WASHINGTON ― The first person to be subjected to the CIA’s now-defunct “enhanced interrogation program” sat before a parole board at Guantanamo Bay on Tuesday, in his first public appearance since he was captured more than a decade ago.
Flanked by two personal representatives clad in green camouflage and one translator dressed in civilian clothes, Abu Zubaydah listened silently during the 15-minute unclassified session of his periodic review board hearing.
Once accused by Bush administration officials of being a top-ranking al Qaeda leader, Zubaydah was described Tuesday by an unidentified government official not visible onscreen as a lower-level recruiter and facilitator for the group who may have had advanced knowledge of the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the USS Cole bombing in 2000 and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The government official, who was speaking from an undisclosed location outside Guantanamo Bay, said Zubaydah had shown a “high level of cooperation” at the prison, serving “as a cell block leader, assuming responsibility for communicating detainees’ messages and grievances to the staff and maintaining order among the detainees.”
Though that’s ostensibly a positive description of the detainee’s behavior, the government official said Zubaydah’s efforts to “solidify his reputation as a leader of his peers” could help him re-engage in terrorist activity if he were released.
The official cited his limited communication with his family as evidence that he lacked a support network ― although high-value detainees like Zubaydah have extremely tight restrictions on communicating with people outside the prison.
Zubaydah’s personal representative, who read a statement on his behalf, said that while Zubaydah was initially skeptical that he would ever be released, “he has come to believe that he might have a chance to leave Guantanamo through [the periodic review board] process.”
Both the government official and Zubaydah’s personal representative said that he had condemned attacks by the so-called Islamic State, the group that grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq.
“He has repeatedly said that the Islamic State is out of control and has gone too far,” the personal representative said, adding that Zubaydah has no desire to harm the U.S. or any other country.
Dressed in white, Zubaydah listened attentively, focused on the translator seated to his left. He lost his left eye while in CIA custody, and the patch that he has been seen wearing over where his eye used to be, hung from his neck. He wore glasses, but the quality of the video that was live-streamed to the Pentagon was too poor to see his eyes in detail. With short brown hair and a trimmed beard, the prisoner appeared noticeably un-aged compared to photographs from a decade ago.
A review board made up of officials from a range of defense, diplomatic and intelligence agencies listened to the proceedings at an undisclosed, remote location. They will determine in about one month whether Zubaydah’s continued detention “remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”
The review board hearings are not intended to provide a ruling on the lawfulness of detaining the prisoners nor do they provide a verdict of guilt or innocence.
Zubaydah is classified by the Pentagon as a “high-value detainee,” a group of prisoners at Guantanamo that includes the five men accused of planning the Sept. 11 attacks, and the alleged mastermind of the USS Cole bombing.
Often described as the CIA’s “guinea pig,” Zubaydah was the first CIA prisoner to endure torture under the agency’s “enhanced interrogation program.”
Zubaydah has never been charged with a crime but is unlikely to be cleared for release, highlighting a major gap in President Barack Obama’s plan to shutter the infamous prison. His case also serves as a searing reminder of the ways in which the Bush administration’s torture program created lasting obstacles to providing due process for the individuals picked up in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Declassified documents from a Senate investigation and Zubaydah’s own testimony from 2007 reveal that during his time in a CIA black site in Thailand, Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times in one month, confined in boxes the size of a coffin or smaller, slammed into a wall, deprived of sleep and lost his left eye.
After the CIA tested its torture techniques on Zubaydah, agency officials went on to apply “enhanced interrogation techniques” to at least 38 other prisoners. Two survivors and the family of one prisoner who died in CIA custody are now suing the two CIA-contracted psychologists who helped design the program.
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who interrogated Zubaydah using traditional methods before the CIA tortured him, has said that he acquired “important actionable intelligence” about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, accused of planning the Sept. 11 attacks, and Jose Padilla, the convicted dirty bomb plotter. Subsequent methods used by the CIA, according to Soufan, produced unreliable information and ignored due process.
Because of Zubaydah’s experiences in CIA custody, it is now almost certain that he will remain in U.S. custody without being charged for the rest of his life as part of the population that the Obama administration refers to as an “irreducible minimum” ― Guantanamo prisoners who can neither be charged with a crime nor released to another country.
It would be nearly impossible to separate out information gained by torture, making it unlikely that Zubaydah will be tried in court. And even if government officials no longer view him as a threat, it is unlikely that the intelligence community will sign off on releasing a man with such extensive firsthand knowledge of the CIA’s torture program.
Zubaydah’s testimony on Tuesday marked the first time he has been seen in public since being captured in 2002.
If the CIA had gotten its way, Zubaydah might have remained out of the public eye indefinitely.
The declassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA torture program cited an agency cable in which CIA officers sought assurances that he would “remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”
Zubaydah nearly appeared as a witness in the Sept. 11 case at the war court in Guantanamo earlier this year ― but his testimony was postponed after the prosecution refused to limit questioning to the conditions of confinement at Camp 7, a secret site at Guantanamo that houses the high-value detainees.
Periodic review board hearings, once sporadic events, have rapidly picked up pace in the final year of Obama’s presidency, as he makes his last push to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. After 15 prisoners were released earlier this month, the prison population is down to 61.
A handful of high-value detainees are the only eligible prisoners at Guantanamo who have not yet received a parole board hearing. The Pentagon aims to hold review hearings for all of the remaining eligible detainees by the end of fall.