A full public understanding of just how morally bankrupt and self-defeating the US’s “enhanced interrogation” program was has been slowly leaking out in drips and drabs for years. First, we had the pictures from Abu Ghraib, sure, but even after that we still had shows like 24 and the movie Zero Dark Thirty spreading the narrative that treating prisoners harshly had actually produced results (certainly the latter and probably the former created with the full support and cooperation of the CIA).
In 2014, a Senate intelligence committee released an exhaustive report detailing just how brutal, but also how ineffective, that program had been. This was the titular report dramatized in The Report, starring Adam Driver as the torture report’s main author, Daniel J. Jones. Of course, how bad the program was is one piece of the puzzle. The other is how hard the CIA tried to keep anyone from knowing that. Every year we know a little bit more, as the CIA and other agencies are either willingly or are forced by the courts to declassify and unredact previously censored documents.
This week brings us The Forever Prisoner, from Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side director Alex Gibney. The movie exists partly as the result of a lawsuit Gibney filed to unredact a book written by Ali Soufan (pictured), an FBI interrogator who was one of the first Americans to question Abu Zubaydah, the actual “forever prisoner” of the title. The CIA backed down and Soufan now appears in the movie, allowed for the first time to discuss the specifics of Zubaydah’s questioning.
It seems that while Soufan and his FBI partner Stephen Gaudin were gleaning valuable intelligence from Zubaydah through standard interrogation work, the CIA intervened, sending down a contractor named James Mitchell, an Air Force survivor school expert with no interrogation experience. Mitchell had outlined a whole plan for enhanced interrogation techniques, and the CIA essentially used Mitchell’s proposals to experiment on Zubaydah, waterboarding him 83 times in a month, keeping him locked in a coffin for weeks on end, and worst of all, making him listen to the Red Hot Chili Peppers (I kid, I kid, Blood Sugar Sex Magic still holds up).
Mitchell too appears in The Forever Prisoner, telling some of his own story, and how even he became disillusioned with the harsh tactics. At one point he and some of his team had even sent the CIA video of some of the harshest torture methods, requesting to stop it. Instead, George Tenet and former director of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center José Rodriguez encouraged them to continue.
Rodriguez later ordered that same tape destroyed, and Gina Haspel helped carry it out. Tenet and Rodriguez continued working, both publishing self-serving memoirs. Haspel became head of the CIA under Trump. Mitchell made millions of dollars as a contractor peddling the same ineffective techniques. Meanwhile, Abu Zubaydah is still being held without charges at Guantanamo, in a prison Obama promised to close in 2008, yet still remains open two presidents later.
It’s hard to watch The Forever Prisoner, premiering December 6th on HBO, without getting angry. It’s also sad, eye opening, occasionally funny, and above all cautionary. It takes us back to a time when we were willing to try anything just to feel safe and lost a bit of ourselves in the process.
[This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full audio version here.]
You seem like the busiest man in documentaries. How do you manage to keep up with it all?
It is exhausting, and they don’t happen fast, but I tend to do more than one at a time. But then there are a lot of years where I couldn’t get anything going so this certainly beats that.
Speaking of that, can you tell me about the lawsuit to get the book unredacted and was that partly the genesis of the project?
It was. This was a story that really, I couldn’t tell more than a couple of years ago. And one of the things that enabled me to tell it was a lawsuit that Ray Bonner, who’s a former New York Times journalist, and I, launched against the CIA — with the great help of this extraordinary group at the Yale law school called the MFIA, that help journalists and filmmakers try to loose material from the federal government. And much to our surprise the CIA backed down. We didn’t have to go to court, I think, they saw that we had such a compelling case that they had redacted Soufan’s book not really for any good reason, but for purely punitive reasons because he was telling a story that they didn’t want told.
So Soufan was the FBI interrogator, can you tell me about Abu Zubaydah and the sort of chain of events that led up to that?
Abu Zubaydah was an independent facilitator who would run people in and out of the Khalden training camp, which is a place where a lot of Jihadis went to get trained in Afghanistan. Abu Zubaydah was based in Pakistan. He was captured in March of 2002 and identified and sent to a CIA black site in Thailand. But the CIA wasn’t convinced it was Abu Zubaydah and in any event, they didn’t really have experienced interrogators who could do this job. By and large, the CIA doesn’t do interrogations. So Ali Soufan, an FBI agent who had a great deal of experience interrogating members of Al-Qaeda, was sent there with his partner, Steve Gaudin, to start interrogating Abu Zubaydah. He was the one who interrogated him first, and as it happens, Ali Soufan got all the information that was able to be gotten from Abu Zubaydah — which he did so with traditional, lawful rapport-building techniques. But the CIA was convinced that despite all the information he gave up that he was holding back. And so they wanted to do something different, as they said.
So how much of this was just the CIA trying to justify their existence, was a lot of this just an inter-agency pissing contest?
Part of it was a kind of delusion that they just wanted to hear what they wanted to hear. There were certain analysts in Washington who were convinced that Abu Zubaydah was the number three in Al-Qaeda, which he was not. And other CIA agents in Pakistan knew he wasn’t, but certain people in Washington were convinced he was the number three so that was one thing. But a part of it does have to do with kind of pitiful turf war stuff. Within an hour of Ali Soufan interrogating Abu Zubaydah, he gave Ali Soufan on information about an impending plot against Israel funded by some folks in Saudi Arabia, relayed this to the CIA. The CIA was delighted, “Oh my God, he’s already talking.” George Tenet, head of the CIA, wanted to congratulate the CIA agents involved. But when he learned they were FBI agents he flew into a rage.
Now, you’d think, why would he fly into a rage? People’s lives have been saved. What difference does it make? But Tenet was determined that this interrogation be considered to be a CIA operation. So he’s to have dispatched one of his myrmidons to try to find somebody to interrogate Abu Zubaydah who was from the CIA. And in almost laughable fashion, this guy goes to his lawyer who says, “Well I think my wife knows somebody.” And the person his wife knew happened to be a guy named James Mitchell, a contractor that they had hired to analyze some pamphlet. They sent him on the next plane to Thailand and he became the inventor of the CIA’s torture program.
And so there’s this guy who seems the most to me like some sort of Coen Brothers character or something. Where did they find this guy, James Mitchell?
Well, James Mitchell was a psychologist and indeed elite in his field, he was a very accomplished man. He was a psychologist who had worked for many years at the Air Force SERE School. And SERE stands for survival, evasion, resistance and escape. It’s a program we put some soldiers through to help them learn how to escape if they’re captured, how to live off the land, if they need to. And also how to resist brutal interrogation techniques like waterboarding. So Mitchell, while he was an expert in that training program, had never done an interrogation. And he didn’t know very much about Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda-related groups, but nevertheless, the CIA decided to put him in charge of this interrogation program, or at least to design these techniques, which were kind of retrofitting the SERE program from a resistance program into an interrogation program.
Which is also crazy because if the CIA had asked its own people who have been studying these techniques for many years, they would’ve told them that when you deprive somebody of sleep for 72 hours, their cognitive abilities simply disappear. So they’re hallucinating to you. They’re not telling you anything that’s truthful and what you get out of these techniques is not the truth, but just whatever you want them to tell you. The person will tell you anything to make the pain stop.
One of the things that confused me about this is, even in the most sort of cartoony, action movie conception of torture, usually you’re trying to get someone to divulge some information that you think that they actually have. This seemed like it was just this giant fishing expedition. Did they even know what they wanted Zubaydah to say when they were depriving him of sleep and waterboarding him and putting him into a coffin and all that other stuff?
I mean, they had a mission and the mission was to prevent imminent attacks. So they were hopeful that he knew about imminent acts, but here’s the thing, even in the early days, and there were two stages to the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. One was a kind of loosey-goosey experimentation stage before they had legal authorization to engage in things like waterboarding, where they would deprive him of sleep, make sure he was naked, dowse him with Red Hot Chili Pepper’s music all the time, stuff like that. But that went on for about a month and a half. Now, once you’re out of action as an operative for a month and a half, everybody around you who’s part of your group is almost always going to change their plans. They’re not going to keep going forward. So anything that he would’ve had about an imminent attack was already almost certainly useless.
Beyond that, the CIA was afraid that by using these techniques, their agents might go to prison because they were likely illegal under the law. And so they went through a very long process, took them about 45 days to get legal authorization to use these techniques, and meanwhile Abu Zubaydah is just sitting there and cables were coming in asking about people like the courier to Osama bin Laden. Who was ultimately the person that led us to Osama bin Laden, but nobody could get any information because they were too worried about that. So what was crazy about this, it was all about preventing the next attack, and yet they went to elaborate lengths, taking month after month to come up with a cockamamie program that was never going to work, that already was completely out of date. It’s hard to really understand what they were thinking.
Mitchell was a contractor. Would people be surprised at how much of policy was being dictated by these sort of outside intelligence contractors?
I think they would. I think they would be surprised that somebody who had never done an interrogation was suddenly put in charge of designing an interrogation program. I think it would be shocking for most Americans to learn that ultimately the CIA contracted with Mitchell and his partner, Bruce Jessen, for 183 million dollars to continue to build out this program. So, yeah. I think people would be pretty surprised and what’s interesting is there were a lot of people inside the CIA that actually had pretty good information about what you might expect from a program like this, but they were never consulted. And when they did find out what was going on, they raised a ruckus, but they just weren’t listened to. There was some determination inside the CIA that they just had to get tough. That was the most important thing and that this guy Mitchell was going to do it. Why? Because these were techniques that were being used on our own people. So it’s being done on our own people. How could it be bad?
How much were they the ones that were actually doing the hands-on carrying out of that? How much support staff was actually involved in the nuts and bolts of that?
There were guards, there were doctors, there were nurses, there were interrogators, but Mitchell and Jessen were running it. Particularly in August of 2002, they were doing and/or supervising the waterboarding themselves. So they were hands-on. No question about that.
Even Mitchell gets sort of disillusioned by the process towards the end, right?
Well, after 72 hours, he was convinced that Abu Zubaydah didn’t have any more to say. That they had been about as tough on him as you could possibly be on a human being, particularly in terms of waterboarding him or putting him inside of a coffin-shaped box for days at a time. He asked that they stop but the CIA was so convinced that he had more information to give that they made Mitchell, Jessen and it all keep going and waterboard him again and again. So much so that Mitchell and the people at the black site said, “Look, these guys clearly don’t understand what’s going on here.”
So they made a kind of best-of tape, or you might call it a worst-of tape to show just how brutal they were being. They were videotaping all of this, and they sent this best-of tape back to Washington convinced that they would be so horrified by what was going on– after all Abu Zubaydah had even stopped breathing at one point and had to be revived — that the CIA command central would say, “Stop it.” But instead, just the opposite happened. They said keep going, until Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times. So Mitchell actually tried to make it stop but the CIA overruled him.
You talked about the doctors and the guards and all the people that were sort of tangentially involved. I imagine these people didn’t get into what they were doing in order to be torturers. Were you able to track down any of them?
We talked to one person off the record who was at the black site in that early kind of improvisational period, but I’ve always wanted to talk to one of the nurses on-site or one of the guards on site. Who we know from the stuff that is unredacted, that they were weeping. They were complaining of how brutal it was, but the CIA won’t ever let us get to them and won’t let us know who they were. The CIA has been very assiduous about only allowing those who agree with the program to talk. And those who were dissenters have remained silent out of fear. We know from the very impressive torture report that was conducted by the Senate intelligence committee, some of the comments there which are unattributed, that people were very, very upset, but we don’t know who those people are. I’ve always wanted to talk to them.
Do you have any sense of what they are afraid of if they would come forward?
Well, their identities are classified. So if they were to say “I was there,” they could potentially be prosecuted. Also, the way the CIA often does it is, you get contractor contracts going forward that depends on a certain level of classification. That is to say, you have a certain level of security clearance and so forth. And that would be jeopardized of course if they were to talk to a member of the press. So they risk prosecution and loss of livelihood.
Even after all this is done, the CIA has a vested interest in promoting the idea that it worked, and that it was always a good thing. How closely did the CIA work with the people who made Zero Dark Thirty? And what part did they play in some of the media’s portrayals of that program?
The CIA has tried very hard to create a narrative that this program was a real winner. That it got great actionable intelligence and that nothing illegal or untoward was ever done. They cooperated vigorously with the makers of Zero Dark Thirty. And there were a lot of cables which have been unearthed by Jason Leopold and others that show the degree of extraordinary cooperation that the CIA gave to that filmmaking team. In addition, there are four key people from the CIA who are featured in this film: George Tenet, former head of the CIA. Jose Rodriguez, former head of the counter-terrorism center, John Rizzo, former acting general counsel of the CIA and the contractor, James Mitchell. All four of them wrote memoirs about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. All four of those memoirs were ghost-written by the same man. Bill Harlow, which gives you some sense of how carefully and assiduously they cultivate this narrative.
In doing projects where you’re being critical of the CIA, have there ever been times where you were maybe scooped by other filmmakers who were cooperating more?
Well, I would argue that way back in the day when not long after I made a film called Taxi To The Dark Side, I had a public printed exchange about the making of Zero Dark Thirty. It seemed like they presented it as if they had gotten the truth and that everybody else had just got it wrong, and I vigorously objected to that, but part of the problem was, and that’s one of the reasons I made this film, was that we couldn’t get our hands on informational testimony that would refute them. That’s why we sued the CIA to try to get Ali Soufan unmuzzled.
Abu Zubaydah is still in Guantanamo. One of Obama’s promises was that he was going to close Guantanamo. Why is it that when presidents say one thing on the campaign trail, then they get in there and suddenly it’s not an issue anymore. What is holding them back on that?
You know, there’s some good reason. There are some bad reasons. Congress has passed the law saying that no detainees from Guantanamo can be transferred to US soil, which strikes me as ridiculous, considering how many Al-Qaeda operatives we have living long term in the supermax in Florence, Colorado. But also I think there’s a political cost to be paid. As soon as you say, “Well, we’re letting go somebody from Guantanamo.” People say, “Oh. Once again, we’re soft on terrorism.” Which is bullshit in my mind, but to politicians, they pay attention to that stuff.
It’s also a nowhere land of the law. Nobody knows what kind of law applies down there. These detainees, remember, were originally sent to Guantanamo not to be prosecuted but to be in a land that was outside the law. So that they wouldn’t have access to things like habeas corpus and stuff like that. So there’s a lot of arguments about, “Well, what is the jurisdiction here? Is it the military? Is it the civil courts?” It’s a mess, but it’s a mess that could be cleared up, I’m confident, by a chief executive, a president who was determined to move past the kind of cheap sloganeering that might result if he tried to shut it down. Because it’s tremendously damaging to the United States of America. It stands as a great symbol for all the terrorists in the world that the United States is utterly hypocritical.
Gina Haspel, who ended up being the chief of the CIA, she was one of the people responsible for destroying that best-of tape–
That videotape. A lot of videotapes. Remember, they were running cameras constantly of the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah starting back in April. So there were a lot of videotapes and they were all destroyed without legal authorization upon the authority of Jose Rodriguez. But the person who executed that order was Gina Haspel. Then went on to become head of the CIA. So not much accountability for destroying what was likely evidence of crime.
Do you remember if that ever came up when she was being confirmed?
It did come up and she was confirmed anyway, which is kind of shocking to me.
Did anyone ever seem to have any professional consequences from this program?
Not really. I mean, this is one of those cases where when you ask who’s been held accountable for this, you’d have to say no one, really. Who’s been held accountable? Have any charges been leveled? Have there been any professional consequences for anybody involved in this program? Despite the fact that it was a group of people and a rather large group of people who went overboard to try to legalize a system of torture that was utterly immoral and got absolutely pitiful and terrible information, and then destroyed evidence of potential crimes, and yet they all walked. So it’s kind of shocking that there hasn’t been any sense of accountability. There was a torture report that was released by the Senate intelligence committee, but it’s a very small portion, a heavily redacted portion of the torture report that has actually been released. I would hope that some larger consequence of this at some day in the future would be the release of the full report. So we really know entirely what happened with all its mistakes, its egregious stupidity and the damage that’s been done to this country so that we never go down this road again.