In Abu Zubaydah Court Case, US Judges Admit That He Was Tortured

3.10.19

An image of Abu Zubaydah by Brigid Barrett for an article in Wired in 2013. The original photo is from the classified US military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

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When it comes to the disgraceful US prison at Guantánamo Bay, where men are held — on a seemingly endlessly basis — without charge or trial, and where many of the 40 men still held were the victims of torture in CIA “black sites” before their arrival at the prison, the dominant reaction, from the mainstream US media and the American people in general, as Guantánamo nears the 18th anniversary of its opening, is one of amnesia.

With the valiant exception of Carol Rosenberg, who has been visiting the prison since it opened, and who, these days, is often the only journalist visiting and paying attention to its despairing prisoners and its broken trials, the mainstream media largely pays little or no attention to Guantánamo, as was apparent in June, when a significant court victory for the prisoners — challenging the long-standing nullification of the prisoners’ habeas corpus rights, dating back to 2011 — was completely ignored. I wrote about it here for Close Guantánamo, and also posted it here, where it secured significant interest from the small community of people who still care about the injustices of Guantánamo, but it was dispiriting that no one else noticed.

Two weeks ago, the mainstream US media once more largely failed to notice a significant court ruling relating to Guantánamo — and the US torture program — which was delivered by judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in relation to Abu Zubaydah, held at Guantánamo since September 2006, and the prisoner for whom the CIA’s torture program was first developed back in 2002.

In their ruling, relating to an ongoing case in which lawyers for Abu Zubaydah are seeking to compel the architects of the torture program, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, to answer questions relating to an ongoing criminal investigation in Poland regarding the officials who established and operated the Polish “black site” that was one of the locations for the torture of Abu Zubaydah, two of the three judges reviewing the case, which had previously been turned down by a District Court judge, stated, “To use colloquial terms … Abu Zubaydah was tortured.”

The story was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, which noted that the ruling “took the rare step of disdaining the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’” and was also picked up on by the Associated Press, whose report was published by some US regional newspapers and websites.

Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies, who represented Abu Zubaydah for more than a decade, told the Chronicle, “It’s the first time an appellate court, to my knowledge, has come right out and said that the enhanced interrogation techniques were torture. We’re no longer going to equivocate.”

It was also, as Margulies explained, “the first time a court has acknowledged that the government was simply mistaken about Abu Zubaydah, the poster child for the torture program.” The judges noted that, although Abu Zubaydah “was thought to be a high-level member of Al-Qa’ida with detailed knowledge of terrorist plans,” the  Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, whose executive summary was released in December 2014, “later revealed this characterization to be erroneous.”

All of the above has been known, to anyone paying attention, for over a decade. In 2007, the New York Review of Books published a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross featuring interviews conducted by ICRC personnel with Abu Zubaydah and other “high-value detainees” brought to Guantánamo from the “black sites” in September 2006, in which they described their torture in agonising detail, and a court case in 2009 found the government “back[ing] away from the Bush administration’s statements that Zubaydah was the No. 2 or No. 3 official in al-Qaeda who had helped plan the 9/11 attacks,” and “admitting for the first time that “Zubaydah did not have ‘any direct role in or advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,’ and was neither a ‘member’ of al-Qaeda nor ‘formally’ identified with the terrorist organization.”

However, having a court declare openly that a “war on terror” prisoner was tortured — and to also endorse the Senate committee’s conclusion that his characterisation as a high-level member of Al-Qa’ida” was “erroneous” — is significant.

The use of euphemisms for torture — primarily, “enhanced interrogation techniques” — has generally been so prevalent that, for example, the Senate report didn’t actually use the word torture, the New York Times only began using the word “torture” in relation to the US torture program in August 2014, and the only Bush-era official who publicly admitted that a prisoner was tortured was Susan Crawford, the convening authority for the military commission trials at Guantánamo, who, in January 2009, just before George W. Bush left office, told Bob Woodward of the Washington Post that she had refused to endorse the proposed prosecution of Mohammed al-Qahtani, who was held at Guantánamo and considered to have been the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and for whom a brutal torture program was approved by Donald Rumsfeld, because, as she put it, “We tortured Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture.”

I’m cross-posting below an article about the decision that Margulies wrote for the Boston Review, a political and literary forum that publishes a quarterly magazine, in which, as well as addressing the significance of the ruling, he also explains how Abu Zubaydah has been persistently failed by the US legal system — with a District Court judge failing to issue a ruling regarding his habeas corpus petition, which was submitted in 2008, and with the D.C. Circuit Court also ignoring a request by lawyers to intervene. In addition, as he states, “Abu Zubaydah has also never been charged in the military commission system,” but when his lawyers “took the extraordinary step of demanding that he be charged there,” so that they “could finally make plain that he committed no act that authorizes his detention,” that request was also ignored.

Margulies also notes the significance of amnesia regarding Guantánamo and torture, noting that the US “is gradually reaching the point when it can publicly face up to our history as torturers precisely because it is history,” noting that, as a result, torture “can now be recast in service of one of our most cherished myths — that while we may stray from the path of righteousness, we will eventually find our way back as we labor to form ‘a more perfect Union.’” As he also states, “the most important role of a national disgrace that has faded into the distant past is the permission it gives to the present. As a political matter, a wrong that escapes condemnation is no wrong at all. Scandal unpunished is no scandal. If society never registers its collective disapproval, either in a court of law or the court of public opinion, the behavior embeds itself within the range of acceptable policy responses. This invites not merely repetition, but expansion. Once we tortured prisoners; now we torture children at the border.”

The references to Donald Trump, which also include mention of the current impeachment scandal, are to be welcomed, but Americans also need to ask themselves if they too have been removed from the moral impact of torture by the passage of time, and by the ways in which its significance has been officially diminished. Let us never forget that, in August 2014, Barack Obama breezily dismissed the entirety of the torture program by stating, “We tortured some folks,” carefully chosen words that acknowledged that the US had “crossed a line,” but that fundamentally downplayed the gravity of the torture program, turning it into some kind of folksy aside.

I hope you have time to read Margulies’ article, and that you’ll share it with others who might appreciate the importance of remembering what torture is, and why we must continue to call for justice for its victims, and accountability for those who authorized it and implemented it.

In Abu Zubaydah’s case, it remains to be seen what happens next — or rather, what significance it will have. As the San Francisco Chronicle explained, the appeals court’s ruling “said only that a federal judge had gone too far” in concluding that any questioning of Mitchell and Jessen “would expose state secrets about CIA detention and interrogation practices,” and directed the lower court to “take a closer look to determine which subjects could be safely examined.”

In the majority opinion, Judge Richard Paez — “joined by US District Judge Dean Pregerson of Los Angeles, temporarily assigned to the appeals court”, with only Judge Ronald Gould dissenting — refuted Justice Department claims that answers given to questions put to Mitchell and Jessen “could reveal classified information about CIA intelligence sources, foreign government cooperation and terrorist investigations.”

As the Chronicle described it, “the appeals court said some information about the CIA’s torture program and its past operation in Poland has long been known to the public,” and in any case, as Judge Paez explained, the purpose of confidentiality rules “is to protect legitimate government interests, not to shield the government from uncomfortable facts.”

He added that the lower court judge in charge of the case should be able to “disentangle the privileged from nonprivileged information” regarding the questioning of Mitchell and Jessen.

As the Chronicle also explained, “it’s not clear how much of the information, if any, will be turned over to Polish prosecutors,” but it to be hoped that some information will be forthcoming. In July 2014, as I explained at the time, “the European Court of Human Rights unanimously condemned the US for implementing a program of extraordinary rendition and torture, and condemned Poland for its involvement in the program” by hosting a CIA “black site,” and, in February 2015, ordered the Polish government to pay €130,000 ($148,000) to Abu Zubaydah, but they did so without any input from the US government, which, to date, has refused to provide any information to Polish prosecutors regarding the torture of Abu Zubaydah — and other “black site” prisoners — on Polish soil.

U.S. Judges Admit Enhanced Interrogation Is Torture
By Joseph Margulies, Boston Review, September 26, 2019

Last week, for the first time, a federal appellate court said that “enhanced” interrogation techniques are torture.

In case you have forgotten, these were the brutal interrogation methods developed by the CIA after the September 11 attacks in 2001. A panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals crossed the Rubicon in a case involving Abu Zubaydah — the first person thrown into a CIA “black site,” the person for whom former Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Yoo wrote the infamous torture memo, and the only person subjected to all the “enhanced” techniques. As far as we can tell, Zubaydah, who is still being held at Guantánamo, is the only post–9/11 detainee whose interrogation was the subject of discussion and debate inside the White House. As the court wrote:

The details of Abu Zubaydah’s treatment during this period are uncontroverted: he was persistently and repeatedly waterboarded; he spent hundreds of hours in a “confinement box,” described as coffin-sized; he was subjected to various combinations of interrogation techniques including “walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial hold, stress positions, cramped confinement, white noise and sleep deprivation”; his food intake was manipulated to minimize the potential of vomiting during waterboarding. To use colloquial terms … Abu Zubaydah was tortured.

The panel also did what no court, appellate or otherwise, has ever done. It acknowledged that the allegations made to justify this torture — claims that were repeated over and over again by countless officials, including President Bush — were simply mistaken:

Abu Zubaydah was thought to be a high-level member of Al-Qa’ida with detailed knowledge of terrorist plans. A 2014 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program (“Senate Select Committee Report”) later revealed this characterization to be erroneous.

This decision, which unfortunately will have no immediate effect on Abu Zubaydah’s detention, came in a case that began a couple years ago, when my colleagues and I served a subpoena on James Mitchell and John Jessen, the former psychologists who designed and implemented the “enhanced” techniques for the CIA — which paid their company more than $80 million. We wanted to ask them questions in support of an ongoing criminal investigation in Poland directed at the officials who created and operated the Polish detention facility where Abu Zubaydah had been tortured. The U.S. Justice Department has shielded Mitchell and Jessen from questioning, arguing that it could reveal classified information.

The district court dismissed the case, saying the information we sought was a state secret. In our appeal a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit disagreed, concluding that at least some of the information we sought was no longer secret, and directing the district judge to disentangle wheat from chaff. The purpose of confidentiality rules, they ruled, “is to protect legitimate government interests, not to shield the government from uncomfortable facts.”

The Ninth Circuit opinion passed virtually unnoticed in the news, but it teaches us a great deal about hubris masquerading as patriotism, which is always a lesson worth learning. If the United States government did not get it right in the first case — the case that set the standard for all the torture that followed and was subject to closer vetting and more heated debate than any other — then we are right to ask whether it is a choice they should have ever entertained.

I represented Abu Zubaydah for more than a decade, beginning shortly after the Bush administration shipped him to Guantánamo in September 2006 and continuing until only a few months ago. In that time, my colleagues and I have challenged aspects of his detention and torture in two federal district courts, two federal courts of appeal, administrative agencies and state courts in Texas, a national court in Poland, and The European Court of Human Rights in France. We have written endlessly about his case. We have made countless trips to Cuba and have conducted investigations all over the world.

The litigation — if you can call it that — has been maddening. The primary challenge to his detention has been underway since 2008 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. I take no pleasure in saying this, but the district judge, who needn’t be named here, has been inexplicably slow to act. We became so frustrated at the court’s inaction that we went over his head and urged the federal appellate court to intervene and order the lower court to get on with it. At this writing, the appellate court has not yet ruled. Abu Zubaydah has also never been charged in the military commission system, but we even took the extraordinary step of demanding that he be charged there, where we could finally make plain that he committed no act that authorizes his detention — even a kangaroo court is better than no court at all. That demand has also gone unanswered.

Through it all, we have insisted that the “enhanced interrogations” used on Abu Zubaydah were torture, and that he had no connection to Al-Qa’ida or the attacks of 9/11. Yet it took until now for a court to speak what is plain.

The passage of time explains a great deal. The country is gradually reaching the point when it can publicly face up to our history as torturers precisely because it is history. It is not simply that it happened in the past, but that the controversy no longer stirs the political blood. We have moved on; waterboarding is so 2002. When an issue drops out of the news cycle so completely — when it becomes as unfamiliar to most Americans as COINTELPRO — then it has lost its political potency. It no longer has the capacity to stoke political action.

For most of the post–9/11 era, employing the word torture was an act of political speech that marked the speaker as a partisan. Torture was not simply an outrage that happened elsewhere, committed by others; it was something perpetrated by the Bush administration, and using the word meant leveling a charge. Not always, of course, but often enough to make it taboo among those who wished to appear nonpartisan. Now it is fast becoming just another word. Defused, it loses its explosiveness, and may be handled freely, even by those who seek to keep up an appearance of evenhandedness, including judges.

Even worse, it can now be recast in service of one of our most cherished myths — that while we may stray from the path of righteousness, we will eventually find our way back as we labor to form “a more perfect Union.” This teleological view of history encourages us to view the past as benighted in order to intensify our perception of the present as enlightened. We like a dark past, as long as it is also distant.

Yet the most important role of a national disgrace that has faded into the distant past is the permission it gives to the present. As a political matter, a wrong that escapes condemnation is no wrong at all. Scandal unpunished is no scandal. If society never registers its collective disapproval, either in a court of law or the court of public opinion, the behavior embeds itself within the range of acceptable policy responses. This invites not merely repetition, but expansion. Once we tortured prisoners; now we torture children at the border.

Today, there is a credible allegation that our sitting president tried to influence a presidential election by coercing a foreign government into investigating his political opponent. As expected, the allegation has become the object of partisan fury. Repeating it has become an act of political speech, marking the speaker as a partisan.

As before, the risk is great that our values will once again succumb to our politics. Too many people will tiptoe around this disgrace as they did around torture, at least until it is safely behind us. Then they will condemn the behavior as a betrayal of our “true” principles. But by that time, it will be too late. We will have moved on to something worse.

We like to believe that values have a power of their own, and can compel a result even when there is no political will behind it. The lesson of history is not kind to that belief. The arc of the moral universe is very long indeed, but we should be clear-eyed that it rarely bends toward justice when justice is needed most. If we are to make our values meaningful, we must demand that they be honored even when sitting politicians are unwilling to act, for that is the only time our values can do much good.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

16 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, about a little-noticed ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Abu Zubaydah, for whom the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was developed, in which, for the first time, an appellate court has stated that he was tortured, and has also recognized that the Bush administration’s description of him as a member of Al-Qaeda was mistaken.

    The case relates to efforts by his lawyers to compel James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the architects of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, to answer questions relating to an ongoing criminal investigation in Poland regarding the officials who established and operated the Polish “black site” that was one of the locations for the torture of Abu Zubaydah, and the appeals court’s ruling follows a previous lower court ruling, in which a District judge refused to allow it to proceed, claiming, absurdly, that doing so “would expose state secrets about CIA detention and interrogation practices.” In contrast, in the appeals court, Judge Richard Paez, who wrote the opinion, pointed out that, in fact, the purpose of confidentiality rules “is to protect legitimate government interests, not to shield the government from uncomfortable facts.”

    Also included in my article is a cross-post of a powerful article about the ruling – and its significance – by Joseph Margulies, who was one of Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers for over ten years.

    A great ruling, then, but sadly not one that will, in any immediate sense, help Abu Zubaydah, who remains imprisoned without charge or trial in Guantanamo, with, frankly, no prospect of him ever being released, just as his torturers intended.

  2. Richard Matthews says...

    Thanks for writing and sharing this Andy. You’ve been doing terrific work on this for an awfully long time now.

  3. Tom says...

    They admit it’s torture. But can military judges (JAG) be hauled before a disciplinary committee and then disbarred after they’ve been court martialed? I don’t know.

    All civilian lawyers go to law school and then pass a state bar exam (several if they want more flexibility). But every state and US territory has a bar and a disciplinary committee. Depending on the case, lawyers can have anything from a sanctioning letter in their file up to being disbarred and losing their law license. If you lose you license, it is possible to be put on probation and then apply for having it reinstated.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you for noticing, Richard! Very good to hear from you.
    And yes, it’s now 14 years since I started working on Guantanamo – back before the Bush administration had been compelled to even tell the world who it was holding.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t see anything happening to anyone, Tom. There were several efforts years ago to subject Mitchell and Jessen and others involved in the torture program to disciplinary hearings, but nothing ever came of it.
    The main thing is the legal recognition that torture – not some euphemism – took place and was implemented by the US government, which can only be of help if we ever get anyone in power again who recognizes that the problems of Guantanamo need to be addressed.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    Thanks, Andy. It is devastating to understand that the US government can just do whatever they like, while no other nation or power will demand some justice.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it seems to have slipped out of the priorities of the international human rights community since Trump took office, Toia, which his understandable given how much work Trump has made for everyone with his Muslim ban, treatment of migrants etc., but even so it ought to be a concern that Guantanamo still exists, and that the 40 men still held are still caught in a predicament where they fundamentally have no rights. Those charged face a broken trial system, those approved for release aren’t released, and the rest face a review process – the Periodic Review Boards – that is a joke, as it no longer leads to anyone being recommended for release.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Valerie Jeans wrote:

    Thank you for your continued, often thankless, work, Andy. You are so appreciated.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Barbara Al-Bayati wrote:

    Thank you, Andy!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Denise Longman wrote:

    Thank you Andy.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalya Wolf wrote:

    thank you. Andy!

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the support, Valerie, Barbara, Denise and Natalya. Your ongoing interest in Guantanamo is very greatly appreciated!

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Duncan Luciak wrote:

    “He was losing the eye anyway.”
    They’re going to keep those guys there forever, aren’t they?

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, sadly I suspect that’s going to be the case for some of the men still held, Duncan – including Abu Zubaydah, who is essentially stateless.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Duncan Luciak wrote:

    As a child, I lived abroad on a Canadian army base. I really used to look up to America.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s a sad reflection on how brutalised the US has become over the last 18 years, Duncan.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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