Totally Under Control: The Forever Prisoner

JUSTICE / Twenty years on Guantánamo Bay's first high-value detainee has still never been charged with a crime or allowed to challenge his detention.

The Forever Prisoner is Alex Gibney’s latest infuriatingly insane expose of US government malfeasance, and yet it’s also a revisitation of territory the prolific documentarian tread long ago. (As have other equally prolific filmmakers – most notably Errol Morris with 2008’s Standard Operating Procedure.) Back in his 2007 Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, Gibney explored the case of Dilawar; an innocent Afghan peanut farmer turned taxi driver tortured to death at Bagram detention center nearly two decades ago. Now the director has decided to train his investigative lens on an even more problematic character and case – that of Abu Zubaydah, the first «high-value detainee» subjected to the CIA’s program of «enhanced interrogation techniques» (aka EITs, aka torture). Nearly two decades on, the terrorist whose actual name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn remains in custody and perpetual limbo at Gitmo – the result, as one talking head puts it in The Forever Prisoner, not of «what he did to us» but of «what we did to him.»

The Forever Prisoner, a film by Alex Gibney
The Forever Prisoner, a film by Alex Gibney

No charges

For Husayn, a sort of jihadi facilitator and training camp entrepreneur (who likely never farmed peanuts but also wasn’t exactly a made member of Al-Qaeda) has never been charged with a crime. Nor has he ever been allowed to challenge his detention. He’s simply eternally stuck outside the bounds of US law in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And this is because the US government will never bring him to trial, especially since all its «evidence» is tainted – as pretty much everything Husayn confessed to (a lot of it bogus «tell them what they want to hear» claptrap anyway) was obtained through round after round of CIA EITs (including being waterboarded a whopping 83 times). In other words, Husayn is both flesh and blood human being suffering in a Kafkaesque nightmare; and a potentially dangerous albatross that’s now been choking the necks of four (two Republican, two Democrat) consecutive administrations.

Husayn is both flesh and blood human being suffering in a Kafkaesque nightmare

That said, the notorious plight of Abu Zubaydah isn’t exactly breaking news. (In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights even ordered Poland to pay Husayn over 100K euros for allowing the US to torture him inside its country.) So why tackle the never-ending saga now? Interestingly, this is where Gibney himself enters the picture, as several lawsuits he and producer Ray Bonner filed actually led in part, somewhat surprisingly, to the CIA declassifying a trove of material. This, in turn, means that a lot of the folks initially involved in this shameful fiasco are now able and willing to talk – or rather «set the record straight.» Whether they succeed is another story unto itself.

Though many of the players do indeed come across as heroic, there’s FBI agent Ali Soufan (himself a character in the Gibney-created miniseries The Looming Tower), whose presence makes its own case for the Federal Bureau of Investigation has come a long way from its racist, xenophobic and law-skirting roots under J. Edgar Hoover. Soufan and his partner Stephen Gaudin were the original questioners assigned to Abu Zubaydah – their fruitful sessions performed not with any «enhanced» techniques but with classic law enforcement procedures such as gaining the comfort and trust of a subject. In fact, Husayn had actually been cooperating with Soufan and Gaudin before the G-men were abruptly replaced by CIA interrogators who decided to instead try what amounted to a West Wing-approved, Dr. Strangelove-style behavioural experiment.

The Forever Prisoner, a film by Alex Gibney
The Forever Prisoner, a film by Alex Gibney

Confederate central casting

Enter southern-fried psychologist James Mitchell, the mastermind behind EITs, who probably should have taken the Fifth and saved face rather than submit to Gibney’s probing camera. Swinging between defensive and cagey, Mitchell – often seen unironically rowing his boat through Florida swampland – seems straight out of Confederacy central casting. He dismissively refers to Lebanese-American Soufan as the «Muslim agent» and veers from insisting that EITs work to claiming that he never actually suggested their use. Then again, the fact that Mitchell was even involved in this whole debacle in the first place cannot be blamed on the retired Air Force vet. His company Mitchell Jessen and Associates only got the (taxpayer-funded $81 million) torture contracting gig as a result of his being offhandedly recommended by some random CIA lawyer’s wife. No vetting required.
Unfortunately, those most responsible for Husayn’s unconscionable predicament will certainly never speak to a leftie muckraker like Gibney. Lawyers (and accused war criminals) such as John Yoo, author of the Torture Memos, who is currently a professor at uber-liberal UC Berkeley. Or his onetime boss David Addington, who served as VP Cheney’s legal counsel and chief of staff (and later joined the Heritage Foundatio#n naturally). Let alone former CIA director George Tenet (now a managing director at an investment bank, surprise, surprise). And, of course, pigs will fly before George W. Bush or Dick Cheney would ever admit to any culpability.

…pigs will fly before George W. Bush or Dick Cheney would ever admit to any culpability.

In this sense, The Forever Prisoner could almost serve as a companion piece to Gibney’s 2020 Trump-dunking doc Totally Under Control. From unqualified psychologists touting «enhanced interrogation techniques” to pseudoscience «experts» hawking hydroxychloroquine, we in the US are forever imprisoned by the threat of powerful lunatics and their enabling yes men running the next Republican administration asylum. No accountability required.

What about a donation, for full access and 2-3 print copies in your mail a year?
(Modern Times Review is a non-profit organisation, and really appreciate such support from our readers.) 

Lauren Wissot
Lauren Wissot
A US-based film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer.

The first signs of war

UKRAINE: A compellingly grim account of the country's descent into war.

Filming the right-wing with ‘an open heart’

HOMOPHOBIA: Polish Prayers unravels the trajectory of a young Pole as he journeys away from the homophonic, ultra-conservative Brotherhood

Growing up under the approaching storm clouds of war

UKRAINE: The lives of ordinary teenagers in Ukraine's Donbas region as they navigate adolescence, dreams, and the devastating impact of conflict on their futures.

A frozen art for futile times

ART: With the slogan ethics before aesthetics, a group of Serbian artists collectively looked to draw attention to the negative social trends of the time.

Where civilisation began

NATURE: Embark on an awe-inspiring journey through space and time while honouring the majesty and fragility of our planet's waterways.

Coming of age in times of war

UKRAINE: An achingly tender film about growing up and a moving contemplation on life itself.
- Advertisement -spot_img

You might also likeRELATED
Recommended to you