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‘The Forever Prisoner’ — condemned for what was done to him

Abu Zubaydah is one of 39 prisoners left at Guantánamo Bay

“The Forever Prisoner” shows that the post-9/11 narrative is far from over. Above, Ali Soufan and another FBI agent walk around Osama Bin Laden’s hideout.
“The Forever Prisoner” shows that the post-9/11 narrative is far from over. Above, Ali Soufan and another FBI agent walk around Osama Bin Laden’s hideout. (Courtesy HBO)

Abu Zubaydah is one of those characters who isn’t quite a major protagonist or antagonist of the post-9/11 narrative, but his story is an integral part of it. 

He is one of the 39 remaining prisoners at the U.S. military’s Guantánamo Bay detention center. Designated as an enemy combatant, and therefore a legal anomaly in the eyes of the United States, he is to be detained, at this point, indefinitely.

Now he is the focus of documentary maker Alex Gibney in his latest film, “The Forever Prisoner.” 

Gibney has become a sort of Virgil leading us through the post-9/11 hellscape — the war on terror and its effect on the national security state in projects like “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “The Looming Tower” and now “The Forever Prisoner.”

For Gibney, there were several reasons to tell this particular story. Some came from questions raised by Ali Soufan, the former FBI agent who used traditional interrogation techniques, such as relationship building, to get valuable information from Zubaydah before being pushed aside by CIA contractors like James Mitchell, who were intent on torturing Zubaydah but then failed to secure any information.  

Another was the presence of cables between the CIA black site in Thailand that held Zubaydah after his capture and CIA headquarters, stating that if Zubaydah survived the torture he was about to withstand, he would be held incommunicado for the rest of his life. 

“The CIA knew well that these techniques didn’t work,” Gibney said. “They testified to that effect before Congress. How did they then go back and then allow that, or convince themselves that actually they’re going to go down this path again? How does that happen? And also, how does it lead to where we’re at now? Where we still have this prison, Guantánamo, where people are there not because of what they did to us, but because of what we did to them.”

What we did to them is, in Zubaydah’s case, shown in graphic detail not just from the public record, but from Zubaydah’s drawings. Their grisly visions of horror are a highly personalized supplement to other images seared in our consciousness, like the photographs from Abu Ghraib.

Gibney had no access to Zubaydah himself, but interviewed his lawyers and key figures like Mitchell, who devised the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, and others in the post-9/11 cosmology, like Soufan and Daniel Jones, the lead investigator for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report. 

There still is no clear path forward, especially with the detainees. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday held a hearing on what to do about Guantánamo Bay, and couldn’t even get someone from the Biden administration to testify. 

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to rule this term on a case centered around Zubaydah and whether information about CIA black sites and what happened at them can be kept from him and his lawyers because they are state secrets. 

For now, seemingly iron-clad American ideals like habeas corpus are on hold.

People throw around the term “Kafkaesque” a lot when talking about Guantánamo Bay’s prisoners. 

It’s a stand-in for many things: like when someone finds himself in a nightmare scenario, or is being persecuted by forces he does not understand, or when authority figures use a logic that no one else comprehends. 

It’s an accepted part of the language that doesn’t require one to have read Franz Kafka. 

But one story of Kafka’s does stand out in relation to “The Forever Prisoner,” and not just because of its setting in a warm climate, like Thailand or Cuba. That’s his “In the Penal Colony,” about The Traveller, who visits a prison colony and is given a tour by The Officer overseeing the extended torture and execution of The Condemned, who is bound in the apparatus. 

Here is what The Officer tells The Traveller: “The matter stands like this. Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth. For I stood at the side of our Old Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. But that is not the case here.”

That is not the case here also, at least for now. 

“The Forever Prisoner” is available for streaming on HBO Max. 

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