Zubaydah's later fate in the hands of the CIA was of a far grimmer nature. He had the dubious luck to be the subject of a number of CIA "firsts": the first post-9/11 prisoner to be waterboarded; the first to be experimented on by psychologists working as CIA contractors; one of the first of the Agency's "ghost prisoners" (detainees hidden from the world, including the International Committee of the Red Cross which, under the Geneva Conventions, must be allowed access to every prisoner of war); and one of the first prisoners to be cited in a memo written by Jay Bybee for the Bush administration on what the CIA could "legally" do to a detainee without supposedly violating U.S. federal laws against torture.
Zubaydah's story is -- or at least should be -- the iconic tale of the illegal extremes to which the Bush administration and the CIA went in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. And yet former officials, from CIA head Michael Hayden to Vice President Dick Cheney to George W. Bush himself, have presented it as a glowing example of the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" to extract desperately needed information from the "evildoers" of that time.
Zubaydah was an early experiment in post-9/11 CIA practices and here's the remarkable thing (though it has yet to become part of the mainstream media accounts of his case): it was all a big lie. Zubaydah wasn't involved with al-Qaeda; he was the ringleader of nothing; he never took part in planning for the 9/11 attacks. He was brutally mistreated and, in another kind of world, would be exhibit one in the war crimes trials of America's top leaders and its major intelligence agency.
Yet notorious as he once was, he's been forgotten by all but his lawyers and a few tenacious reporters. He shouldn't have been. He was the test case for the kind of torture that Donald Trump now wants the U.S. government to bring back, presumably because it "worked" so well the first time. With Republican presidential hopefuls promising future war crimes, it's worth reconsidering his case and thinking about how to prevent it from happening again. After all, it's only because no one has been held to account for the years of Bush administration torture practices that Trump and others feel free to promise even more and "yuger" war crimes in the future.
Experiments in Torture
In August 2002, a group of FBI agents, CIA agents, and Pakistani forces captured Zubaydah (along with about 50 other men) in Faisalabad, Pakistan. In the process, he was severely injured -- shot in the thigh, testicle, and stomach. He might well have died, had the CIA not flown in an American surgeon to patch him up. The Agency's interest in his health was, however, anything but humanitarian. Its officials wanted to interrogate him and, even after he had recovered sufficiently to be questioned, his captors occasionally withheld pain medication as a means of torture.
When he "lost" his left eye under mysterious circumstances while in CIA custody, the agency's concern again was not for his health. The December 2014 torture report produced by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (despite CIA opposition that included hacking into the committee's computers) described the situation this way: with his left eye gone, "[i]n October 2002, DETENTION SITE GREEN [now known to be Thailand] recommended that the vision in his right eye be tested, noting that '[w]e have a lot riding upon his ability to see, read, and write.' DETENTION SITE GREEN stressed that 'this request is driven by our intelligence needs [not] humanitarian concern for AZ.'"
The CIA then set to work interrogating Zubaydah with the help of two contractors, the psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. Zubaydah would be the first human subject on whom those two, who were former instructors at the Air Force's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) training center, could test their theories about using torture to induce what they called "learned helplessness," meant to reduce a suspect's resistance to interrogation. Their price? Only $81 million.
CIA records show that, using a plan drawn up by Jessen and Mitchell, Abu Zubaydah's interrogators would waterboard him an almost unimaginable 83 times in the course of a single month; that is, they would strap him to a wooden board, place a cloth over his entire face, and gradually pour water through the cloth until he began to drown. At one point during this endlessly repeated ordeal, the Senate committee reported that Zubaydah became "completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth."
Each of those 83 uses of what was called "the watering cycle" consisted of four steps:
"1) demands for information interspersed with the application of the water just short of blocking his airway 2) escalation of the amount of water applied until it blocked his airway and he started to have involuntary spasms 3) raising the water-board to clear subject's airway 4) lowering of the water-board and return to demands for information."
The CIA videotaped Zubaydah undergoing each of these "cycles," only to destroy those tapes in 2005 when news of their existence surfaced and the embarrassment (and possible future culpability) of the Agency seemed increasingly to be at stake. CIA Director Michael Hayden would later assure CNN that the tapes had been destroyed only because "they no longer had 'intelligence value' and they posed a security risk." Whose "security" was at risk if the tapes became public? Most likely, that of the Agency's operatives and contractors who were breaking multiple national and international laws against torture, along with the high CIA and Bush administration officials who had directly approved their actions.
In addition to the waterboarding, the Senate torture report indicates that Zubaydah endured excruciating stress positions (which cause terrible pain without leaving a mark); sleep deprivation (for up to 180 hours, which generally induces hallucinations or psychosis); unrelenting exposure to loud noises (another psychosis-inducer); "walling" (the Agency's term for repeatedly slamming the shoulder blades into a "flexible, false wall," though Zubaydah told the International Committee of the Red Cross that when this was first done to him, "he was slammed directly against a hard concrete wall"); and confinement for hours in a box so cramped that he could not stand up inside it. All of these methods of torture had been given explicit approval in a memo written to the CIA's head lawyer, John Rizzo, by Jay Bybee, who was then serving in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. In that memo Bybee approved the use of 10 different "techniques" on Zubaydah.
It seems likely that, while the CIA was torturing Zubaydah at Jessen's and Mitchell's direction for whatever information he might have, it was also using him to test the "effectiveness" of waterboarding as a torture technique. If so, the agency and its contractors violated not only international law, but the U.S. War Crimes Act, which expressly forbids experimenting on prisoners.
What might lead us to think that Zubaydah's treatment was, in part, an experiment? In a May 30, 2005, memo sent to Rizzo, Steven Bradbury, head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, discussed the CIA's record keeping. There was, Bradbury commented, method to the CIA's brutality. "Careful records are kept of each interrogation," he wrote. This procedure, he continued, "allows for ongoing evaluation of the efficacy of each technique and its potential for any unintended or inappropriate results." In other words, with the support of the Bush Justice Department, the CIA was keeping careful records of an experimental procedure designed to evaluate how well waterboarding worked.
This was Abu Zubaydah's impression as well. "I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques," Zubaydah would later tell the International Committee of the Red Cross, "so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people."