The Forever Prisoner (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): It was torture indeed

HBO documentary “The Forever Prisoner” is often sobering and chilling in its calm but blistering presentation on what the US government allowed to happen in the name of War on Terror. While it did not surprise or shock you much if you are familiar with its main subjects, the documentary is still captivating as providing a close look into how that infamous ‘interrogation’ technique was developed and then applied to one particular detainee, and you may find yourself often horrified by what he went through, regardless of what do you think about him.

Director/writer/co-producer Alex Gibney, who has been known for various acclaimed documentary films ranging from “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005) to “Totally Under Control” (2020), interviewed a number of different figures involved with handling that detainee after he was captured in 2002, and they are all quite willing to talk a lot about how much CIA and FBI were pressured at the beginning of War on Terror. As the American society was still quite traumatized with grief and anger after the 9/11 incident, President George W. Bush and his administration were quite determined to do anything for preventing the next possible terrorist attack in addition to capturing those Al-Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden. Naturally, CIA and FBI were ready to gather any valuable clue or information by any means necessary, and that was how more drastic ways of interrogation came to be discussed in the top echelon of CIA and the White House. Under the approval from the White House, CIA soon developed “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (EIT), and those lawyers working for CIA and the White House made sure that EIT is not technically torture on paper at least for legal protection.

Dr. James Mitchell, a former CIA psychiatrist who was one of the key figures in the development of EIT, does not hesitate at all as casually talking about how he developed the methods and protocols of EIT, which are sort of a reverse version of certain US military training programs for making soldiers prepared for any harsh enemy interrogation. Although these programs turned out to be too risky and deleterious for soldiers, nobody in CIA asked other experts about that, and Dr. Mitchell gladly worked on the development of EIT because, well, he thought it was necessary evil for stopping another 9/11 in the future.

And his new ‘interrogation’ techniques were soon applied to a Saudi Arabian guy named Abu Zubaydah. Although he was not technically associated that much with bin Laden or several other top-ranking figures of Al-Qaeda, Zubaydah was an independent operator who had done a number of different things for Al-Qaeda, and that certainly made him a potentially important source of information for CIA and FBI.

Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, whose story with Al-Qaeda before 9/11 was dramatized in HBO miniseries “The Looming Tower”, tells us about how things went pretty well when he and a fellow FBI agent of his interrogated Zubaydah at some covert place located somewhere in Thailand. Once they tactfully made Zubaydah think that they knew everything from the start, it was not difficult for them to make Zubaydah talk more, and this actually helped FBI stopping some other terror plans in US in addition to identifying a top-ranking Al-Qaeda figure who was incidentally the mastermind of 9/11 right under bin Laden.

However, quite jealous of what was just accomplished by FBI, CIA wanted to squeeze more information from Zubaydah, and so did the White House. After their lawyers prepared the legal ground to sanction EIT and then FBI was pushed out of the scene, CIA embarked on applying EIT methods to Zubaydah, and a series of document excerpts and Zubaydah’s own drawings convey to us a bit of how ruthlessly and relentlessly Zubaydah was pushed into several EIT methods including, yes, waterboarding.

Not so surprisingly, what CIA extracted from Zubaydah in the end was pretty worthless to say the least, but it labelled this negative result as a success just because, well, they ‘succeeded’ in proving that Zubaydah had nothing else to hide besides what he already told to FBI. As a consequence, EIT methods were widely utilized in not only CIA but also the US military, and this alarming trend eventually culminated to those shocking photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison.

Daniel J. Jones, whose US Senate investigation on CIA was dramatized in Scott Z. Burns’ 2019 film “The Report”, tells us about how those high-ranking CIA and White House officials managed to get away with what they committed in the name of War on Terror. Although President Barack Obama subsequently recognized in public that CIA indeed tortured detainees, nobody went to jail for that, and Gibney sardonically points out how many of them, including Dr. Mitchell, came to have extra benefits later while Zubaydah was kept detained by the US government as before. After subsequently moved from one covert place to another around the world, Zubaydah has been stuck in Guantanamo for more than 15 years, and it looks like he will be there forever unless the US government changes its opinion on him.

On the whole, “The Forever Prisoner” is another incisive documentary on War on Terror, and I recommend you to watch it with Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), which is about one wrongfully accused Afghan taxi driver who was killed by American soldiers while being held in extrajudicial detention and interrogated at a black site at Bagram air base. In my humble opinion, these two excellent documentaries will make a good double feature show on War on Terror, and they will surely remind you more of how disastrously the US government failed in that during last 20 years.

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