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August 23, 2016

Abu Zubaydah Gets His PRB

This morning, a Gitmo detainee not seen in public since the CIA captured him in 2002 received his Periodic Review Board hearing. Abu Zubaydah, a 45-year-old Palestinian, has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since 2006, after spending four years getting tortured at CIA black sites.

After 14 years, he still has not been charged with a crime, though the U.S. government has a laundry list of allegations against him. It believes that he ran his own mujahidin network in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and coordinated closely with al Qaeda operatives. It also asserts that he may have had prior knowledge of the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the attack on the USS Cole. He was convicted in absentia by the Jordanian government “for his role in planning attacks against Israeli, Jordanian, and Western targets during the Millennium time frame in Jordan.”  The U.S. government also believes he worked with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (KSM) after 9/11 to discuss a radiological attack against the United States. 

What his government profile fails to note, however, is the equally long list of torture tactics that the CIA used on Zubaydah while in its custody. According to the Senate’s report on CIA torture, Zubaydah was subjected to forced nudity, sleep deprivation, 47 straight days in isolation, walling, attention grasps, slapping, facial holds, stress positions, and cramped confinement. He spent 266 hours in a coffin sized box.

CIA personnel described Zubaydah’s treatment as “visually and physically very uncomfortable.” Some were even brought to tears observing his torture, and several said they would request to be transferred if it continued.

Zubaydah is perhaps best known as the detainee that was waterboarded no fewer than 83 times, “two to four times a day…with multiple iterations of the watering cycle during each application.” During one session in particular, on August 4, 2002, the CIA waterboarded Zubaydah for two and a half hours, during which he “coughed, vomited, and had ‘involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities.’” During another session, he “became completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth and required medical intervention.”

Some people support torture like this to supposedly gain “actionable intelligence” to prevent future attacks. But countless former CIA interrogators and intelligence professionals forcefully disagree, and Zubaydah’s case is a perfect example.

Prior to his torture, Zubaydah provided a great deal of information on KSM to the FBI, who were using non-coercive interrogation methods. At the time, the CIA said this information was unimportant, and developed their first “interrogation plan” that involved torture for Zubaydah. Once torture was introduced, Zubaydah never offered any additional intelligence. On August 10th, during the height of his torture, CIA operatives told headquarters that it was “highly unlikely” that Zubaydah possessed the information they were seeking. They were told to continue anyway.

Regardless of whether or not Zubaydah did the things of which he is accused, the torture that he endured in U.S. custody violates domestic and international law—and the U.S. government knows it. It is likely a reason why he has never been officially charged in the military commissions. And that’s problematic for several reasons.

Zubaydah is being held under law of war detention relating to the armed conflicts authorized by the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. If and when those armed conflicts end, the United States will have to release him, unless they charge him with a crime.

However, with his torture, any conviction could likely be overturned on appeal. If Zubaydah had been treated humanely as required by the law, the case against him would be much stronger and it would be far more likely that, if convicted, he would live out his days in federal prison. When the United States tortures someone, it seriously impacts its ability to conduct effective counterterrorism and further jeopardizes our national security.

As of today, only one Guantanamo detainee who is eligible for his initial Periodic Review Board hearing has not received an initial hearing date. At this rate, it appears that President Obama will uphold his promise of completing all initial reviews before the end of this fall, which we strongly applaud.