Abu Zubaydah’s suffering
But perhaps we also should remember that there was a human being strapped to that board. His name is Zayn al Abidin Mohamed Hussein, known to the world as Abu Zubaydah.
He was the first prisoner in the “war on terror” to experience the full gamut of ancient techniques adapted by the communists in Korea and, 50 years later, approved by the Justice Department in Washington. He was the first prisoner to have his interrogations captured on videotape — a practice the CIA ended in late 2002. Two years later, the agency destroyed 90 videotapes of Abu Zubaydah’s interrogations, which resulted in a criminal investigation of government officials connected with the program.
Many questions about his interrogation remain unanswered, but two legs of the three-legged stool are firmly in place.
And they strapped him to an inverted board and poured water over his covered nose and mouth to “produce the sensation of suffocation and incipient panic.” Eighty-three times. I leave it to others to debate whether we should call this torture. I am content with the self-evident truth that it was wrong.
Second, his treatment was motivated by the bane of our post-9/11 world: rotten intel. The beat him because they believed he was evil. Not long after his arrest, President Bush described him as “one of the top three leaders” in Al Qaeda and “Al Qaeda’s chief of operations.” In fact, the CIA brass at Langley, Va., ordered his interrogators to keep at it long after the latter warned that he had been wrung dry.
But Abu Zubaydah, we now understand, was nothing like what the president believed. He was never Al Qaeda. The journalist Ron Suskind was the first to ask the right questions. In his 2006 book, “The One Percent Doctrine,” he described Abu Zubaydah as a minor logistics man, a travel agent.
Later and more detailed reporting in the Washington Post, quoting Justice Department officials, said he provided “above-ground support. … To make him the mastermind of anything is ridiculous.” More recently, the New York Times, relying on current and former intelligence officers, said the initial assessment was “highly inflated” and reflected “a profound misunderstanding” of Abu Zubaydah. Far from a leader, he was “a personnel clerk.”
So two legs of the stool are fixed: They tormented a clerk. But there is a third leg that should not be left out. No one can pass unscathed through an ordeal like this. Abu Zubaydah paid with his mind.
Partly as a result of injuries he suffered while he was fighting the communists in Afghanistan, partly as a result of how those injuries were exacerbated by the CIA and partly as a result of his extended isolation, Abu Zubaydah’s mental grasp is slipping away.
Today, he suffers blinding headaches and has permanent brain damage. He has an excruciating sensitivity to sounds, hearing what others do not. The slightest noise drives him nearly insane. In the last two years alone, he has experienced about 200 seizures.
But physical pain is a passing thing. The enduring torment is the taunting reminder that darkness encroaches. Already, he cannot picture his mother’s face or recall his father’s name. Gradually, his past, like his future, eludes him.
McCain was right: It’s about who we are. And we are not people who do this to another human being.
Joseph Margulies, assistant director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law, is co-counsel for Abu Zubaydah.