|Admitting that “some will call me a torturer” is a surefire way to cut yourself off from anyone’s sympathy. But Glenn Carle, a former CIA operative, isn’t sure whether he’s the hero or the villain of his own story.
Distilled, that story, told in Carle’s new memoir The Interrogator, is this: In the months after 9/11, the CIA kidnaps a suspected senior member of al-Qaida and takes him to a Mideast country for interrogation. It assigns Carle — like nearly all his colleagues then, an inexperienced interrogator — to pry information out of him. Uneasy with the CIA’s new, relaxed rules for questioning, which allow him to torture, Carle instead tries to build a rapport
with the man he calls CAPTUS.
But CAPTUS doesn’t divulge the al-Qaida plans the CIA suspects him of knowing. So the agency sends him to “Hotel California” — an unacknowledged prison, beyond the reach of the Red Cross or international law.
Carle goes with him. Though heavily censored by the CIA, Carle provides the first detailed description of a so-called “black site.” At an isolated “discretely guarded, unremarkable” facility in an undisclosed foreign country (though one where the Soviets once operated), hidden CIA interrogators work endless hours while heavy metal blasts captives’ eardrums and disrupts their sleep schedules.
Afterward, the operatives drive to a fortified compound to munch Oreos and drink somberly to Grand Funk Railroad at the “Jihadi Bar.” Any visitor to Guantanamo Bay’s Irish pub — O’Kellys, home of the fried pickle — will recognize the surreality.
But Carle — codename: REDEMPTOR — comes to believe CAPTUS is innocent.
“We had destroyed the man’s life based on an error,” he writes. But the black site is a bureaucratic hell: CAPTUS’ reluctance to tell CIA what it wants to hear makes the far-off agency headquarters more determined to torture him. Carle’s resistance, shared by some at Hotel California, makes him suspect. He leaves CAPTUS in the black site after 10 intense days, questioning whether his psychological manipulation of CAPTUS made him, ultimately, a torturer himself.
Eight years later, the CIA unceremoniously released CAPTUS. (The agency declined to comment for this story.) Whether that means CAPTUS was innocent or merely no longer useful as a source of information, we may never know. Carle spoke to Danger Room about what it’s like to interrogate a man in a place too dark for the law to find.
Wired.com: Do you consider yourself a torturer? At the end of the book, you wrestle with the question.
Glenn Carle: According to Justice Department lawyer John Yoo’s August 2002 memo on interrogation, the answer is no. As one can see from the entire book, I opposed all these practices and this approach. I was involved in it, although I tried to stop what I considered wrong. I feel I acted honorably throughout my involvement in the CAPTUS operation, and tried to have him treated properly, but much of it was disturbing and wrong.
Wired.com:: You’re maybe the only CIA officer to publicly describe a “black site” prison, your Hotel California. What was it like to be inside a place completely off the books from any legal accountability? Did it make you feel like you could act with impunity? How did you restrain yourself?
Carle: No, I never, never felt like I could or should act with impunity. No one I know felt that way. We all felt we were involved in an extraordinary, sensitive operation that required very careful behavior. What was acceptable was often unclear, despite the formal guidance that eventually was developed.
“How did I restrain myself” implies perhaps that I was inclined to act in unrestrained ways. I never, ever was; nor were, in my experience, my colleagues. From literally the first second I was briefed on the operation, I was acutely aware that I would have to weigh every step I took, and decide what was morally, legally acceptable. There was never the slightest thought that I or anyone could act with impunity. We were acting clandestinely; but never beyond obligations to act correctly and honorably. The dilemma comes in identifying where those lines are, in a situation in which much was murky.
Wired.com: You came to believe that the man you call CAPTUS “was not a jihadist or a member of al-Qaida.” Well, even so, was he still dangerous? Did you ever feel he duped you? You write that he lied to you, after all.
Carle: CAPTUS himself was not a terrorist, or a dangerous man. He had been involved in activities of legitimate concern to the CIA, because they did touch upon al-Qa’ida activities. That’s a fact. But he was not a willing member of, believer in, or supporter of, al-Qaida. He was not a terrorist, had committed no crimes, had not intentionally supported jihad or terrorist actions.
Did he dupe me? He evaded and lied on occasion, yes. And I always wrestled with the question of whether he was duping me. In the end, I had to decide, though, and I decided he was, fundamentally, straight with me. Never totally, but fundamentally, yes. This is not a black- and white-hat situation. I try to make that as clear as can be in the book. Little was simple — thus, my descriptions of the “gray world” in which knowledge is imperfect, motivations and actions are sometimes contradictory — in which CAPTUS, perhaps, was truthful, innocent, disingenuous, and complicit simultaneously.
Wired.com: Did you ever feel, at Hotel California or before, that interrogating CAPTUS put you in legal jeopardy down the road?
Carle: I think everyone was concerned with this, at every level, and at every second of one’s involvement in interrogation operations. We all worked very hard to act legally.The challenges are how to reconcile contradictory laws, which are morally repugnant, perhaps, and which leave room for broad interpretation and abuse.
No one consciously broke the law, ever, in my experience or knowledge. But what should one do? How could one follow one’s orders and accomplish one’s mission, when it was flawed, objectionable, and perhaps itself legally, albeit “legally” ordered. That’s the supreme dilemma I wrestled with, and others did, too.
Wired.com: When you first interrogate CAPTUS, you write that you tried to establish a rapport with him — even as you kept him fearful that you controlled his fate. When that didn’t get the intelligence CIA HQ wanted, they shipped the both of you to Hotel California. Did CIA consider the possibility that he wasn’t who they thought he was?
Carle: I had slow, partial, success during my time of involvement in bringing colleagues and the institution to see him more as I did. But I failed, ultimately. The view that he was a senior al-Qaida member or fellow-traveler remained decisive for a long, long time. The agency or U.S. government didn’t change its views for eight years. Perhaps it never did.
Wired.com: Run me through how CAPTUS was treated at the Hotel.
Carle: The objectives are to “dislocate psychologically” a detainee. This is done through psychological and physical measures, primarily intended to disrupt Circadian rhythms and an individual’s perceptions. So, noise, temperature, one’s sense of time, sleep, diet, light, darkness, physical freedom — the normal reference points for one’s senses are all distorted. Reality disappears, and so do one’s reference points. It is shockingly easy to disorient someone.
But that is not the same as making someone more willing to cooperate. The opposite is true — as the CIA’s KUBARK interrogation manual cautions will occur, as I predicted and forewarned and as occurred in my and other officers’ experiences.
Wired.com: In 2003, according to declassified documents, your old boss, George Tenet approved the following “enhanced interrogation techniques” for use on high-value detainees: “the attention grasp, walling, the facial hold, the facial slap (insult slap), the abdominal slap, cramped confinement, wall standing, stress positions, sleep deprivation beyond 72 hours, the use of diapers for prolonged periods, the use of harmless insects, the water board.” Were any of these used on CAPTUS? Did you take part in any of their use?
Carle: No. These measures were formally set out, I believe, after my involvement in interrogation. And in any event, from my first second of involvement in the CAPTUS operation I simply would not allow or have anything to do with any physical coercive measure. I would not do it. That point I was certain of instantaneously. I also had literally never heard of waterboarding until the story about it broke in the media.
Wired.com: Did you get any useful intelligence out of CAPTUS? If so, what interrogation techniques “worked”?
Carle: Oh, yes, CAPTUS definitely provided useful intelligence. The methods that worked were the same ones that work in classic intelligence operations: establishing a rapport with the individual, understanding his fears, hopes, interests, quirks. It is a psychological task, very similar to what one should do when establishing any human relationship.
The plan was to be a perceptive, and sometimes manipulative, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and purposeful individual who understood the man sitting opposite him, and earn his trust.
Wired.com: You came to question whether even the mild psychological disorientation you induced on CAPTUS was too severe an interrogation method. Why? Did you sympathize with CAPTUS too much?
Carle: There is always a danger for a case officer to “fall in love” with his “target.” That’s the term we use. Any good officer guards against that, and always questions his own perceptions. Always. But I was the one who looked in CAPTUS’ eyes for hours and hours and days and days. It was I who knew the man, literally. I’m confident in my assessment of him.
And yes, I at first accepted my training: that psychological dislocation induced cooperation, and would not be lasting or severe, therefore could be acceptable in certain circumstances. I came quickly to conclude that this was founded on erroneous conclusions — nonsense, actually — about human psyche and motivation. [It] did not work, was counterproductive and was, simply, wrong in every way. So, I came to oppose it.
Wired.com: How did the CIA react to you publishing this book? Huge sections of it are blacked out.
Carle: The agency redacted about 40 percent of the initial manuscript, deleting entire chapters, almost none of which had anything to do with protecting sources or methods. Much of it was so the agency could protect itself from embarrassment, or from allowing any description of the interrogation program to come out. One would infer, obviously, that large segments of the agency would have preferred to leave CAPTUS’ story in the dark, where it took place.
Wired.com: David Petraeus, the incoming CIA director, suggested to Congress that there might be circumstances where a return to “enhanced interrogation” is appropriate. What would you say to him?
Carle: That there is almost no conceivable circumstance in which the enhanced interrogation practices are acceptable or work. This belief is a red herring, wrong, and undoes us a bit. We are better than that. Enhanced interrogation does not work, and is wrong. End of story.
Wired.com: The Justice Department decided on June 30 to seek criminal inquiries in two cases of detainee abuses — out of 101. Was that justice, a whitewash or something in between?
Carle: It wasn’t a whitewash. It’s in general better not to seek retribution, but to seek to inculcate correct values and behavior going forward.
Wired.com: Did you ever learn what happened to CAPTUS’ treatment after you left at Hotel California? Why was he was released? Have you tried to find him? What would you tell him if you saw one another?
Carle: No. I left the case and knew nothing about him for years. I presume he was released because the institution, at last, accepted what I had argued as strongly as I had been able to do so. He was ultimately let go, I hope, because the institution and U.S. government, at last, came to accept my view of CAPTUS. His release validates — substantiates — everything I argued.
I came to respect CAPTUS. We are from such different worlds, and his and my circumstances — he a detainee and I one of his interrogators — are so radically different that conversation would be awkward if we ever met again. It is natural that he feel resentment. And little was ever clear in the entire operation. That’s the nature of intelligence work. He is not a total innocent, I don’t think. But his rendition was not justified by the facts as I came to learn them, which was at odds with the agency’s assessment of him.
Wired.com: Finally, how many CAPTUSes — people you believe to be innocent men swept up in the CIA “enhanced interrogation” system — are there?
Carle: I do not know.
Photos: DoD, U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Army,