When Bad Cops Become Gitmo Torturers

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A National Guard trooper keeps vigil on a street near police station in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 26, 2014.
A National Guard trooper keeps vigil on a street near police station in Ferguson, Missouri, on November 26, 2014. Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian this week published one of the most arresting stories I’ve seen in recent months, an account in two parts of the work of Richard Zuley, who served as a police officer in Chicago and an interrogator at Guantánamo Bay and in both settings was responsible for extreme abuses. Zuley’s name surfaced publicly because of his role leading the interrogations of Mohammed Ould Slahi, a Gitmo detainee who published a memoir last month, detailing how his interrogators chained him to the walls of his cell, denied him sleep for days on end, sexually molested him, implied that they could bring his mother to Gitmo where she might be raped, told him they had dreamed of his death, and took him on a nighttime trip to sea for a mock execution. “I’ve never seen anyone stoop to those levels,” a former senior military prosecutor tells Ackerman, of Zuley’s interrogation.

What Ackerman discovers is that during a 30-year stint as a detective on Chicago’s north side, Zuley had used some of the same techniques. In Chicago holding rooms, he shackled suspects to eyebolts for hours on end — 29 hours in one case Ackerman documents, 24 in another. Zuley allegedly told suspects they’d lose their children to protective services if they did not cooperate. Searching the “posh Chicago loft” of an ex-drug dealer turned real-estate baron named Latherial Boyd, whom he kept shackled to the floor for five hours, Zuley allegedly said, “No nigger should live like this.” Boyd would serve 23 years for murder in that case before eventually being exonerated. Boyd has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Zuley. In three additional cases in which Zuley’s allegedly coercive interrogations helped win a conviction, a prominent Chicago attorney specializing in exoneration is pursuing reversals. Illinois state officials have opened their own investigation into Zuley’s civilian complaint file.

Of course it’s not news that cops have treated black Chicagoans like this, or that interrogators at Guantánamo have acted as if the detainees there were subhuman. The news is in what Ackerman calls the “continuum” between the two, the notion that some part of the national security apparatus may have been trained in the intimate, abusive, familiar relations between cops and black Americans. We often think of the national security state as something walled off from the rest of society — those 850,000 people with “top-secret” security clearances — and its excesses are often attributed to the peculiar culture and manias of that place, to its remove from polite society. But of course people move between these two worlds — Zuley seems to have been working as a contractor with U.S. Naval intelligence, off and on, since the early 1980s. The excesses of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and the NSA aren’t simply errors of the national security state that can be corrected; they connect in many cases with deeper American pathologies, about the relationship between the state and its citizens, and the rights of minorities. There are dangers in seeing Zuley as some kind of supervillain, when he was not the only abusive cop or interrogator. Nevertheless, it is startling to realize how intimate the connection between the abuses of heroin addicts in Chicago and those of minor Mauritainian terror suspects in Gitmo, how they might be captured in the story of one man.