Does Knowledge Threaten National Security?

August 29th, 2016

By: Christopher Smeenk, CHHS Intern

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Knowledge is power, knowledge is safety, and knowledge is happiness.”

However, the opposite may hold true for those subjected to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. Is it possible that knowledge about this program is enough to hold a prisoner incommunicado for the remainder of his life, even if he does not otherwise pose a significant threat to the security of the United States?

The answer to that question could potentially determine the fate of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected terrorist who, despite never being charged with a crime, has been detained in American custody for the past 14 years.

Mr. Zubaydah is a 45-year-old Palestinian man who was captured in Pakistan in the initial months of the War on Terror. When he was taken into American custody in 2002, he became the first significant suspect captured as part of the CIA’s global search for suspected terrorists. At the time, intelligence officials believed that Mr. Zubaydah was a high-ranking leader of Al Qaeda.   For this reason, he was subjected to intense interrogation sessions, which the CIA hoped would yield useful intelligence about planned attacks against the United States.

In August 2002, Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee authorized the use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques against Mr. Zubaydah. These methods included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, cramped confinement, and body slamming. Records indicate that Mr. Zubaydah was subjected to at least 83 waterboarding sessions during the first month.

Mr. Zubaydah has been called the “poster child” for the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program.  In fact, records suggest that he “may be the only detainee on whom all 10 of the… enhanced interrogation techniques were used.” These experiences provided Mr. Zubaydah with a “deep knowledge” of CIA interrogation methods, which is why, according to his lawyer, the government “never want(s) him to be heard from again.”

For much of the past 14 years, Mr. Zubaydah has been hidden from public view, confined to top-secret prisons and isolated from the outside world. That changed on August 23, when Mr. Zubaydah appeared before a Periodic Review Board (PRB), a “quasi-parole hearing” that is used to determine whether Guantanamo detainees should be released, transferred, or remain incarcerated at the prison. A live video stream of the unclassified portion of the PRB hearing was shown to a group of reporters and human rights advocates in a secure room at the Pentagon.

The intention of the PRB process is to determine whether Guantanamo detainees pose a “significant threat to the security of the United States such that their continued detention is warranted.” During his PRB hearing, Mr. Zubaydah’s representatives argued that he “no longer needs to be detained in order to ensure that the security of the United States is not in jeopardy.” They supported this contention by pointing out that Mr. Zubaydah has shown “a high level of cooperation,” has not recently made any “extremist” statements, has condemned the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State, and has “no desire or intent to harm the United States or any other country.”

Despite these points in his favor, the PRB will likely find that, given his intimate knowledge of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, Mr. Zubaydah continues to pose a “significant threat to the security of the United States.” While this is the probable outcome, the reasoning for this decision is much less clear. Is the PRB truly worried that revealing details about the CIA’s interrogation techniques will reduce the effectiveness of those programs or reveal the identities of covert operatives? Or is the true motivation actually to prevent the public relations crisis that is sure to follow the release of such information?

The government is undoubtedly concerned with the damage to the CIA’s public image that will result by allowing Mr. Zubaydah to publicly describe the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that were used against him. Consider, for example, the public relations backlash that occurred after portions of the Senate Report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program were released in 2014: the American public reacted with horror to the atrocities that were described in the report, and several human rights groups criticized the government for using such brutal and inhumane methods to torture detainees. The result was a dark stain on the reputation of not only the CIA, but also the government officials and agencies that authorized the “enhanced interrogation” program.

The Senate report shines a bright spotlight on the government’s intentions for Mr. Zubaydah, and their motivations for those actions. According to the report, the CIA contractors who were implementing the “enhanced interrogation” program received assurances from senior government officials that Mr. Zubaydah would “remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.” This promise was clearly made to assuage any fears that Mr. Zubaydah would have the opportunity to tell his story and implicate those who authorized and conducted his torture.

Although the public will likely never read the PRB’s actual decision, which will be classified, it is apparent that the ruling will be based, at least in part, on preventing Mr. Zubaydah from publicly describing his experiences with the CIA’s interrogation programs. The question that remains to be answered, however, is the extent to which disclosing this information would harm the national security interests of the United States. While we may never learn the answer, it is clear that, at least in cases involving the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, knowledge may grant power but not safety, freedom, or happiness.

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