Alex Gibney’s ‘The Forever Prisoner’ reveals CIA torture tactics

A new HBO documentary that debuted this week tells the story of a man once thought to be a top al-Qaida operative. It also reveals U.S. attempts to justify torture in the name of protecting Americans. Amna Nawaz recently sat down with the filmmaker, Alex Gibney, for our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A new HBO documentary that debuted this week tells the story of a man once thought to be a top al-Qaida operative and of U.S. attempts to justify torture in the name of protecting Americans.

    Amna Nawaz recently sat down with the filmmaker, Alex Gibney.

    It is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Abu Zubaydah was the first high-value detainee subjected to the CIA's program of enhanced interrogation techniques, practices denounced as torture both here in the U.S. and around the world.

    After being captured in a firefight in Pakistan in 2002, Zubaydah was shuttled among so-called black sites, secret prisons run by the CIA all over the world. He has never been charged with a crime, but for the past 20 years has remained imprisoned, mostly at Guantanamo Bay, while a team of lawyers fights for his release.

    A new documentary called "The Forever Prisoner" explores the story of Abu Zubaydah and U.S. actions in the name of national security.

    The filmmaker behind it is Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney. And he joins me now.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

    Alex Gibney, Filmmaker, "The Forever Prisoner": Thanks. Glad to be here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Abu Zubaydah is considered a high-value detainee to the U.S. Tell us a little bit about him. What did the U.S. believe that he knew that made him high-value?

  • Alex Gibney:

    Well, certain members of the CIA believed that he was the number three in al-Qaida.

    That made him a high-value detainee. Other members of the CIA actually felt he was more of a kind of independent facilitator, which is actually what he was. He was flown to a secret site, which we now know was in Thailand, Northern Thailand. And he was interrogated, at first by FBI agents, and then later by a group from the CIA, ultimately by a gentleman named James Mitchell.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When the FBI's leading the questioning, is he offering them any information that's helpful?

  • Alex Gibney:

    He offered the FBI information that was helpful almost immediately, and it was about an impending attack, in this case on Israel, funded by people in Saudi Arabia.

    And the CIA was able to prevent that attack. So, immediately, he was offering valuable, actionable intelligence through traditional rapport-building techniques, which had nothing to do with torture.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Then the CIA remains convinced he's withholding information. We don't exactly understand why, but they decide to ramp up the pressure.

    This man that you mentioned, James Mitchell, becomes much more central to this operation.

    I just want to play a quick clip here. Here is how you introduce him in the film.

  • Alex Gibney:

    Mitchell was the inventor of EITs, the acronym for what the CIA called enhanced interrogation techniques, and what the rest of the world called torture.

  • JAMES MITCHELL, Former CIA Contractor:

    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 the basement or what some journalist thinks about it, because they're free to trade places with me any time they think they can do a better job of protecting Americans.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Alex, how does that man, how does James Mitchell end up at the black site run by the CIA where Abu Zubaydah is being interrogated? What's his background in interrogations?

  • Alex Gibney:

    That's a really good question.

    He had absolutely zero background in interrogation, none. He had never interrogated anybody in his life. However, he did have a distinguished career as a psychologist who had been spending time at the so-called Air Force SERE school. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.

    So he had observed and was part of a school to learn people — to teach people how to resist torture. But he had never himself done any interrogations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Despite this, Mitchell submits a list to the CIA. These are suggested techniques that they should be considering.

    That list includes things like slapping detainees, walling, which is basically shoving them up against a wall, stress positions, cramped confinement, sleep deprivation, water-boarding.

    To most of us laymen, it sounds like torture, but, of course, the U.S. is a signatory to the Geneva Convention Against Torture.

    DOJ signs off on all of this. How does that happen?

  • Alex Gibney:

    Well, that's part of the story of "The Forever Prisoner."

    It happens through a kind of excruciating legal exercise, in which they use the rationale or the rationalization that, because we do these things to our own people, how bad could it actually be? Because, indeed, we do water-board some of our soldiers to show them what might be in store for them if they're captured by a terrible regime.

    But those are exercises. Furthermore, these techniques almost always result, not in people telling you what is the truth, but they tell you exactly what it is that they think you want to hear.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the Department of Justice essentially gives the green light to James Mitchell and a team of CIA interrogators who are holding Abu Zubaydah.

    What happens next? What does that mean for his interrogations?

  • Alex Gibney:

    It means that they engage in these techniques, including water-boarding. And he's water-boarded 83 times in the course of a few weeks.

    And, indeed, at one point, he dies. He literally stops breathing, and he has to be revived, brought back. And, at one point, James Mitchell, who, after all, was kind of the architect of these techniques, even appeals to the CIA and says, we have — we have water-boarded him consistently, and he's undergone enormous pain. We don't think that it's worth doing it anymore.

    And the CIA insists they continue. And they continue to water-board him over and over and over again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You know, people will look at this story. They will have followed the news over the last 20 years, to have known about the techniques and say, in times of war, in the name of national security, the U.S. has always and probably will always do ugly and horrific things.

    What would you say to them?

  • Alex Gibney:

    I would say two things. Number one, these techniques are immoral.

    I would say, number two, they do not yield the truth. They're undependable. They tend to yield what the interrogators want to hear. The CIA thought he was the number three in al-Qaida, which he wasn't. But, ultimately, he says, yes, I'm the number three in al-Qaida.

    So, you would have to ask yourself, if you're in the intelligence business, what do you want, the truth or somebody to tell you what you want to hear?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meanwhile, the man at the center of all of this, Abu Zubaydah, we do not hear from. What does the future hold for him?

  • Alex Gibney:

    That's a good question.

    He is in Guantanamo. He's never been charged with a crime. He's never been permitted to challenge his detention. And one of the things we discovered as part of doing this documentary was a cable — or a series of cables back and forth from the black site in Thailand to the CIA in Langley.

    And the CIA assures the people who are doing the interrogation, who are afraid that Abu Zubaydah may someday tell what happened to him, rest assured — and this is a direct quote — "He will remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life."

    And so far, that's been the case, though, interestingly, his name has recently surfaced in the Supreme Court, and a certain number of justices wondered, how is it possible that somebody could be held for 20 years without the ability to challenge their detention?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The documentary is "The Forever Prisoner."

    It debuts on HBO and HBO Max.

    Alex Gibney, thanks so much for being here.

  • Alex Gibney:

    Thank you.

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