic act,” even if he’s not always recalling events with accuracy throughout the course of the documentary.
“[Mitchell] is a real believer in the whole idea of the end justifies the means, that is to say we've been attacked so I was going to do whatever it took to go after people who had attacked us,” Gibney said. “But then you have to ask yourself,...does that mean you can do anything? That, in some ways, is the question at the heart of this film.”
Gibney also stressed that there was a “level of separation” between Mitchell and the CIA.
“Mitchell wasn't a man alone, the rogue bad apple doing these things to prisoners, to Abu Zubaydah in particular, and others later,” he explained. “He was a contractor hired by the CIA to do their dirty work and so I think Mitchell's testimony helped to get us to understand that he was a pawn in a larger game that the CIA was playing.”
'There was something both ridiculous and somewhat terrifying about it'
Gibney’s interview with Mitchell in The Forever Prisoner, alongside information from Soufan and other interview subjects like former general counsel of the CIA John Rizzo, former chief of staff to Colin Powell Lawrence Wilkerson and former U.S. senate investigator Daniel J. Jones, is compelling storytelling at its finest.
In terms of the impressively effective visuals used throughout the narrative, Gibney used drawings Zubaydah created depicting his torture and quotes from his diary, in addition to some recreations. The filmmaker stressed that he was cautious to not go “overboard” in recreating torture in the film.
“Some of the recreations we used, we used early on when when James Mitchell and others were experimenting with these techniques to give a sense, almost of the ridiculousness of what they were trying to do, this cell that was all white, these men who were purposely clothed in all black, including ski goggles,” Gibney explained.
“There was something both ridiculous and somewhat terrifying about it and the strangeness of that must have really affected Abu Zubaydah.”
Later on in the film, Gibney relied more on Zubaydah’s drawings, which were made at the behest of his lawyers because the CIA destroyed the videotapes of his torture. As someone who has been held “incommunicado” for 20 years, this was a way to let him speak for himself.
CIA 'sculpting a narrative'
While the general story of the U.S. using torture as a means of interrogation is not new, The Forever Prisoner not only asks questions about the morality and legality of these methods, but also why we seemingly continue turn a blind eye.
“How can we imprison a man without charge for the remainder of his life, not for what he did to us but for what we did to him,” Gibney says at the end of the film.
A significant component of The Forever Prisoner is the extent to which the CIA went to craft a narrative of its success, protecting the institution by denying that the EITs were torture. The film also points to links to films like Zero Dark Thirty as a way to push forward this narrative.
“That was one mechanism they used to give certain filmmakers who are telling the story that the CIA wants told, which is that torture was tough but necessary,” Gibney explained. “They give them unusual access they wouldn't give to anybody else.”
The filmmaker also discovered memoirs written by people from the CIA in the film Tenet, Rodriguez, Rizzo and Mitchell, were ghost written by Bill Harlow, a former spokesman for the CIA.
“That gives you some sense of how carefully the CIA is sculpting a narrative, not something that particularly resembles the truth, but something that the CIA wants us all to hear,” Gibney said.