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

Abu Zubaydah’s story is not about unequal justice, but the absence of justice altogether.

Demonstrators wearing orange jumpsuits and hoods over their heads rally to demand closure of the detention camp at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, outside the White House January 11, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

“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 deeply buries this powerful and necessary point. The film, ostensibly focused on Abu 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 Abu 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 Abu 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.

Abu 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. Even before the war on terror and its particular abuses, the United States has consistently retreated to empty assertions of its unique values in order to whitewash state violence, and documentary explorations of the tension between how the U.S. sees itself and its actual actions abound. Instead of exceptionalizing Abu Zubaydah’s case in order to retread this well-worn path, Gibney might have done better exploring the trajectory of the violence Abu 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, he remains fixated on who the U.S. is, its identity and values, rather than reckoning with what it does, the costs of its actions and the possibility of a different future. For viewers like me, this documentary offered little hope of that possibility.

In fact, it is unclear who constitutes Gibney’s intended audience. For those with a prior interest in and engagement with these issues, the information it provides will be mostly basic and familiar; for the uninitiated, it will be chock-full of complex and confusing details. 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, 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 was captured in a raid in Pakistan in March 2002. At the time, the U.S. claimed he was the number three person in al-Qaeda, but the government has since acknowledged that he was not in fact part of the organization at all, but instead operated independently. After his capture, Abu 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 Abu Zubaydah spent at the site where he was initially taken into CIA custody, in Thailand.

The beginning of the documentary is structured around interagency tensions as the FBI and the CIA wrangled over who would conduct the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and the parameters of allowable techniques. Much of the testimony offered comes from former FBI agent Ali Soufan, whose experience interrogating Abu Zubaydah is presented as a humane contrast to the CIA’s tactics and the recommendations of two privately contracted psychologists. By giving Soufan such a large platform, the film contributes to the bizarre construction of the FBI as the moral force in the war on terror, but this is far from the only pitfall.

While the documentary centers the wonky details of FBI-CIA power struggles, the specific abuses that Abu 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. Because Abu Zubaydah cannot speak for himself, we hear from him via excerpts from his journal and drawings he has done documenting his suffering. While the visuals are striking, the film rarely pauses to allow the viewer to absorb the sheer inhumanity of the torture Abu Zubaydah endured. Instead, these visuals often seem to be used merely to highlight points of conflict between the various government actors who appear in person. In this way, his suffering is reduced to a narrative tool, his physical being more an exhibit than a human body.

Despite the title, The Forever Prisoner, the film rarely calls attention to Abu 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 Abu 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 Abu 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.

In contrasting the early behavior of FBI interrogators with the CIA-promoted tactics that were eventually adopted, Gibney returns often to the question of whether the enhanced interrogation techniques actually yielded valuable intelligence. The answer, of course, is that torture rarely results in anything other than the victim saying whatever the interrogator wants them to say. 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. Somewhat shockingly, the fact that Abu Zubaydah was not a member of al-Qaeda at all, much less in the top three of its leadership, is not even mentioned until minute 1:26 of the two-hour film.

White Tears Mitchell

Another major voice in the documentary is CIA-contracted psychologist James Mitchell, who is largely considered the primary scapegoat offered by the government in the fallout when the torture program became public knowledge. 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. Here again, the viewer is struck by the dissonance between the absent or essentialized Abu Zubaydah, and the platform provided for someone who played such an instrumental role in his torture, and, despite the tears, fails to demonstrate true 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 reflects a fundamental way in which The Forever Prisoner falls short — the lack of genuine compassion directed toward Abu 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 provoke us to abandon the principles of democracy we claim to live by. 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 Abu 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 — Abu Zubaydah’s story is not about unequal justice, but the absence of justice altogether. What happened to Abu Zubaydah is what happens when the naive belief that the U.S. operates with any integrity persists in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

As Abu Zubaydah continues to be detained at Guantánamo with no progress whatsoever toward the resolution of his case, the shortcomings of the documentary The Forever Prisoner stand as a reminder that justice delayed is justice denied. After 20 years of the war on terror, there is little reason to believe that the U.S. can be redeemed, but honestly acknowledging harm should be a goal worth pursuing in and of itself. 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.

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