14 Years Incommunicado: Abu Zubaydah, Guantánamo Prisoner, CIA Torture Victim, and the Al-Qaeda Leader Who Wasn’t


"High-value detainee" Abu Zubaydah, in the first photo of him that was made publicly available.Over ten years since I started working full-time on Guantánamo, there has been undeniable progress in some areas, and absolutely no movement in others. Hundreds of prisoners have been freed, which has been hugely important for a place in which only a few percent of the men — and boys — held there have ever, realistically, been accused of involvement with terrorism, and, after far too many years of delays and inaction, President Obama has been pushing to finally get the prison closed, albeit over seven years since he first promised to do so within a year.

Just 80 men are currently held, and while it is still unclear if the president will be able to close Guantánamo before he leaves office, as Congress will have to drop its ban on bringing any prisoner to the US mainland for any reason, or he will have to close it by executive action, which may or may not be practical or possible, it is conceivable that the end of Guantánamo is within sight.

And yet, for all of the men abused in Guantánamo, and elsewhere in America’s brutal “war on terror,” it is noticeable that no one has been held accountable for their suffering, and, for some of the 80 men still held, it also appears that no end to their suffering is in sight. I’m thinking in particular of some of the so-called “high-value detainees,” 15 men, including 13 who were brought to the US from CIA “black sites” — torture prisons — in September 2006, after up to four and a half years held incommunicado. One of those men — the first to be seized, in fact — may be the most unfortunate of all: Abu Zubaydah.

It’s dispiriting for me to realize that I’ve been writing about Abu Zubaydah for ten years, but there has been no progress in his case. I wrote about him first in my book The Guantánamo Files, and, between 2008 and 2010, in a number of articles in which I tried to highlight the significance of his case — for example, The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts, Lost In Guantánamo: The Faisalabad 16, Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives, Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, Abu Zubaydah’s Torture Diary, Abu Zubaydah: Tortured for Nothing, Abu Zubaydah and the Case Against Torture Architect James Mitchell, How Jay Bybee Has Approved the Prosecution of CIA Operatives for Torture and In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies.

Briefly, his story is as follows: Seized in a house raid in Faisalabad in Pakistan on March 28, 2002, when he was severely wounded, he then became the first victim of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program, flown to Thailand and subjected to horrendous torture, including being waterboarded 83 times. Four and a half years later, after being shunted around various other “black sites,” including Poland (for which the European Court of Human Rights awarded him $148,000 damages in February 2015) he ended up at Guantánamo, where, over time, the government has walked back from all its original outrageous claims about him being a senior member of Al-Qaeda and even having knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, let alone being involved in them.

However, for the “high-value detainees” in general, Guantánamo has become another type of “black site,” one in which, although the explicit torture may have stopped, they remain deprived of justice, and, if not charged in the military commission trial system, also remain completely cut off from the outside world.

This is the case with Abu Zubaydah, and other “high-value detainees” who have not been charged — Abu Faraj al-Libi, Riduan Isamuddin (Hambali) and two alleged accomplices (Modh Farik Bin Amin and Mohammed Bin Lep), Gouled Hassan Dourad, a Somali, and Muhammad Rahim, an Afghan.

The shocking truth — still not realized by most people — is that, for the “high-value detainees,” every single word that they utter to their lawyers is classified, and not a syllable can be publicised to the outside world. For every other prisoner, the presumptive classification of every word that is exchanged between them and their lawyers lasts only until the lawyers submit their notes of their meetings to the Pentagon’s censorship team, who decide what can be released to the public, and what must remain classified. In many cases, I presume, this means that damaging information has remained hidden, but in many other cases what has been unclassified has then been released by lawyers, and has, on occasion, severely embarrassed the authorities.

So what is it about the “high-value detainees” that means that every word they have ever uttered must remain censored? The answer, in a nutshell, is torture. In a desperate effort to shield themselves from accountability for the torture program, officials have ruthlessly silenced its victims, even as the truth has leaked out via other sources, or been made publicly available — in the case of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA torture program, whose executive summary was released in December 2014.

For those facing military commission trials, there have been intermittent opportunities to mention their torture, but the main reason the trials are moving so slowly is that, fundamentally, one side — the government — is committed to hiding the evidence of torture, while the other, the defense teams, are, of course, committed to exposing it. However, Abu Zubyadah, and the other men who have not been charged, do not even have the opportunity to sneak in a mention of their torture during hearings, as has happened on occasion with the five men charged as co-conspirators in the 9/11 attacks.

In a new effort to highlight the ongoing injustice of Abu Zubaydah’s case, Rebecca Gordon, who teaches in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco, and is the author of a newly-published book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, has just published a reminder of his case, “The Al-Qaeda Leader Who Wasn’t,” for Tom Dispatch (later cross-posted on CounterPunch, the Nation and elsewhere), which I’m also cross-posting below, with Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, because what happened to Abu Zubaydah remains so significant.

I’m pleased to note that Rebecca draws on another of my articles dealing with Abu Zubaydah, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low, in which I first called for Dick Cheney’s prosecution for war crimes, and I’m delighted that she has written a whole book about the ongoing necessity for those who authorized the torture program to be held accountable.

However, what has stuck with me most from this article is a startling anecdote about Abu Zubaydah that was revealed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, when, as Rebecca Gordon describes it:

CIA headquarters assured those who were interrogating Zubaydah that he would “never be placed in a situation where he has any significant contact with others and/or has the opportunity to be released.” In fact, “all major players are in concurrence,” stated the agency, that he “should remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”

I hope you have time to read the article below, and to share it if you find it useful — and remember, without accountability, as Rebecca Gordon points out in her conclusion, there is no guarantee that the horrors of the “war on terror” won’t happen again. In addition, as I always try to point out, without accountability, the poisonous notion that torture is acceptable, or necessary, continues to infect America’s collective psyche, with the disastrous effects that Tom Engelhardt highlights in his introduction to the article — in the bragging of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz that, if elected, they would enthusiastically indulge in new actions that are war crimes. This just provides more proof, if any was required, that those in high office in the US who have already committed war crimes need to be prosecuted.

Intro: Exhibit One in Any Future American War Crimes Trial by Tom Engelhardt

Let’s take a moment to think about the ultimate strangeness of our American world. In recent months, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have offered a range of hair-raising suggestions: as president, one or the other of them might order the U.S. military and the CIA to commit acts that would include the waterboarding of terror suspects (or “a hell of a lot worse”), the killing of the relatives of terrorists, and the carpet bombing of parts of Syria. All of these would, legally speaking, be war crimes. This has caused shock among many Americans in quite established quarters who have decried the possibility of such a president, suggesting that the two of them are calling for outright illegal acts, actual “war crimes,” and that the U.S. military and others would be justified in rejecting such orders. In this context, for instance, CIA Director John Brennan recently made it clear that no Agency operative under his command would ever waterboard a suspect in response to orders of such a nature from a future president. (“I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure.”)

These acts, in other words, are considered beyond the pale when Donald Trump suggests them, but here’s the strangeness of it all: what The Donald is only mouthing off about, a perfectly real American president (and vice president and secretary of defense, and so on) actually did. Among other things, under the euphemistic term “enhanced interrogation techniques,” they ordered the CIA to use classic torture practices including waterboarding (which, in blunter times, had been known as “the water torture”). They also let the U.S. military loose to torture and abuse prisoners in their custody. They green-lighted the CIA to kidnap terror suspects (who sometimes turned out to be perfectly innocent people) off the streets of cities around the world, as well as from the backlands of the planet, and transported them to the prisons of some of the worst torture regimes or to secret detention centers (“black sites”) the CIA was allowed to set up in compliant countries. In other words, a perfectly real administration ordered and oversaw perfectly real crimes. (Its top officials even reportedly had torture techniques demonstrated to them in the White House.)

At the time, the CIA fulfilled its orders to a T and without complaint. A lone CIA officer spoke out publicly in opposition to such a program and was jailed for disclosing classified information to a journalist. (He would be the only CIA official to go to jail for the Agency’s acts of torture.) At places like Abu Ghraib, the military similarly carried out its orders without significant complaint or resistance. The mainstream media generally adopted the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “harsh techniques” in its reporting — no “torture” or “war crimes” for them then. And back in the post-2001 years, John Brennan, then deputy executive director of the CIA, didn’t offer a peep of protest about what he surely knew was going on in his own agency. In 2014, in fact, as its director he actually defended such torture practices for producing “intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.” In addition, none of those who ordered or oversaw torture and other criminal behavior (a number of whom would sell their memoirs for millions of dollars) suffered in the slightest for the acts that were performed on their watch and at their behest.

To sum up: when Donald Trump says such things it’s a future nightmare to be called by its rightful name and denounced, as well as rejected and resisted by military and intelligence officials. When an American president and his top officials actually did such things, however, it was another story entirely. Today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon catches the nightmarish quality of those years, now largely buried, in the grim case of a single mistreated human being. It should make Americans shudder. She has also just published a new book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, that couldn’t be more relevant.  It’s a must-read for a country conveniently without a memory. Tom

The Al-Qaeda Leader Who Wasn’t: The Shameful Ordeal of Abu Zubaydah
By Rebecca Gordon, Tom Dispatch, April 24, 2016

The allegations against the man were serious indeed.

* Donald Rumsfeld said he was “if not the number two, very close to the number two person” in al-Qaeda.

* The Central Intelligence Agency informed Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee that he “served as Usama Bin Laden’s senior lieutenant. In that capacity, he has managed a network of training camps … He also acted as al-Qaeda’s coordinator of external contacts and foreign communications.”

* CIA Director Michael Hayden would tell the press in 2008 that 25% of all the information his agency had gathered about al-Qaeda from human sources “originated” with one other detainee and him.

* George W. Bush would use his case to justify the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” claiming that “he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained” and that “he helped smuggle al-Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan” so they would not be captured by U.S. military forces.

None of it was true.

And even if it had been true, what the CIA did to Abu Zubaydah — with the knowledge and approval of the highest government officials — is a prime example of the kind of still-unpunished crimes that officials like Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld committed in the so-called Global War on Terror.

So who was this infamous figure, and where is he now? His name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, but he is better known by his Arabic nickname, Abu Zubaydah. And as far as we know, he is still in solitary detention in Guantánamo.

A Saudi national, in the 1980s Zubaydah helped run the Khaldan camp, a mujahedeen training facility set up in Afghanistan with CIA help during the Soviet occupation of that country. In other words, Zubaydah was then an American ally in the fight against the Soviets, one of President Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters.”  (But then again, so in effect was Osama bin Laden.)

Zubaydah’s later fate in the hands of the CIA was of a far grimmer nature. He had the dubious luck to be the subject of a number of CIA “firsts”: the first post-9/11 prisoner to be waterboarded; the first to be experimented on by psychologists working as CIA contractors; one of the first of the Agency’s “ghost prisoners” (detainees hidden from the world, including the International Committee of the Red Cross which, under the Geneva Conventions, must be allowed access to every prisoner of war); and one of the first prisoners to be cited in a memo written by Jay Bybee for the Bush administration on what the CIA could “legally” do to a detainee without supposedly violating U.S. federal laws against torture.

Zubaydah’s story is — or at least should be — the iconic tale of the illegal extremes to which the Bush administration and the CIA went in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. And yet former officials, from CIA head Michael Hayden to Vice President Dick Cheney to George W. Bush himself, have presented it as a glowing example of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to extract desperately needed information from the “evildoers” of that time.

Zubaydah was an early experiment in post-9/11 CIA practices and here’s the remarkable thing (though it has yet to become part of the mainstream media accounts of his case): it was all a big lie. Zubaydah wasn’t involved with al-Qaeda; he was the ringleader of nothing; he never took part in planning for the 9/11 attacks. He was brutally mistreated and, in another kind of world, would be exhibit one in the war crimes trials of America’s top leaders and its major intelligence agency.

Yet notorious as he once was, he’s been forgotten by all but his lawyers and a few tenacious reporters. He shouldn’t have been. He was the test case for the kind of torture that Donald Trump now wants the U.S. government to bring back, presumably because it “worked” so well the first time. With Republican presidential hopefuls promising future war crimes, it’s worth reconsidering his case and thinking about how to prevent it from happening again. After all, it’s only because no one has been held to account for the years of Bush administration torture practices that Trump and others feel free to promise even more and “yuger” war crimes in the future.

Experiments in Torture

In [March] 2002, a group of FBI agents, CIA agents, and Pakistani forces captured Zubaydah (along with about 50 other men) in Faisalabad, Pakistan. In the process, he was severely injured — shot in the thigh, testicle, and stomach. He might well have died, had the CIA not flown in an American surgeon to patch him up. The Agency’s interest in his health was, however, anything but humanitarian. Its officials wanted to interrogate him and, even after he had recovered sufficiently to be questioned, his captors occasionally withheld pain medication as a means of torture.

When he “lost” his left eye under mysterious circumstances while in CIA custody, the agency’s concern again was not for his health. The December 2014 torture report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (despite CIA opposition that included hacking into the committee’s computers) described the situation this way: with his left eye gone, “[i]n October 2002, DETENTION SITE GREEN [now known to be Thailand] recommended that the vision in his right eye be tested, noting that ‘[w]e have a lot riding upon his ability to see, read, and write.’ DETENTION SITE GREEN stressed that ‘this request is driven by our intelligence needs [not] humanitarian concern for AZ.’

The CIA then set to work interrogating Zubaydah with the help of two contractors, the psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. Zubaydah would be the first human subject on whom those two, who were former instructors at the Air Force’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training center, could test their theories about using torture to induce what they called “learned helplessness,” meant to reduce a suspect’s resistance to interrogation. Their price? Only $81 million.

CIA records show that, using a plan drawn up by Jessen and Mitchell, Abu Zubaydah’s interrogators would waterboard him an almost unimaginable 83 times in the course of a single month; that is, they would strap him to a wooden board, place a cloth over his entire face, and gradually pour water through the cloth until he began to drown. At one point during this endlessly repeated ordeal, the Senate committee reported that Zubaydah became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”

Each of those 83 uses of what was called “the watering cycle” consisted of four steps:

“1) demands for information interspersed with the application of the water just short of blocking his airway 2) escalation of the amount of water applied until it blocked his airway and he started to have involuntary spasms 3) raising the water-board to clear subject’s airway 4) lowering of the water-board and return to demands for information.”

The CIA videotaped Zubaydah undergoing each of these “cycles,” only to destroy those tapes in 2005 when news of their existence surfaced and the embarrassment (and possible future culpability) of the Agency seemed increasingly to be at stake. CIA Director Michael Hayden would later assure CNN that the tapes had been destroyed only because “they no longer had ‘intelligence value’ and they posed a security risk.” Whose “security” was at risk if the tapes became public? Most likely, that of the Agency’s operatives and contractors who were breaking multiple national and international laws against torture, along with the high CIA and Bush administration officials who had directly approved their actions.

In addition to the waterboarding, the Senate torture report indicates that Zubaydah endured excruciating stress positions (which cause terrible pain without leaving a mark); sleep deprivation (for up to 180 hours, which generally induces hallucinations or psychosis); unrelenting exposure to loud noises (another psychosis-inducer); “walling” (the Agency’s term for repeatedly slamming the shoulder blades into a “flexible, false wall,” though Zubaydah told the International Committee of the Red Cross that when this was first done to him, “he was slammed directly against a hard concrete wall”); and confinement for hours in a box so cramped that he could not stand up inside it. All of these methods of torture had been given explicit approval in a memo written to the CIA’s head lawyer, John Rizzo, by Jay Bybee, who was then serving in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. In that memo Bybee approved the use of 10 different “techniques” on Zubaydah.

It seems likely that, while the CIA was torturing Zubaydah at Jessen’s and Mitchell’s direction for whatever information he might have, it was also using him to test the “effectiveness” of waterboarding as a torture technique. If so, the agency and its contractors violated not only international law, but the U.S. War Crimes Act, which expressly forbids experimenting on prisoners.

What might lead us to think that Zubaydah’s treatment was, in part, an experiment? In a May 30, 2005, memo sent to Rizzo, Steven Bradbury, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, discussed the CIA’s record keeping. There was, Bradbury commented, method to the CIA’s brutality. “Careful records are kept of each interrogation,” he wrote. This procedure, he continued, “allows for ongoing evaluation of the efficacy of each technique and its potential for any unintended or inappropriate results.” In other words, with the support of the Bush Justice Department, the CIA was keeping careful records of an experimental procedure designed to evaluate how well waterboarding worked.

This was Abu Zubaydah’s impression as well. “I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques,” Zubaydah would later tell the International Committee of the Red Cross, “so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.”

In addition to the videotaping, the CIA’s Office of Medical Services required a meticulous written record of every waterboarding session. The details to be recorded were spelled out clearly:

“In order to best inform future medical judgments and recommendations, it is important that every application of the waterboard be thoroughly documented: how long each application (and the entire procedure) lasted, how much water was used in the process (realizing that much splashes off), how exactly the water was applied, if a seal was achieved, if the naso- or oropharynx was filled, what sort of volume was expelled, how long was the break between applications, and how the subject looked between each treatment.”

Again, these were clearly meant to be the records of an experimental procedure, focusing as they did on how much water was effective; whether a “seal” was achieved (so no air could enter the victim’s lungs); whether the naso- or oropharynx (that is, the nose and throat) were so full of water the victim could not breathe; and just how much the “subject” vomited up.

It was with Zubaydah that the CIA also began its post-9/11 practice of hiding detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross by transferring them to its “black sites,” the secret prisons it was setting up in countries with complacent or complicit regimes around the world. Such unacknowledged detainees came to be known as “ghost prisoners,” because they had no official existence. As the Senate torture report noted, “In part to avoid declaring Abu Zubaydah to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which would be required if he were detained at a U.S. military base, the CIA decided to seek authorization to clandestinely detain Abu Zubaydah at a facility in Country _______ [now known to have been Thailand].”

Tortured and Circular Reasoning

As British investigative journalist Andy Worthington reported in 2009, the Bush administration used Abu Zubaydah’s “interrogation” results to help justify the greatest crime of that administration, the unprovoked, illegal invasion of Iraq. Officials leaked to the media that he had confessed to knowing about a secret agreement involving Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who later led al-Qaeda in Iraq), and Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein to work together “to destabilize the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.” Of course, it was all lies. Zubaydah couldn’t have known about such an arrangement, first because it was, as Worthington says, “absurd,” and second, because Zubaydah was not a member of al-Qaeda at all.

In fact, the evidence that Zubaydah had anything to do with al-Qaeda was beyond circumstantial — it was entirely circular. The administration’s reasoning went something like this: Zubaydah, a “senior al-Qaeda lieutenant,” ran the Khaldan camp in Afghanistan; therefore, Khaldan was an al-Qaeda camp; if Khaldan was an al Qaeda camp, then Zubaydah must have been a senior al Qaeda official.

They then used their “enhanced techniques” to drag what they wanted to hear out of a man whose life bore no relation to the tortured lies he evidently finally told his captors. Not surprisingly, no aspect of the administration’s formula proved accurate.  It was true that, for several years, the Bush administration routinely referred to Khaldan as an al-Qaeda training camp, but the CIA was well aware that this wasn’t so.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, for instance, made this crystal clear, quoting an August 16, 2006, CIA Intelligence Assessment, “Countering Misconceptions About Training Camps in Afghanistan, 1990-2001” this way:

“Khaldan Not Affiliated With Al-Qa’ida. A common misperception in outside articles is that Khaldan camp was run by al-Qa’ida. Pre-11 September 2001 reporting miscast Abu Zubaydah as a ‘senior al-Qa’ida lieutenant,’ which led to the inference that the Khaldan camp he was administering was tied to Usama bin Laden.”

Not only was Zubaydah not a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant, he had, according to the report, been turned down for membership in al-Qaeda as early as 1993 and the CIA knew it by at least 2006, if not far sooner. Nevertheless, the month after it privately clarified the nature of the Khaldan camp and Zubaydah’s lack of al-Qaeda connections, President Bush used the story of Zubaydah’s capture and interrogation in a speech to the nation justifying the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. He then claimed that Zubaydah had “helped smuggle Al Qaida leaders out of Afghanistan.”

In the same speech, Bush told the nation, “Our intelligence community believes [Zubaydah] had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained” (a reference presumably to Khaldan). Perhaps the CIA should have been looking instead at some of the people who actually trained the hijackers — the operators of flight schools in the United States, where, according to a September 23, 2001 Washington Post story, the FBI already knew “terrorists” were learning to fly 747s.

In June 2007, the Bush administration doubled down on its claim that Zubaydah was involved with 9/11. At a hearing before the congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, State Department Legal Adviser John Bellinger, discussing why the Guantánamo prison needed to remain open, explained that it “serves a very important purpose, to hold and detain individuals who are extremely dangerous… [like] Abu Zubaydah, people who have been planners of 9/11.”

Charges Withdrawn

In September 2009, the U.S. government quietly withdrew its many allegations against Abu Zubaydah. His attorneys had filed a habeas corpus petition on his behalf; that is, a petition to excercise the constitutional right of anyone in government custody to know on what charges they are being held. In that context, they were asking the government to supply certain documents to help substantiate their claim that his continued detention in Guantánamo was illegal. The new Obama administration replied with a 109-page brief filed in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, which is legally designated to hear the habeas cases of Guantánamo detainees.

The bulk of that brief came down to a government argument that was curious indeed, given the years of bragging about Zubaydah’s central role in al-Qaeda’s activities.  It claimed that there was no reason to turn over any “exculpatory” documents demonstrating that he was not a member of al-Qaeda, or that he had no involvement in 9/11 or any other terrorist activity — because the government was no longer claiming that any of those things were true.

The government’s lawyers went on to claim, bizarrely enough, that the Bush administration had never “contended that [Zubaydah] had any personal involvement in planning or executing … the attacks of September 11, 2001.” They added that “the Government also has not contended in this proceeding that, at the time of his capture, [Zubaydah] had knowledge of any specific impending terrorist operations” — an especially curious claim, since the prevention of such future attacks was how the CIA justified its torture of Zubaydah in the first place. Far from believing that he was “if not the number two, very close to the number two person in” al-Qaeda, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had once claimed, “the Government has not contended in this proceeding that [Zubaydah] was a member of al-Qaida or otherwise formally identified with al-Qaida.”

And so, the case against the man who was waterboarded 83 times and contributed supposedly crucial information to the CIA on al-Qaeda plotting was oh-so-quietly withdrawn without either fuss or media attention.  Exhibit one was now exhibit none.

Seven years after the initial filing of Zubaydah’s habeas petition, the DC District Court has yet to rule on it. Given the court’s average 751-day turnaround time on such petitions, this is an extraordinary length of time. Here, justice delayed is truly justice denied.

Perhaps we should not be surprised, however. According to the Senate Intelligence Committee report, CIA headquarters assured those who were interrogating Zubaydah that he would “never be placed in a situation where he has any significant contact with others and/or has the opportunity to be released.” In fact, “all major players are in concurrence,” stated the agency, that he “should remain incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” And so far, that’s exactly what’s happened.

The capture, torture, and propaganda use of Abu Zubaydah is the perfect example of the U.S. government’s unique combination of willful law-breaking, ass-covering memo-writing, and what some Salvadorans I once worked with called “strategic incompetence.” The fact that no one — not George Bush or Dick Cheney, not Jessen or Mitchell, nor multiple directors of the CIA — has been held accountable means that, unless we are very lucky, we will see more of the same in the future.

Note: Please also see former New York Times foreign correspondent Raymond Bonner’s expansive legal pleading, filed last week, “demanding the public release of a variety of motions, responses and court orders relating to the case Zubaydah filed in 2008 challenging the legality of his detention,” as Politico described it. Bonner wrote about Abu Zubaydah’s case last year, in an article I cross-posted here.

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 debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for 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).

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, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see 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.

31 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my cross-post, with my own extensive commentary, of an article by Rebecca Gordon about one of the most shameful ongoing injustices of the “war on terror” – the imprisonment at ‪Guantanamo‬ of Abu Zubaydah, wrongly described as holding a senior position in Al-Qaeda, for whom the CIA’s ‪torture‬ program was first developed. No trial is on the horizon, but nor, too, is there any suggestion that he will ever be released.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Javier Rodriguez wrote:

    My heart bleeds for him.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Javier​. Good to hear from you. His lawyers, while not being able to report anything he has said, have been able to report how his torture almost destroyed him: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/apr/30/opinion/oe-margulies30

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Javier Rodriguez wrote:

    Andy, thanks for sharing. I just cannot understand how a human being can do this to another human being. Particularly with approval of the president of the “free world”. Absolutely sick.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, Javier​, and I think some of those who were required to be involved were appalled – above and beyond the FBI interrogators who refused to be involved. Back in August 2007, I wrote about a Jane Meyer article in which she described how a friend of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s interrogator “has horrible nightmares.” He went on, “When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but it’s well outside the norm. You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you.” He said of his friend, “He’s a good guy. It really haunts him. You are inflicting something really evil and horrible on somebody.”
    See: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2007/08/10/jane-mayer-on-the-cias-black-sites/
    Jane Mayer’s article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/08/13/the-black-sites

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Rebecca Olsen wrote:

    The fact that he’s innocent and has been tortured so extensively means that its a liability for the government to do anything but forget about him. That’s the reality of the evil US government.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    He was certainly not part of Al-Qaeda or involved in any way with the 9/11 attacks, Rebecca, but “innocent” is a bit loaded. He may well have known about some terrorists, or would-be terrorists, and he would certainly have been able to have provided information about countless individuals of interest to the US, but all of that could only have happened without the use of torture. Personally, I think, that, had he not been tortured, he could have been a genuinely useful informant, but there you go. Not only was the US guilty of torture, but its torture was about as counter-productive as you can imagine. His treatment is such a terrible indictment of the US’s entire conduct in the “war on terror.”

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Javier Rodriguez wrote:

    Andy, I’m sorry to say that they deserve to suffer. Their suffering is nothing compared to the suffering of their victims…..

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    And I can’t disagree with you, Javier, but psychologically it’s an overlooked point. All those Americans aggressively endorsing torture – from Bush and Cheney to Trump and Cruz and all those worrying would-be Republican voters – forget that there is a psychological cost on their own side. It’s easy to listen to Trump’s ranting, to watch 24 or Zero Dark Thirty and to get all gung-ho about it, but on the ground actually committing torture is a horrendous thing to make anyone do.

  10. Martin says...

    Agreed, Mr. Worthington. Not “innocent” of being a violent terrorist but “innocent” of being a member of al-Qaeda. He helped al-Qaeda with the Millenium Plot and plotted attacks against the United States and U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.

    The book “The Black Banners” written by former FBI agent Ali Soufan (who interrogated him BEFORE the CIA tortured him) has the most reliable information about him.

    “The FBI had been looking for Abu Zubaydah for a while. He was originally wanted for his connection both to Ahmed Ressam’s attempt to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999 and to the millennium plot in Jordan. Abu Zubaydah’s name had come up with increasing frequency in intelligence reports after the millennium plot. While he was not a member of al-Qaeda, his role as external emir of Khaldan was of considerable importance. Senior al-Qaeda members, such as Khallad, regularly turned to Abu Zubaydah for help with passports and travel. In turn, al-Qaeda guaranteed Abu Zubaydah’s protection elsewhere in Afghanistan, and he often stayed in their guesthouses. He was one of the most important cogs in the shadowy network that we were struggling to disrupt.

    He traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime (1989–1992). During a battle, he was hit in the head by shrapnel. The shrapnel wiped out his memory. He didn’t even know who he was. He was rushed to a hospital for treatment, and it was judged too dangerous to remove the shrapnel. To this day, he has a hole in his head. After treatment, he was taken for therapy to a guesthouse in Peshawar. He was shown his passport. As was standard for mujahideen, it had been stored with an emir at a safe house while Abu Zubaydah had been fighting on the front. To help him with his therapy, everyone in the guesthouse would tell him, “Your name is Abu Zubaydah.” This is why he was one of the few terrorists who operated under his actual name rather than an alias.

    In the guesthouse, as part of his therapy to try and piece together his past, Abu Zubaydah began keeping a diary that detailed his life, emotions, and what people were telling him. He split information into categories, such as what he knew about himself and what people told him about himself, and listed them under different names [6 words redacted] to distinguish one set from the other. When the diary was found, some analysts incorrectly interpreted the use of the different names as the symptom of multiple-personality disorder.

    Even after Abu Zubaydah’s therapy was completed and he had left the guesthouse, he kept writing in his diary. [1 word redacted] later evaluated it, and it both provided us with new information and confirmed information he had given [1 word redacted]. The diary, for example, contained details of how, days before 9/11, he began preparing for counterattacks by the United States, working with al-Qaeda to buy weapons and prepare defensive lines in Afghanistan. Another entry, from 2002, details how he personally planned to wage jihad against the United States by instigating racial wars, and by attacking gas stations and fuel trucks and starting timed fires. He went into greater detail later in [1 word redacted] interrogation.”


  11. Martin says...

    As for the missing eye, according to Ali Soufan, “one of his eyes was a cloudy green from an infection.”


    He doesn’t say what caused it but it was before the CIA interrogated him. Anyway, I don’t think he should be freed but he should be tried.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    As I mentioned in response to your first posting of this, Martin, it would certainly be appropriate to put him on trial if there is any evidence of his involvement in these plots. However, my understanding is that all the US ended up with after walking back from the Al-Qaeda claims was a claim that he led an Al-Qaeda- affiliated militia, based on a diary by an alleged associate. I wrote about that here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/07/21/in-abu-zubaydahs-case-court-relies-on-propaganda-and-lies/
    I also like the analysis by Brent Mickum, one of his lawyers, back in 2009: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/mar/30/guantanamo-abu-zubaydah-torture

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Javier Rodriguez wrote:

    Andy, I agree with you but I have difficulty having any sympathy…… The torturers in these cases could have said no. A similar occurrence is happening in Israel where more and more IDF soldiers are being psychologically scarred by how they treat the palestinians. The answer in my opinion is easy. Make a stand and refuse to serve in the IDF.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, Javier. I don’t necessarily think everyone involved should be prosecuted – I’d prefer to start at the top and work downwards until everyone with any leadership role is dealt with – but I do think that anyone who follows orders cannot justify that position. You walk away when asked to do something unconscionable. It’s as simple as that.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Javier Rodriguez wrote:

    Andy, I am a little less forgiving than you. I think people should be prosecuting and the victims compensated as much as this is possible. In order to stop such occurrences happening again. I agree with you that one should start at the top. George W Bush. Dick Cheney. I’m curious to hear how the process in the US turns out against the psychologist who developed the program.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Whether the scope of prosecutions is wide or not, Javier​, the problem still is finding a weak chink in the US establishment’s armor. Perhaps Mitchell and Jessen will be that weak link, as you note from the ruling last week allowing a civil suit against them to proceed: https://theintercept.com/2016/04/22/judge-grants-torture-victims-their-first-chance-to-pursue-justice/

  17. Martin says...

    Jesus, you’re gullible. It amazes me that you believe almost everybody at Guantanamo is innocent. To each his own.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Javier Rodriguez wrote:

    Andy, yes I was pleased to hear that they were given clearance to proceed and it looks like the attitude of the US government to the case has also changed in a positive sense……let’s see.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    I certainly hope so, Javier​. I’ll try and do some more reading about it, and write something. I’ve been after Mitchell and Jessen for a long time: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/06/24/abu-zubaydah-and-the-case-against-torture-architect-james-mitchell/

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s ’81 Million Dollars,’ my song about Mitchell and Jessen – and all the architects of the torture program – by my band The Four Fathers: https://thefourfathers.bandcamp.com/track/81-million-dollars

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that info about his eye, Martin.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t think that’s a fair comment, Martin (17, above). My disgust with the US authorities is that they tortured someone who, through rapport-building, should have been able to provide them with useful information about who they were up against. I think that’s more important than his alleged involvement in terrorist plots and my doubts about them. I think, with the right treatment (FBI not CIA), he might well have been able to help the US track down terrorists or would-be terrorists and help them build up a picture of their enemies. All of this, though, it seems to me, was lost by idiotically torturing him so that he told lies to such an extent that an FBI agent complained to David Rose in 2008 about how much of the FBI’s resources had been diverted into wild goose chases prompted by his torture:

    At the F.B.I., says a seasoned counterterrorist agent, following false leads generated through torture has caused waste and exhaustion. “At least 30 percent of the F.B.I.’s time, maybe 50 percent, in counterterrorism has been spent chasing leads that were bullshit. There are ‘lead squads’ in every office trying to filter them. But that’s ineffective, because there’s always that ‘What if?’ syndrome. I remember a claim that there was a plot to poison candy bought in bulk from Costco. You follow it because someone wants to cover himself. It has a chilling effect. You get burned out, you get jaded. And you think, Why am I chasing all this stuff that isn’t true? That leads to a greater problem—that you’ll miss the one that is true. The job is 24-7 anyway. It’s not like a bank job. But torture has made it harder.”

    See: http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2008/12/torture200812

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Jan Strain shared this, she wrote:

    The US really needs to quit throwing rocks at other nations for their “human rights violations”. We have nothing to say….
    The story of Abu Zubaydah
    From Andy Worthington

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, great introductory comment, Jan! Thanks for sharing, as ever.

  25. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, thanks for cross-posting Rebecca Gordon’s post, and thus reminding us of Abu Zubaydah’s horrendous ordeal. I’m looking forward to reading all of her book, from which it is an excerpt.
    And will also be avidly following the ACLU court case against Mitchell & Jessen. Wondered whether it was Obama who decided to not obstruct anymore, in order to clean up his legacy in that field, now that it can no longer hurt his political career?

    As for closing Guantanamo, this is the ‘joke’ Obama allowed himself during the annual press dinner (quote from the official White House transscript):
    “And there’s one area where Donald’s experience could be invaluable -– and that’s closing Guantanamo. Because Trump knows a thing or two about running waterfront properties into the ground. (Laughter and applause.)”
    Here you watch and read it: http://time.com/4313618/white-house-correspondents-dinner-2016-president-obama-jokes-transcript-full/.
    When later on the professional comedian turned the joke on him, reminding him that his announcement to close that place after eight years is still waiting to be implemented, Obama was markedly less amused.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, TD. The increase in recommendations that prisoners should continue to be detained seems to be more to do with their prior status – as prisoners intended for prosecutions (before the legitimacy of the military commissions was fatally undermined in the D.C. Circuit) rather than as prisoners merely regarded as “too dangerous to release” but with no evidence to confirm that.
    That said, it is starting to look somewhat preordained to me that, once a prisoner has been regarded as eligible for prosecution, it is difficult for them to persuade the authorities that they should be released, and I worry that it provides a new gloss to a tired old claim that is never acceptable – that some people at Guantanamo must continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, but not as soldiers who can ask judges to consider whether it is fair to detain someone in a conflict that seems to be without end.
    I would hope 35 men would be the maximum number the Obama administration says it wants to move to the mainland so Guantanamo itself can be closed, but while I recognize concerns that this will only enshrine indefinite detention without charge or trial on the US mainland, I don’t find it plausible that a cast-iron legislative justification for that will be found, and I think that anyone transferred and not put on trial will be able to invoke the Constitution to ask why, and the administration and Congress will have difficulty justifying their detention.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you Anna. It is a very good question about why the case against Mitchell and Jessen is not being obstructed by the administration, and if Obama is involved. My feeling is that the torture report has made too much public for the genie to be squeezed back into the bottle, but I’d love to hear more from other sources. I have just written about the case here: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2016/05/02/in-historic-ruling-us-court-allows-lawsuit-against-james-mitchell-and-bruce-jessen-architects-of-cia-torture-program-to-proceed/
    Thanks also for alerting me to Obama’s joke – and his lack of amusement when it was turned on him!

  28. Donald says...

    “I would hope 35 men would be the maximum number the Obama administration says it wants to move to the mainland so Guantanamo itself can be closed, but while I recognize concerns that this will only enshrine indefinite detention without charge or trial on the US mainland, I don’t find it plausible that a cast-iron legislative justification for that will be found, and I think that anyone transferred and not put on trial will be able to invoke the Constitution to ask why, and the administration and Congress will have difficulty justifying their detention”

    I think the number will be 50 at the least (including the 10 facing trial). I can’t imagine the PRB approving a majority of the “prosecution” detainees but I could be wrong.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s really hard to tell, Donald, isn’t it? I have heard that intelligence experts – some involved in capturing and interrogating suspects – have said that there are only eight genuinely dangerous individuals held in addition to the ten facing trials, but it seems unlikely that their assessment will prevail, for now, at least.
    However, I find it difficult to see how the US will be able to argue five or ten years from now – in other words, 20-25 years since their capture – that it can continue holding people it isn’t going to prosecute and who it doesn’t regard as soldiers. That just doesn’t seem acceptable to me.

  30. arcticredriver says...

    Greetings Andy!

    I am reading the news about Abu Zubaydah’s PRB hearing yesterday. There is a terrible spin doctor named Marc Theissen, who claimed on the American Enterprise Institute site, that Abu Zubaydah himself has denied he was waterboarded 83 times. Theissen claims that the number 83 refers to the number of times his face was splashed with water. So where does 83 number come from? The CIA inspector general’s report, but the number refers not to waterboarding sessions, or even the number of applications within a session, but rather to the number of individual splashes of water (for example, a single 15-second application could involve a dozen quick splashes).

    Sheesh! I think this guy knows he is lying

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi arcticredriver,
    Great to hear from you, as always. Thiessen is a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, who has been writing op-eds for the Washington Post for years defending torture, which shouldn’t have been published at all. I’m not surprised to see him up to his usual tricks.
    I’ve been away in Spain for two weeks, so just catching up with recent developments in the PRBs. I haven’t got round to looking at Abu Zubaydah’s review yet, so thanks for sharing Thiessen’s misinformation with me.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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