Guantánamo Film Ignores the War on Terror’s Ongoing Tangible Harms

“There is no them, there is only us,” says filmmaker Alex Gibney reflecting on the story of Abu Zubaydah, a torture victim and Guantánamo prisoner who is the focus of his HBO documentary, The Forever Prisoner. Expanding on this, he poses a challenge: “If we believe in that idea, how can we imprison a man without charge for the remainder of his life — not for what he did to us, but for what we did to him?” In this statement made at the conclusion of the documentary, Gibney explicitly notes that the empirical measure of which values the United States truly upholds is its own behavior, alone — without justifications rooted in the concept of a real or imagined “them.” This truth is powerfully evident when we look at the U.S.’s use of torture. However, The Forever Prisoner This important and vital point is deeply ignored. The film, ostensibly focused on Zubaydah, ultimately seems to use him as a narrative tool, while ignoring the ongoing brutal harms against him and all victims of the “war on terror.”

Who’s Eating the Popcorn?

As a longtime researcher, writer and organizer focused on closing Guantánamo Bay and ending torture, I was anticipating a film that would provide new insight and perspectives on Zubaydah’s case in the context of the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 and the resulting war on terror. While The Forever Prisoner did reveal some new and lesser-known details surrounding the case, nothing in it fundamentally altered the known contours of Zubaydah’s story. Similarly, the film’s details offered no truly new perspectives on the “enhanced interrogation program,” in premise or implementation, nor the underlying fact that there has not been (nor is there ever likely to be, without a truly dramatic shift) genuine accountability for its abuses.

Zubaydah himself is absent from the film — as the title suggests, he remains in custody and incommunicado — and little new information is provided about his case. Instead, the film’s main emphasis is Gibney’s reflection on how the United States could have engaged in this conduct, a reflection that has been aired many times over the years. The United States has resorted to making empty claims about its unique values in order not to be seen as a victim of state violence. Documentary explorations of tension between how it sees itself and the actual actions of the U.S. are abundant. Instead of exceptionalizing Zubaydah’s case in order to retread this well-worn path, Gibney might have done better exploring the trajectory of the violence Zubaydah and other war on terror prisoners have experienced in the context of how, if it is even possible, to chart a way forward. Instead of looking at the U.S., its identity, and its values, Gibney is too fixated on what it does and the consequences of its actions, and contemplating the possibility of a new future. This documentary provided little hope for viewers like me.

In fact, it is unclear who constitutes Gibney’s intended audience. It will provide information that is familiar and basic for those who are already interested in these issues. However, it will offer a wealth of confusing and complex details for those who are not. More fundamentally, given the public’s highly polarized opinions about the U.S.’s conduct in the war on terror and detention and torture, this documentary faced a high bar if it aims to disrupt existing perceptions held by militaristic conservatives. Unfortunately, there is nothing in. The Forever Prisoner feels urgent enough to pose a real challenge to the viewer’s existing moral compass, even in the unlikely event that those who firmly believe the U.S. is justified in taking any extreme measures in fighting terrorism, end up somehow watching it.

If You Don’t Shine by Merit, Shine by Comparison: Abu Zubaydah’s Story

Abu Zubaydah, captured during a raid in Pakistan in February 2002. In March 2002, Abu Zubaydah was captured in a raid in Pakistan. The U.S. claimed he had been the number three member of al-Qaeda. But the government later admitted that he wasn’t actually part the organization and that he operated independently. After his capture, Zubaydah was flown to a series of CIA “black sites” around the world and subjected to a systematic program of brutal torture, which would come to be euphemized as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The documentary focuses on the time Zubaydah spent at the site where he was initially taken into CIA custody, in Thailand.

The documentary begins with interagency tensions. In the beginning, the FBI and CIA argued over who would conduct Zubaydah’s interrogation and the limits of acceptable techniques. Much of the testimony offered comes from former FBI agent Ali Soufan, whose experience interrogating Zubaydah is presented as a humane contrast to the CIA’s tactics and the recommendations of two privately contracted psychologists. The film gives Soufan a wide platform, which contributes to the bizarre portrayal of the FBI as the moral force behind the war on terror. But this is not the only problem.

While the documentary centers the wonky details of FBI-CIA power struggles, the specific abuses that Zubaydah endured — which included being chained to a chair naked, subjected to loud music, denied clothing while in his freezing old cell, long periods of sleep deprivation followed by long interrogations, and confinement within a small enclosed box — form a visual backdrop. We hear Zubaydah’s story through excerpts from his journal and drawings that he made about his suffering. The film’s visuals are stunning, but it rarely stops to show the horror of Zubaydah’s torture. These visuals are often used to highlight conflicts between the various government agents who appear in person. His suffering becomes a narrative tool and his body is more of an exhibit than a human being.

Despite the title The Forever Prisoner, the film rarely calls attention to Zubaydah’s continuing plight, focusing heavily on his first few years in U.S. custody and not on the horrible limbo of indefinite detention in which he remains. This, too, seems to be a symptom of Gibney’s centering of the intelligence community and its internal conflicts. The bigger question of just how deeply the U.S. could dehumanize and brutalize the “other,” including through the use of Zubaydah’s torture as a blueprint for the abuse of other war on terror prisoners, plays a much smaller role in a film that views these issues primarily through the lens of legality, politics, and, ultimately what all of this says about “American values.” Gibney appears to be exploring Zubaydah’s story as a way of workshopping the conceptual discrepancy between U.S. conduct and U.S. values — specifically in service of restoring the identity claimed by the U.S.

Gibney often returns to the question of whether enhanced interrogation techniques yielded any valuable intelligence by contrasting the behavior of FBI interrogators in the early days with the CIA-promoted tactics. The short answer is that torture rarely results any other than the victim saying what the interrogator wants. It is striking, however, that in all of the discussion about the relative worth of the intelligence gathered versus the human cost, the film glosses almost completely over the fact this particular “high-value detainee” was not remotely a top-connected terrorist mastermind. Surprisingly the fact that Zubaydah wasn’t a member of al-Qaeda, or in any of its top three leadership ranks, is not mentioned until minute 1.26 of the two-hour film.

White Tears Mitchell

The documentary also features James Mitchell, a CIA-contracted psychologist. Mitchell is widely considered to be the government’s primary scapegoat in the fallout from the revelations about the torture program. The portrait offered of Mitchell, while not especially sympathetic, is that of a fully fleshed-out human being, who tears up at one point when reflecting on how his work has been used to systematize and normalize torture — which from his perspective is treatment that is far worse than the tactics he designed. Again, the viewer is struck again by the dissonance of Zubaydah who is absent or essentialized and the platform provided to someone who played such an integral role in his torture. He also fails to show genuine remorse. Not only is he unapologetic, he also outright refuses to call the tactics utilized in enhanced interrogation program “torture,” after more than a decade and an entire report from the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA torture in 2014. This is a fundamentally flawed way of doing things. The Forever Prisoner falls short — the lack of genuine compassion directed toward Zubaydah, and the complete erasure of the way in which his ordeal set the framework for the torture of countless Muslims stands in stark contrast to the nuanced exploration of the interactions between and feelings of government actors.

At the end of the film, Gibney reflects, “Twenty years after 9/11, I’m stirred to remember the innocents that died on that day. But I’m also stirred to remember the purpose of that vicious attack. It wasn’t to win a war. It was to cause us to abandon the principles that democracy is supposed to be. The Forever Prisoner is a living reminder of one of the ideals we abandoned: equal justice under the law.” This statement circles back to Gibney’s central goal — using Abu Zubaydah’s story to illustrate the disparity between the U.S.’s purported values and its lived ones. After everything we have seen about Zubaydah’s torture, however, equal justice under the law hardly seems to be an appropriate starting point for analysis. Differential treatment under the law is an entirely different category — Zubaydah’s story is not about unequal justice, but the absence of justice altogether. Zubaydah’s story is a reminder of what happens when the naive belief in the U.S. operating with integrity persists despite all evidence.

As Zubaydah continues to be detained at Guantánamo with no progress whatsoever toward the resolution of his case, the shortcomings of the documentary The Forever PrisonerThey serve as a reminder of the fact that justice delayed is justice denied. There is no reason to believe that the U.S. will be redeemed after 20 years of war on terror. However, it is worth trying to admit harm. Unfortunately, Gibney’s film falls far short of this goal, by ignoring the tangible harms of the war on terror in favor of repairing the identity of the state.