‘The Forever Prisoner’ by Cathy Scott-Clark, Adrian Levy: Torture as CIA’s weapon : The Tribune India

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‘The Forever Prisoner’ by Cathy Scott-Clark, Adrian Levy: Torture as CIA’s weapon

‘The Forever Prisoner’ by Cathy Scott-Clark, Adrian Levy: Torture as CIA’s weapon

The Forever Prisoner by Cathy Scott-Clark, Adrian Levy. HarperCollins. Pages 464. Rs 699



Book Title: The Forever Prisoner

Author: Cathy Scott-Clark, Adrian Levy

Sandeep Dikshit

In 2002, FBI and CIA agents carried out a dawn operation with Pakistan Rangers in Karachi that netted a curly-haired youngster, Abu Zubaydah (ABZ). As was the case with their previous book, ‘Spy Stories’, which was an account of the existentialist tussle between Pakistan’s ISI and RAW, this book is both overt and also contains a hidden message. It is an extremely detailed and well-sourced account of CIA’s brutal and underhand methods at torture that then spread to the army.

The underlying weft of ‘Spy Stories’ was that the ISI wasn’t involved in the attacks in Mumbai, Pulwama and Pathankot. The major character in the form of an ISI operative was, in fact, hunting down the rogue elements who had caused these outrages, British authors Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy had contended. Hence, India and Pakistan should open a dialogue as the slate on both sides is supposedly clean.

Interestingly, ABZ had an Indian connection. Sent to Pune to study computer science, he found students living in cramped and filthy conditions. His experience in Mysore was similar, but India gave him the opportunity to engage in carnal pleasures.

The under-the-carpet theme in this book is that the 9/11 attacks so badly disoriented the CIA that it persuaded its Presidents to waive laws for them to engage in an endless torture of prisoners from Afghanistan. There were some bad eggs. But the upright men and women ensured it did not get worse. The biggest takeaway is that none of the “extraordinary rendition” in the CIA’s “black programme” took place in the US in order to suggest that the mainland is completely law-abiding.

But the book also shows the beauty of the US system, which allowed the duo to pull no punches as they give an enviably detailed account with copious sourcing and indexing that consists of one-sixth of the book.

As has been the case with Atiq Ahmed’s murder in Prayagraj, the illegal means bled the state’s moral authority and finally ended the system of checks and balances, leading to the US army’s notorious torture centre in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. Like Atiq, who was an out-and-out criminal, ABZ too was not a wronged protagonist in a Bollywood film.

But this tragic story of inflating a violent non-state actor into a larger-than-life monster gets repeated in most counter-insurgency operations the world over. From open source reports (also known as news clippings), that were fed to reporters by the macho elements of CIA in the first place, top authorities were convinced into inflating ABZ as Al Qaeda’s number three, who needed to be tortured to extract plans for a second wave of attacks.

Much of this information came from brutal interrogations. The chief interrogator, Jim Mitchell, had no practical experience. His attitude of “Tell me what you wanna do, boss, and I’ll make it legal” led to the approval of nudity, extreme sleep deprivation and defecation. Worse, ABZ was repeatedly waterboarded for days on end in which his mouth was forced shut and gallons of water was poured through his mouth.

These harsh interrogation methods merely forced ABZ to say whatever that could make the torture stop. In one case, the US media then went gaga over revelations about ABZ’s plans to recruit black Muslims in Montana when a census check would have shown that there were hardly any Muslims in that state. His other alleged confessions and their breathless media reporting spawned a vicious circle. The CIA, FBI and the American public became comfortable with the idea that torture is warranted in some instances. ABZ had given out information about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind. He was a facilitator who knew a lot, but was at odds with Osama bin Laden. Yet, the CIA did not let go of him because it wanted to hear about an impending plot in the US. He could not give that information because he didn’t know it. And, thereby, became a forever prisoner along with dozens of others.

Levy and Scott-Clark have reconstructed the story from the beginning. After the Abu Ghraib expose, video tapes of his interrogations were destroyed by a group which also consisted of Gina Haspel, later the CIA chief. Much like their earlier book ‘Deception’, that uncovered the world’s largest Walmart for nuclear technology and raw materials in Pakistan, and ‘The Meadow’ about four foreign backpackers kidnapped and killed in Kashmir, this one too highlights what the CIA kept secret for decades.

The authors’ doggedness ensured that the CIA’s secret was uncovered in greater detail with a complete cast of characters, especially about those dangerous ones in our midst, who are convinced that as patriots, their crimes can be excused. In the process, America failed to live up to its own hype. In the end, it is a poignant story that has been pieced together with great effort.