Photo by Gino Reyes
United States / Guantanamo

Richard Zuley: The Interrogator

“I’m going to do everything I’m allowed to break you.”

Between moments of agony and unyielding interrogation, Mouhamedou Ould Slahi lies waiting in his cold Guantanamo Bay cell, anticipating his torturer’s arrival and praying fruitlessly for his unlikely release. Since 2002, Slahi has been rotting in Guantanamo Bay, awaiting charges, and living as a daily victim of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In his recently published memoir, Guantanamo Diary, he describes some of the cruel and unusual techniques that Richard Zuley – Slahi’s lead interrogator and a former Chicago police officer and detective – once used to “break him.”

Torture, as intuition suggests, is both complicated and questionable. It undoubtedly provides results. If a person won’t speak, the threat or use of pain and suffering might be the only way to begin the conversation. Still, it might be argued that these conversations are one-sided. When a confession comes out garbled during a waterboarding session, it’s hard to know exactly where the truth lies. Maybe he is guilty. Maybe he is innocent. Unfortunately torture makes the guilt of the victim irrelevant. As the recent public outcry over Richard Zuley’s revealed history demonstrated, the public understands: the ends do not justify the means. This is especially true when American lives are involved.

Indeed, Slahi’s experience with Zuley is not unique. To this day, a handful of Chicago’s convicted poor and non-white citizens insist that they were wrongfully convicted because of coerced confessions extracted by Zuley and his colleagues. They worked under the cover of CIA-esque “black sites,” where some of the horror tactics that made Guantanamo so controversial slowly crept into the heart of American society. For years, Zuley and other interrogators refined their technique: keeping arrestees out of booking databases, shackling innocent civilians to walls, beating them, suffocating them, and forcing their confessions. As in Guantanamo, torture was used as a way to establish guilt and detain Americans who sacrificed their freedom for the sake of escaping their interrogators’ wrath.

In Homan Square, an old abandoned warehouse located on Chicago’s west side now revealed as one of the city’s many black sites, interrogators effectively operate outside of legal jurisdiction. Suspects, regardless of the legitimacy of the arrest, are brought to this location and are systematically broken. If taken to Homan Square, a suspect will – for all intents and purposes – disappear. No record will exist of their detainment. The Chicago Police Department (CPD) denies its involvement with these sites, claiming no knowledge or association with the alleged human rights violations. Unfortunately for the CPD, Zuley’s story says otherwise.

In light of #BlackLivesMatter and the escalating militarization of the now unpopular and intolerant police officer, Zuley’s story becomes increasingly relevant. The brave men and women we entrust to protect and serve our communities now face further scrutiny, with Zuley only heightening our lurking suspicion; as the thinking goes, a white police officer – who marginalized potentially innocent minorities. What a surprise. Although Zuley was a unique and extreme example, his story does little to help ease the tension.

Zuley’s reputation as an interrogator dates back to the early 90s.  He gained recognition for his ability to extract confessions from suspects while serving as an officer and detective in the CPD. The CPD also respected Zuley for his dedication and courage, as he was once shot and wounded when attempting to apprehend four armed burglars back in 1980. As the CPD sees it, Chicago owes many of its arrests and successful investigations to Zuley. Say what you will about torture. Zuley was effective at getting the job done. For example, twenty years ago, two men were shot outside the Exodus, a reggae nightclub in Chicago, leaving one victim dead and the other paralyzed. Despite a lack of physical evidence, eyewitness identification, and clear motive, Zuley suspected Lathierial Boyd, and brought him in for enhanced interrogation. In many ways, it was out of the CPD’s hands.

Boyd, years later, shared his experience with Zuley in an interview with The Guardian. He explained how Zuley shackled him to the wall and floor for two days after he refused to confess to a crime he had not committed. After sitting through two line ups, Boyd asked Zuley if anyone had identified him as the shooter. “No,” Zuley said smiling, “but we are charging you anyway.”

Boyd was given an 82-year life sentence and waited 23 years before he was exonerated. As the CPD saw it however, Boyd going to jail meant that the job was done. The CPD thanked Zuley for another successful investigation. The benefit of both Boyd’s story and hindsight beg us to question whether Zuley did the job well however.

After his release, Boyd filed a federal civil law suit against Zuley, accusing his interrogator of torture, planting evidence, and withholding critical information. The investigation confirmed that Zuley had used similar tactics for years on a number of other convicted individuals, many of them poor minorities. In another 1995 case, Richard Zuley handcuffed Benita Johnson to a wall for over 24 hours until she confessed that both she and her boyfriend had committed a murder. “It still doesn’t seem real,” Boyd explained.

These sorts have black-sites have existed for decades, under the protection of the Chicago Police department, and perhaps presaged the conditions Slahi and other modern Guantanamo Bay prisoners’ experience. It is easy to condemn Zuley and the Chicago Police Department for what they did to Boyd, Johnson, and others like them. These examples demonstrate that torture, when done correctly, succeeds at bending the will of the victim, forcing him to say whatever the torturer wants to hear. What the torturer hears, however, is not often the truth. Such a confession indicates nothing but a victim’s broken resolve, not his guilt. Despite this, the federal government recruited this worthless method for prisoners in Guantanamo.

Richard Zuley first went to Guantanamo on a special assignment in late 2002. His job was to interrogate Slahi, a suspected al-Qaeda recruiter. As part of this interrogation, Zuley would employ some of the techniques he learned in Chicago under the approval of the then current Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Zuley’s appointment raises the question: did his criminal behavior in Chicago qualify him for a job with the federal government? If so, then not only did Zuley succeed at advancing his career by being an ineffective detective, he also succeeded at further delegitimizing America’s counter-terrorism effort.

Although outlawed by the army field manual and Geneva Conventions, “enhanced interrogation techniques” found their way into the arsenal of Guantanamo Bay interrogators. Donald Rumsfeld even promoted the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” even joking that they were more coddling than torture. Among many others tactics, waterboarding, sexual humiliation, isolation, and various dehumanizing stress positions were approved for use at Guantanamo. Slahi and his fellow inmates know these “enhanced interrogation techniques” all too well. Rumseld effectively created a demand for employees like Zuley – men ready to throttle the necks of those unfortunate enough to stand in their way. Zuley took it a step further, relying on a tactic he learned on the streets of Chicago: threatening the loved ones of those he tortured.

Zuley and his fellow interrogators informed Slahi that they had taken his mother from Mauritania – his home – and had brought her to Guantanamo, and if he didn’t give officials the information they expected, she would be severely tortured. “Just don’t rape my mother,” Slahi begged, as their threats implied the possibility that his mother would be exposed to the other all male prisoners. Despite the threat, Slahi remained uncooperative.

Among the many hellish experiences Slahi’s memoir describes, it also reveals that Zuley and military police in riot gear once took Slahi blindfolded on a boat to suggest that his execution was near. The point of this interrogation technique was to, in Zuley’s words, “assist in developing the atmosphere that something major was happening and add to the tension level of the detainee.” Threatening a prisoner with the possibility of an execution was used as a means to extract a confession. Despite this, Slahi remained silent.

To this day, Slahi remains in Guantanamo Bay, quietly awaiting trial. Zuley and his team were unable to get anything from him, even with permission to punish, bend, and break their detainee. Zuley’s struggle further demonstrates the problem with torture. It may occasionally succeed at extracting a confession – legitimate or not – and may succeed at revealing the tenacity of its victim. For Zuley, Slahi and Boyd’s stories stand as a sad reminder that not everyone can be broken. Still, these examples serve as sad exceptions to the rule.

If Richard Zuley was considered “bad at his job” rather than as a “bad cop,” would he have been hired at Guantanamo? Surely, if Zuley were pegged as a bad detective whose investigations only succeeded when he muscled out an unreliable confession, then he would not have been hired. Having faith in America’s good intentions would incline us to agree. A government that took its duty to protect its citizens from real terrorists seriously would not waste its time with a bad detective.

Yet, as it stands, facts seem to suggest something different. Torture, clearly fraught with obvious methodological problems, was used as a legitimate way to determine if Slahi was a terrorist. Not only this, but the government once considered Zuley a valuable asset in determining his guilt due to his reputation in Chicago. Perhaps lost in a post-911 hysteria, America – like Chicago faced with escalating crime and gang violence – lost its way. Richard Zuley was a product of these times. Enabled by his surroundings, he found an authorized venue for his brutality and hidden contempt for humanity.

Although implied, the question remains inadequately answered: why was Richard Zuley, given his reputation, hired to work at Guantanamo? The answer to that question lies deeper in Zuley’s background and connection to the Pentagon’s European Command (EUCOM) in kidnapping and bringing prisoners to Guantanamo. It is unclear whether Zuley himself participated in these kidnappings, yet it is certain that he was aware given that he once worked for the Joint Analysis Center at EUCOM. The connection leads us into a dark, long and confusing rabbit hole, best summarized in a few words: connections among top-secret officials removed the federal government’s responsibility for hiring Zuley as a sort of contract torturer.

We might not be able to necessarily point fingers at any one individual, perhaps not even Richard Zuley, as the need for his skills only arose from an unguided desire for results. Zuley, exposed by Slahi’s diary and The Guardian’s reporting, faces a federal civil-rights lawsuit from his former prisoner – Lathierial Boyd. Those who were once marginalized and continue to be marginalized have taken a stand against their former oppressor. Guantanamo Bay may at one point have celebrated the arrival of a successful interrogator – a hero ­­– in the wake of 9/11, but must now acknowledge the public’s negative reaction to Zuley’s story.