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‘Time becomes elastic’: the long legacy of Guantanamo Bay

Political Theater, Episode 241

A sign for the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is seen in September, 2021.
A sign for the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is seen in September, 2021. (Paul Handley/AFP via Getty Images file photo)

More than 20 years after the U.S. government began detaining terrorism suspects at the Navy’s Guantanamo Bay, Cuba facility, we are still living with the aftermath of GITMO’s extraordinary status as a place existing beyond the rules of law and war.  

Just this week, the U.S. government announced it had repatriated to Saudi Arabia Mohammed al-Qahtani, an alleged al Qaeda operative who was accused of being the “20th hijacker” on 9/11 but missed his flight.

He was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and sent to GITMO in 2002. Charges against al-Qahtani were dropped in 2008, but he’s stayed put until now. A review board determined he was mentally ill and no longer a threat to the United States. 

And last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the government can block Guantanamo Bay detainee Abu Zubaydah from seeking the testimony of two CIA contractors about operations allegedly in Poland — where he says he was detained and tortured. The court said the government had a right to keep that information secret.

What’s strange about that ruling is that many of the CIA contractors and others involved in the detainment and torture of terrorism suspects have already been interviewed, and all you need to view them is an HBO Max subscription. 

Filmmaker Alex Gibney has long chronicled the post-9/11 world, and his most recent documentary, “The Forever Prisoner,” examines the history of Zubaydah, who was captured in 2002 in Pakistan, tortured and sent to GITMO — and has never formally been charged with a crime.

In the film, Gibney sits for long interviews with people like James Mitchell, the CIA contractor who devised the agency’s so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” (That’s what normal people just call torture.)

He also interviews other key figures, including former FBI agent Ali Sufan, who was present when Zubaydah was captured, and interrogated him before he was tortured. There is more in Gibney’s film about Zubaydah’s case, including video depositions with CIA leaders like Jose Rodriguez, who oversaw the torture program. 

When “The Forever Prisoner” was released, I spoke with Gibney about his movie and the case of Abu Zubaydah. I wrote a story about it for Roll Call at the time. But there is a lot more in the interview that we here at Political Theater thought would make a good podcast, especially with the recent developments about Zubaydah and al-Qahtani and how, when it comes to Guantanamo Bay and its detainees, “Time is elastic,” as Gibney says.

Show Notes:

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