Inside the Mind of a Gitmo Detainee

By Joseph Margulies and George Brent Mickum
Saturday, February 23, 2008; 12:00 AM

As you read this, we expect to be in Guantanamo, meeting with the man
President Bush mentions when he talks about the intelligence gained
and the lives saved because of "enhanced" interrogation techniques. We
represent Saudi-born Abu Zubaydah in a legal effort to force the
administration to show why he is being detained. And this week, with
our first meeting, we begin the laborious task of sifting fact from
fantasy. Yet we worry it may already be too late.

The administration declares with certainty that Zubaydah is a "senior
terrorist leader and a trusted associate of Osama bin Laden" who
"helped smuggle al-Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan." Dan Coleman, a
former FBI analyst who was on the team that reviewed Zubaydah's
background file, disagrees, describing him as "insane, certifiable"
and saying he "knew very little about real operations, or strategy."
We do not presume to know the truth. So far, we know only what has
been publicly reported. But we hope to uncover the facts and present
them to those with the power to act upon them.

Yet Zubaydah's mind may be beyond our reach. Regardless of whether he
was "insane" to begin with, he has gone through quite an ordeal since
his arrest in Pakistan in March 2002. Shuttled through CIA "black
sites" around the world, he was subjected to a sustained course of
interrogation designed to instill what a CIA training manual
euphemistically calls "debility, dependence and dread." Zubaydah's
world became freezing rooms alternating with sweltering
cells. Screaming noise replaced by endless silence. Blinding light
followed by dark, underground chambers. Hours confined in contorted
positions. And, as we recently learned, Zubaydah was subjected to
waterboarding. We do not know what remains of his mind, and we will
probably never know what he experienced.

Of course, the challenge of reconstructing what took place was made
infinitely more difficult when the CIA destroyed the recordings of
Zubaydah's interrogation. But we already know something about what
these techniques produce. It was the Cold War communists who perfected
the dark art of touchless torture. And with it, they brought
U.S. soldiers to the tipping point, where the adult psyche shatters,
leaving behind a quavering child. At the end of their ordeal, these
soldiers made fantastic admissions of American perfidity and spoke
unreservedly about their supposed misdeeds.

The Bush administration says Zubaydah and other products of the CIA
"black site" program repeated their confessions to FBI agents -- a
"clean team" that used authorized interrogation techniques to scrub
away the fetid stain of torture. But the communists didn't need to
hold our soldiers at gunpoint as they recited their
confessions. Continued cruelty becomes unnecessary when a prisoner has
lost the will to resist.

What will we be able to learn, at this point, from Zubaydah? Will we
be able to recreate the interrogations without the tapes? Will we get
access to the material that led Coleman to a conclusion so different
from the administration's?

Because we represent Zubaydah, some people will likely discount
whatever we say. But do not misunderstand; this is not a plea for
pity. Whether people approve or disapprove of what has happened to
Zubaydah, that's a separate question.

The American system of justice is founded on the idea that truth
emerges from vigorous and informed debate. And if that debate cannot
take place, if we cannot learn the facts and share them with others,
the truth is only what the administration reports it to be. We hope it
has not come to that.

Joseph Margulies is assistant director of the MacArthur Justice Center
at Northwestern University Law School. George Brent Mickum is an
attorney in Washington, D.C.