First alleged terrorist tortured by CIA sheds immunity to testify about secret prison

Zayn al Abdeen Mohammed al Hussein, known as Abu Zubaydah, poses for the International Committee of the Red Cross at Guantánamo. A watermark on the image says the prison staff approved its release in 2012. His lawyer Mark Denbeaux released the photo in May 2017.
Zayn al Abdeen Mohammed al Hussein, known as Abu Zubaydah, poses for the International Committee of the Red Cross at Guantánamo. A watermark on the image says the prison staff approved its release in 2012. His lawyer Mark Denbeaux released the photo in May 2017.

The alleged terrorist known as Abu Zubaydah, the CIA’s first guinea pig in its since-outlawed secret interrogation program, is waiving immunity from potential prosecution to testify about conditions at Guantánamo’s most clandestine prison, his lawyer says in a letter obtained by the Miami Herald.

Read the lawyer’s immunity letter

Zubaydah, whose real name is Zayn al Abdeen Mohammed al Hussein, “is prepared to testify to all issues, including the sights, smells, sounds and other conditions within Camp 7,” according to the waiver letter by attorney Mark Denbeaux, who plans to travel to Guantánamo’s Camp Justice next week for the possible May 19 testimony.

“The underlying issue appears to be how closely the at-issue conditions parallel some of the other torture techniques used in the CIA dark sites,” Denbeaux wrote. “My client can draw upon his personal experience to address this issue.”

The 46-year-old Palestinian was critically wounded in a gunfight when he was captured in Pakistan in March 2002. He became the first person subjected to the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” including waterboarding, forced nudity and sleep deprivation, being stuffed in a coffin-sized box and slammed against walls in an effort to get him to spill more al-Qaida secrets than he gave FBI agents using more traditional interrogation methods.

Lawyers for alleged 9/11 plotter Ramzi Bin al Shibh have for a year sought the Palestinian’s testimony about life inside Guantánamo’s most clandestine prison in their bid to demonstrate Bin al Shibh’s claim that somebody is intentionally harassing him with noises and vibrations to disrupt his sleep. The Sept. 11 trial judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, is hearing the Yemeni’s claim in pretrial proceedings because Bin al Shibh argues that the circumstances prevent him from helping craft his legal defense in the five-man death-penalty case.

Related: Alleged <XA>9/11 plotter testifies: Guantánamo noises, vibrations are real; they drugged me for protesting

Last year, in fact, prison guards brought him to the court compound for what was to be public testimony before his military lawyer, Navy Cmdr. Patrick Flor, objected. He sought time to seek testimonial immunity — meaning anything he said in court could not be used against him in a future prosecution. The effort failed. Both the Pentagon overseer of the war court and the judge have declined the request.

So now, says Denbeaux in the waiver letter, Zubaydah wants to testify anyway “to celebrate his survival and to let the world hear his voice and to see him.”

A Senate Intelligence Committee investigation known as the Torture Report quotes CIA cables from a secret overseas prison that sought assurances that the Palestinian would be cremated if he died during the brutal interrogation — and kept incommunicado for the rest of his life if he survived it.

In his recent memoirs, “Enhanced Interrogation,” the psychologist who interrogated Zubaydah wrote that he and a colleague designed the techniques they thought “would lend themselves to a Pavlovian process to condition compliance.” Former CIA contractor James Mitchell described the Palestinian as a former U.S. resident who “spoke excellent English.” Before interrogation, he wrote, Zubaydah’s “highest level of apprehension occurred when he was hooded and stood against the walling wall,” ostensibly a CIA-designed pliable wall where agents would slam a captive’s head to gain his cooperation.

“We would do one interrogation session in the morning using EITS without the waterboard and one session in the afternoon with the waterboard,” Mitchell wrote, describing how Black Site workers asked to stop using the abusive tactic and were overruled by headquarters.

Members of the public have, in fact, seen him once before, in a grainy, 15-minute video link to a parole hearing shown at the Pentagon last summer. A transcript shows that the captive sat silent, not allowed to speak to the board until the Pentagon cut the feed for a classified session.

Denbeaux released the letter and two cleared photos of his client at Guantánamo in an increasingly public campaign to try to pressure the Pentagon to put Zubaydah on trial, rather than hold him as a “forever prisoner” in the war on terror. The law does not require that Guantánamo captives be tried, and of the 41 currently held there, only 10 have been charged with war crimes.

Zubaydah has for years maintained that he was not a member of al-Qaida but knew about the terror movement’s inner workings before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a fellow jihadist in Afghanistan and Pakistan. A February intelligence assessment, however, described him as probably one of Osama bin Laden’s “most trusted facilitators,” a jihadist who helped move fighters to and from Afghanistan.

In a Feb. 5, 2016, letter to chief prosecutor Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, Denbeaux accuses Martins of being in cahoots with the CIA to deny the captive a trial that might pit since-declassified accounts of his torture in agency custody against allegations that he was a terrorist dating to the George W. Bush era.

Martins has consistently refused to discuss who he might charge. But a prosecution target list included in court papers did not include the Palestinian.

The military has described the Palestinian as a well-behaved block leader who mediates disputes between staff and the long-held, former CIA captives who are kept mostly incommunicado in the Pentagon’s most secretive prison.

The first FBI agent to interrogate him, before the CIA decided to waterboard him, told the Herald last year that the case of Zubaydah represents “the A to Z of where we went wrong as a nation.” He is one of 15 captives kept in Camp 7, a prison building so secretive that the public cannot know who built it or at what cost.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

More reading

▪ Our guide to Guantánamo prisons.

▪ The lawyer’s waiver of immunity letter.

▪ June 2016: Abu Zubaydah makes it to door of Guantánamo war court but does not step inside.

▪ July 2016: Pentagon official denies Abu Zubaydah ‘use immunity’ at Guantánamo court.

▪ April 2017: Accused al-Qaida commander asks, if found innocent of war crimes, can I leave Guantánamo?