More than twenty years after 9/11, we continue to wrestle with a paradox. Al Qaeda’s much feared and anticipated “second wave” of attacks on the United States never materialized, which the CIA hails as a great success. But no “high value” detainees interrogated by the CIA have been sentenced for carrying out the 9/11 attacks that killed almost three thousand people, which makes for a monumental failure for the victims’ families and also for the United States’ justice system.
Central to this paradox is an experiment called “enhanced interrogation” by the CIA but dubbed torture by two US presidents, two former CIA directors, and two Senate committees. Successive US investigations into it have concluded that the CIA broke federal and international laws. The CIA inspector general reported that CIA detainees died during or after harsh interrogations. Official records show that at least thirty-nine CIA detainees were subjected to enhanced interrogation, while around twenty more were never properly documented, and disappeared. At the epicenter of this controversial program are two people: Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee subjected to enhanced interrogation; and Jim Mitchell, the CIA program’s architect and Abu Zubaydah’s primary interrogator. In this book, we explore their relationship, get back into the interrogation cell with them, and witness the secret program close-up. We hear from Abu Zubaydah, who was gagged by the CIA back in 2002 and has never spoken publicly; and Mitchell, who was exposed and trashed by the media, along with his interrogation partner, Bruce Jessen.
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The CIA never wants the truth about enhanced interrogation to be told. Instead of fully investigating what went wrong, admitting the wide-ranging consequences, or prosecuting those who had committed abuse, the CIA ran its own narrative, embracing Hollywood and Fox TV. Jack Bauer in 24 broke fingers and suffocated and electrocuted “bad guys,” while in Zero Dark Thirty, a badly beaten Al Qaeda suspect gave up vital clues about Osama bin Laden’s location, as if to say, as long as it was only the “good guys” doing the torturing, then it was justified—because it worked.
We began investigating enhanced interrogation in 2016 while finishing up a previous book, The Exile, about Osama bin Laden’s last decade on the run, in which opposing views were regularly voiced about whether the CIA program had helped or hindered the hunt for the world’s most wanted man. The story of Abu Zubaydah, who the CIA accused of being “Number Three” in Al Qaeda and a 9/11 planner and financier, consistently defied us. By the time The Exile was published in May 2017, he had been held in US government custody for fifteen years, although he was never charged. According to the Pentagon, he was still an “unlawful enemy combatant” and a danger to the world, even though the US government had by then conceded that he never fought American forces, did not have advance knowledge of any Al Qaeda attacks, and was not a member of Al Qaeda.
Only snippets of verifiable information about this “forever prisoner” were available, material that was overwhelmed by hundreds of best-selling “War on Terror” books, including several CIA memoirs. These memoirs told stories of diligence, valor, and success, in which Abu Zubaydah was a monster who had planned more attacks and who deserved to be treated harshly, while enhanced interrogation was legal, professional, and fully approved, all the way up to the president. They promoted the official CIA narrative that harsh techniques were tough but necessary, that enhanced interrogation had thwarted Abu Zubaydah’s plans to kill countless Americans.
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However, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) concluded otherwise. Its December 2014 CIA torture report stated that the case against him had been largely fabricated. Techniques trialed on him with devastating impact, and then used on others, amounted to torture. No actionable high-value intelligence was obtained through enhanced interrogation. The twenty most frequently cited and prominent examples of counterterrorism successes that the CIA attributed to its program were “wrong in fundamental respects.” The CIA was guilty of murder, brutality, deception, withholding medical care, and allowing psychologists to approve abusive techniques, and then double up as interrogators, even though they had no experience or knowledge of Al Qaeda or Islam. The CIA had vastly inflated Abu Zubaydah’s connections to Osama bin Laden, lied about his knowledge of future attacks, and then covered up its wrongdoings by destroying or hiding evidence of abuse. Senate investigators found no evidence that Abu Zubaydah had been trained to resist interrogation, as the CIA maintained when it presented its legal case for “hard approach measures” to senior administration lawyers in the spring of 2002.
Using contacts established over many years of reporting on terrorism, we delved deep, reaching out to Mitchell, Jessen, Abu Zubaydah, and many others. While the CIA was intent on keeping Abu Zubaydah “incommunicado” forever, he was able to speak to us via a circuitous route, although he did not authorize or approve this book. The CIA also restricted access to the vast majority of the six-million-plus documents relating to Abu Zubaydah and its program, but Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suits helped shake thousands of previously classified documents free.
Our primary motivation was to understand men whose lives changed forever after their eyes first met inside a secret CIA interrogation bunker in Thailand. What were the real reasons the US government was determined to keep Abu Zubaydah incommunicado forever? Was he really a danger to the world or an existential threat to the CIA? What had motivated Mitchell and Jessen, both stellar military psychologists with faultless careers to date, to invent the toxicity of enhanced interrogation? Money? Fame and respect? Or patriotism?
This book aims to tell these parallel stories through the key players’ own recollections. We also sought out officers, contractors, lawyers, special agents, soldiers, and other detainees, who planned, designed, and lived through enhanced interrogation, to bring to life a story most often populated by inanimate objects with extraordinary resonance—waterboards, coffins, dog crates, “walling” walls, shackles, masks, diapers, and orange prison scrubs.
Mitchell threatened to have the FBI throw us off his property when we first approached him in February 2017. After he relented, he introduced us to his closest former colleagues, for which we are grateful. Many engaged with us, although a few, like Jessen, withdrew. Those who spoke revealed a complex picture of a program born out of genuine fears, and urgent national and political need, but sullied by xenophobia, nationalism, ignorance, suspicion, deception, aggression, and ambition. “Enhanced interrogation” entranced everyone connected to protecting America, then mutated like a virus, infecting everything and everyone who touched it. The consequences have been devastating.
So who was to blame? And who, if anyone, should face criminal charges? Who were the “good guys,” and who were the “bad guys”? In the end, Mitchell told us one critical truth: that the binary Hollywood world the CIA liked to inhabit was irrelevant because humans were chameleons, always adapting to their circumstances. “Bad guys become good guys and vice versa,” he said during one candid interview session at his home in Florida in June 2019. Who was he talking about? Himself or Abu Zubaydah?
This excerpt from Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy’s The Forever Prisoner has been published with permission from HarperCollins.