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Why Did US Medical Personnel Remove High-Value Detainee Abu Zubaydah’s Eye?

This picture of Abu Zubaydah was included in his classified Guantanamo Detainee Assessment Brief released last month by WikiLeaks.

Shortly after he was captured in March 2002 at a safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, following an early morning raid jointly conducted by the CIA, FBI, Pakistani police and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Abu Zubaydah woke up at a black site prison in Thailand and discovered that his left eye had been surgically removed.

Zubaydah, who is wearing an eye patch in a photograph included in his Guantanamo threat assessment file released by WikiLeaks last month, apparently never consented to the medical procedure and to this day has no idea why it was done, according to one of Zubaydah's attorneys.

“I can tell you that Abu Zubaydah has no explanation for the loss of his eye,” said Brent Mickum, who has represented Zubaydah since 2007. “He continually wants me to make inquiries to try and determine the circumstances for which he lost his eye, but no one has been forthcoming.”

This is Abu Zubaydah's passport photo, taken sometime in 1998 it is believed, which appears to show a shadow or scar over his left eye, possibly the result of an earlier shrapnel wound.

Zubaydah, the first high-value detainee captured in the “war on terror” whom the Bush administration had falsely claimed helped plan the 9/11 attacks and was the “No. 3” person in al-Qaeda, was shot in the leg, groin and stomach with an AK-47 during the March 28, 2002, raid. He allegedly attempted to evade capture by trying to jump from the rooftop of his safe house to the roof of a neighboring house. But the wounds he sustained did not include injuries to his eyes, face or head, according to intelligence officials and photographs of Zubaydah taken as he lay unconscious in a pool of blood, teetering on the brink of death, following the raid.

This is a photo of Abu Zubaydah taken after he allegedly tried to evade capture in Pakistan on March 28, 2002. Zubaydah was shot in the leg, groin and stomach and was near death.

Retired CIA officer John Kiriakou, who was the head of counterterrorism operations in Pakistan and led the team involved in Zubaydah's capture, told Truthout recently that Zubaydah “had both eyes” when the suspected terrorist was escorted from a Pakistani hospital to a Gulf Stream jet a day or so after the raid where a trauma surgeon from Johns Hopkins University the CIA tapped to perform surgery on the suspected terrorist was waiting.

So, what happened?

A US counterterrorism official, responding to a query from Truthout, said, “Zubaydah had a preexisting eye condition when he was captured” and “American medical personnel treated the condition, [but] he ultimately lost the eye.”

The revelation stands as the first piece of new medical information related to Zubaydah's case to surface in years.

But Mickum doesn't believe the government is being truthful.

“It is patently false to state Zubaydah lost his eye due to a preexisting condition and that is belied by the evidence that I have from [Zubaydah], which I can't discuss due to the government's protective order,” said Mickum. “My client had two good eyes before he was seized. I'm aware of no information from my client, the government or any other source that he had a 'preexisting eye condition.'”

Click here to listen to Jason Leopold discuss this investigative story on The Peter B. Collins show.

The counterterrorism official, who was speaking on behalf of the US government, did not respond to follow-up questions about what Zubaydah's pre-existing condition was, when the surgery to remove his eye took place, who performed it and where it was done, whether officials at the CIA (who had custody of Zubaydah) signed off on the procedure, whether measures were taken to try and save Zubaydah's eye and whether the CIA or any other intelligence official told Zubaydah why his eye was being removed.

Evisceration or Enucleation?

Dr. Jonathan Macy, who runs the Macy Eye Center in Los Angeles and is an associate clinical professor of ophthalmology at UCLA and the University of Southern California, said the “indications for removal of an eye include trauma, infection, pain, tumor and sympathetic ophthalmia,” where a piercing injury to one eye results in inflammation of the uninjured eye.

“If the eye is removed primarily at the time of trauma, the indication is a blind eye that cannot be put back together,” Macy said. “An alternative scenario would involve primary repair of the ruptured globe and the subsequent development of infection or pain in a blind eye.”

Macy added that “removal of eyes is done with either evisceration or enucleation.”

“Evisceration is usually the preferred procedure,” Macy said. “With evisceration, the contents of the globe are removed, but the outer wall, or sclera of the eye in retained. A silicone ball implant is inserted within the sclera to create volume. The volume within the orbit allows proper fitting of a prosthesis. When the whole globe must be removed, that is an enucleation.”

But Macy said it is unknown which procedure Zubaydah underwent because the counterterrorism official would only say that “he ultimately lost the eye.”

A 1998 passport picture of Zubaydah, which for years was the only photograph available, shows him wearing a pair of glasses and what appears to be a shadow or scar over his left eye, possibly the result of a shrapnel wound he suffered a decade prior to his capture.

Macy said in that photograph Zubaydah's “left orbit may have already contained a prosthesis,” but Macy did not take a position as to whether that was the case.

“When one eye is normal and the other eye has a prosthesis, they rarely appear symmetrical,” he said. Zubaydah's “eyes look slightly different from one another, but not to any marked degree.”

Macy also viewed the photograph of Zubaydah lying unconscious that was taken immediately following the raid and said Zubaydah's eyes appears to be “fine.”

“I do not see any see any cuts or big lacerations and no cuts around the face or nose,” Macy said.

Regarding the counterterrorism official's account about Zubaydah's pre-existing eye condition and the circumstances that led to his left eye being removed, Macy said the scenario is conceivable.

“If the eye had suffered significant direct trauma, there are usually signs of injury to the surrounding skin,” Macy said. “The photos don't show collateral damage. Therefore, the official explanation is very plausible.”

“Rather than perforation causing infection, an infection of the cornea may lead to perforation of the globe,” Macy added. “In this case, as there is a claim of a preexisting condition, [Zubaydah] may have suffered a previous corneal ulcer that thinned and weakened the globe. He may have had a bacterial infection or herpes of the cornea. This is almost always a unilateral process. Such infections may be severe enough to perforate the eye, rendering it blind. The offending agent must be removed, leading to evisceration or enucleation.”

Zubaydah's medical records would likely explain the pre-existing eye condition, but those files are classified. The government has refused to share Zubaydah's medical files with his legal team, all of whom have top secret clearance, because it contends that doing so would amount to a violation of the detainee's privacy rights, an assertion that Mickum said is “so ludicrous that it is not even laughable at this stage.”

Mickum said Zubaydah now wears a prosthetic eye, but it sometimes irritates him so he takes it out and instead wears the eye patch.

Shrapnel Wound

The only known pre-existing condition that may have affected Zubaydah's eye was the shrapnel wound to his head he suffered from a mortar attack while “on the front lines” in Afghanistan fighting Soviet forces a decade prior to his capture, according to the government's classified Detainee Assessment Brief released by WikiLeaks.

That file says Zubaydah “stated he had to relearn fundamentals such as walking, talking and writing; as such, he was therefore considered worthless to al-Qaida.”

Last year, the government finally admitted in court documents that Zubaydah's diaries seized during the raid of the safe house “indicate that he suffered cognitive impairment from a shrapnel injury for a number of years.”

But when former Justice Department attorney John Yoo prepared one of the August 2002 torture memos, authorizing the CIA to subject Zubaydah to ten brutal torture techniques, which included waterboarding and repeatedly slamming him into a wall, Yoo wrote: “Zubaydah does not have any pre-existing mental conditions or problems that would make him likely to suffer prolonged mental harm from your proposed interrogation methods.”

“Through reading his diaries and interviewing him, you [CIA] have found no history of mood disturbance or other psychiatric pathology … 'thought disorder' … enduring mood or mental health problems,” Yoo wrote.

One of the interrogation memos Yoo drafted for the Department of Defense (DoD) that was used by military personnel and contractors conducting interrogations at Guantanamo and other prison facilities operated by the DoD stated that “gouging” a prisoner's eyes out was arguably legal under the president's executive powers unless “specific intent” to harm the prisoner could be proven.

“Infected Eye”

Details about Zubaydah's eye appear to have first surfaced in a 2008 FBI inspector general's report that contained details of his interrogation conducted by CIA contractors, which former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, identified in the report by the pseudonym “Thomas,” said amounted to “borderline torture.”

In the report, the then-FBI Inspector General Glenn Fine said Soufan's colleague, FBI special agent Steve Gaudin, identified by the pseudonym “Gibson,” disclosed to his fiancé in 2002 or 2003 that he accompanied Soufan to the black site prison in Thailand to “interview a notorious terrorist.”

Soufan had interrogated Zubaydah at the CIA's black site prison in Thailand in April 2002, before CIA contractors took over, and had tended to his wounds.

Gaudin's fiancé at the time, identified in the report as “Morehead,” “stated the terrorist was missing an eye. [Gaudin] told [the FBI during an interview into the matter] that Zubaydah had an infected eye, sometimes wore an eye patch and eventually got a glass eye,” which seems to indicate that Zubaydah's eye may have already been removed by the time both agents arrived at the black site in April 2002.

Truthout tried to reach Gaudin's ex-fiancé to determine if Gaudin disclosed additional information to her about Zubaydah's eye and his medical condition in general, but she did not return emails or voice mail messages left on her cell phone.

Daniel Freedman, who works as director of strategy for policy and analysis at Soufan's consulting firm, The Soufan Group, said Soufan confirmed that Zubaydah had a “preexisting eye condition.”

“I checked with [Soufan] and the [counterterrorism official's] account is correct,” Freedman told Truthout in an email.

Neither Freedman nor Soufan elaborated.

Kiriakou, who wrote a book about his tenure at the CIA and the capture of Zubaydah, said, “I now recall that when [Zubaydah] first opened his eyes, his left eye was cloudy, like it had a significant cataracts film over it.”

“Zubaydah spent most of the time with his eyes closed and I just forgot about it,” said Kiriakou, who was surprised to learn Zubaydah's eye had been removed. “It looked like a really bad cataract. I was with him about 48 hours when the plane came. I do not recall the Pakistani doctors paying any attention at all to his eye. They were so focused on his wounds that they didn't pay any attention to anything else.”

Zubaydah Blames Interrogators

Zubaydah seems to be under the impression that he lost his eye as a result of abusive treatment.

During his Combatant Status Review Tribunal hearing, Zubaydah said the interrogators subjected him to “months of suffering and torture, physically and mentally, they did not care about my injuries that they inflicted to my eye, to my stomach, to my bladder and my left thigh and my reproductive organs.”

The counterterrorism official also said that any suggestion that Zubaydah “lost the eye while being captured or as a result of interrogation would be flat wrong.”

But other detainees' claimed there were attempts to gouge out their eyes.

In a recent interview with The Guardian UK, Omar Deghayes said a Guantanamo guard “pushed his fingers inside my eyes” and blinded him in his right eye.

“I didn't realise what was going on until the guy had pushed his fingers ­ inside my eyes and I could feel the coldness of his fingers,” Deghayes told The Guardian UK, explaining that the incident took place when he protested a policy that called for detainees to walk around without pants. “Then I realised he was trying to gouge out my eyes.”

Shaaker Aamer, the last British detainee who remains imprisoned at Guantanamo, told his attorney he also experienced similar treatment. Aamer said naval military police brutally tortured him for two and a half hours on June 9, 2006, “gouged his eyes” and “held his eyes open and shined a maglite in them for minutes on end, generating intense heat,” during a brutal two-and-a-half hour beating on June 9, 2006, after he refused to provide his captors with a retina scan and fingerprints.

Mickum said the loss of Zubaydah's eye and the government's rationale that it was the result of a “preexisting eye condition” only raises additional questions about Zubaydah's treatment.

“The only way to rule out that anything nefarious took place is to look at Zubaydah's medical records,” Mickum said. “Until that occurs, the jury is way out and the government is not entitled to any credibility. They've lied consistently starting with the fact that they said Zubaydah was never tortured. The only inference one can draw is that he lost his eye as a result of mistreatment by the government and that he received poor medical treatment in the aftermath of his injury.”