‘The Forever Prisoner’ Reveals When America ‘Forever’ Lost Its Moral Standing in the World
Does Alex Gibney sleep? In the past two years alone, the tireless documentarian has directed four feature-length films (The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Citizen K, Crazy, Not Insane and Totally Under Control), two two-part, four-hour cable docuseries (Agents of Chaos and The Crime of the Century), and one episode of a non-fiction series (The Innocence Files)—not to mention produced a handful of other likeminded efforts. On top of that enormous slate, he now delivers The Forever Prisoner, an inquiry into the tale of Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi Arabian who’s been detained by the U.S. since March 2002 (and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay since 2003), making him one of the longest-serving captives in the War on Terror. More notable still, during his initial imprisonment, Zubaydah was subjected to repeated bouts of newly-devised “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT)—i.e. “torture”—which to Gibney marks him a symbol of America’s betrayal of its bedrock values.
Despite that thesis, however, it’s difficult to get a good read on precisely the point being made by The Forever Prisoner (Dec. 6, HBO), since most of its core contentions are common knowledge and/or generally accepted as fact, and its primary position—that Zubaydah’s indefinite detainment is a fundamental and disgraceful wrong—turns out to be merely a footnote to its larger portrait. As usual, Gibney constructs his film with propulsive efficiency, providing succinct contextual background regarding the War on Terror, and a collection of talking-head commentators, textual evidence, and archival footage (as well as narration from himself) to forward his claims. What’s absent in his latest, however, is a compelling bombshell, or a more fully fleshed-out argument, to invest viewers in this trip back to the ugly early days of our post-9/11 history.
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From the outset, Gibney declares Zubaydah’s detention by the CIA “the origin story of America’s failure of intelligence, and our retreat from the ideals we claim to be fighting for.” Zubaydah was caught in Pakistan in March 2002 and immediately spirited away to one of the U.S.’s original black sites, which in this instance was little more than a house in the rural jungles of Thailand. There, he was treated for multiple gunshot wounds he’d suffered during the skirmish that led to his capture. Afterwards, he wound up on the receiving end of interrogation procedures created, on the orders of the CIA, by James Mitchell, a military psychologist who had previously developed and run the government’s SERE school (for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), which trained soldiers to endure extreme coercion tactics. According to Gibney’s doc, SERE was a response to America’s scarring Korean War experiences, during which time torture, and fears of enemy “brainwashing,” were so great that they invaded the national consciousness, such as via films like The Manchurian Candidate.
Guided by interviews with former FBI agents Ali Soufan and his partner Stephen Gaudin, as well as now-unredacted passages from the former’s book The Black Banners, the doc details how Soufan and Gaudin’s early, standard-protocol interrogations of Zubaydah paid dividends, culminating with them learning that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been behind 9/11. Nonetheless, George Tenet’s CIA was convinced that Zubaydah was a top-ranking al Qaeda operative who had even more valuable intel to cough up—specifically, about an imminent attack on U.S. soil being masterminded by Osama bin Laden. All of this was eventually proven false, but in the heightened atmosphere of 2002, gung-ho measures to prevent possible catastrophes were top priority, and the CIA soon turned to Mitchell and fellow psychologist Dr. Bruce Jessen to use their SERE expertise to design interrogation (torture) tools that would get them what they coveted.
The Forever Prisoner maintains that America’s first mistake was believing Zubaydah was an al Qaeda bigwig rather than a bin Laden-sympathetic terrorist most renowned as a go-between facilitator for the world’s worst. To Gibney, however, more disastrous was the CIA’s (and Mitchell’s) decision to utilize techniques—facial slaps, walling, attention grasps, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding—that the SERE program knew were ineffective at extracting the truth; the only things they successfully elicited were false confessions that the interrogators wanted to hear. As a result, once EITs were employed, Zubaydah largely clammed up, which prompted the CIA to so double down on its extreme measures that Mitchell and Jessen sought to halt the use of the very techniques they’d instituted.
Mitchell and many others speak candidly throughout about the reasoning behind these directives, the errors they made, and the ensuing cover-up orchestrated by the CIA, which wanted to erase any traces of its sordid activities. That involved destroying tapes of Zubaydah’s interrogations, and heavily redacting most of the notes about those sessions. Nonetheless, Gibney exposes them via interviews with a handful of speakers, as well as diary entries and illustrations authored by none other than Zubaydah himself. In those graphic images, it’s tough not to view EIT as boundary-crossing at best, and cruel and inhumane at worst. The fact that Mitchell says he found them ultimately distasteful and futile—thereby aligning him on that issue with Soufan, whom he otherwise disparagingly refers to as that “Muslim agent”—hammers home Gibney’s critique.
Still, most of this has been known for years, and The Forever Prisoner even depicts President Obama admitting that “we did some things that were wrong.” Consequently, the doc fails to generate much fresh outrage about such conduct. Moreover, it never adequately counters Mitchell’s explanation-cum-justification that he believed he was faced with two bad options—on the one hand, the possible deaths of thousands of Americans (whose lives he’d be responsible for), and on the other hand, the “temporary discomfort of a terrorist”—and he picked “the least worst of two bad choices.”
Stranger, though, is that The Forever Prisoner spends only its final few minutes discussing Zubaydah’s indeterminate detainment, which continues to this day. In light of its title, that would seem to be the chief reason for making the film in the first place. Yet in the end, Gibney relegates it to simply a punctuation—in the process exacerbating the proceedings’ lack of focus.
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