Lately, we’ve heard and read much about torture memos, waterboarding and insects in a box. It has been the occasion for somber reflection on our past and serious deliberation about our future. This is as it should be. It was Arizona Sen. John McCain, in talking about torture, who rightly reminded us that “it’s not about who they are. It’s about who we are.”
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 arrested in Pakistan in March 2002. Because the Bush administration believed him to be a senior Al Qaeda operative, his detention and interrogation produced a fistful of firsts. As far as we can tell, he is the only prisoner in U.S. history whose interrogation was the subject of debate and direct authorization within the White House, and the first to disappear into a secret CIA “black site.”
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.
First, they beat him. As authorized by the Justice Department and confirmed by the Red Cross, they wrapped a collar around his neck and smashed him over and over against a wall. They forced his body into a tiny, pitch-dark box and left him for hours. They stripped him naked and suspended him from hooks in the ceiling. They kept him awake for days.
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.
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.