Inside a 9/11 Mastermind’s Interrogation
WASHINGTON — In a makeshift prison in the north of Poland, Al Qaeda’s engineer of mass murder faced off against his Central Intelligence Agency interrogator. It was 18 months after the 9/11 attacks, and the invasion of Iraq was giving Muslim extremists new motives for havoc. If anyone knew about the next plot, it was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
Janet Hamlin/Associated Press, Pool
A courtroom artist’s sketch of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the primary suspect in the 9/11 attacks.
A sketch of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, standing, during his arraignment this month.
The interrogator, Deuce Martinez, a soft-spoken analyst who spoke no Arabic, had turned down a C.I.A. offer to be trained in waterboarding. He chose to leave the infliction of pain and panic to others, the gung-ho paramilitary types whom the more cerebral interrogators called “knuckledraggers.”
Mr. Martinez came in after the rough stuff, the ultimate good cop with the classic skills: an unimposing presence, inexhaustible patience and a willingness to listen to the gripes and musings of a pitiless killer in rambling, imperfect English. He achieved a rapport with Mr. Mohammed that astonished his fellow C.I.A. officers.
A canny opponent, Mr. Mohammed mixed disinformation and braggadocio with details of plots, past and planned. Eventually, he grew loquacious. “They’d have long talks about religion,” comparing notes on Islam and Mr. Martinez’s Catholicism, one C.I.A. officer recalled. And, the officer added, there was one other detail no one could have predicted: “He wrote poems to Deuce’s wife.”
Mr. Martinez, who by then had interrogated at least three other high-level prisoners, would bring Mr. Mohammed snacks, usually dates. He would listen to Mr. Mohammed’s despair over the likelihood that he would never see his children again and to his catalog of complaints about his accommodations.
“He wanted a view,” the C.I.A. officer recalled.
The story of Mr. Martinez’s role in the C.I.A.’s interrogation program, including his contribution to the first capture of a major figure in Al Qaeda, provides the closest look to date beneath the blanket of secrecy that hides the program from terrorists and from critics who accuse the agency of torture.
Beyond the interrogator’s successes, this account includes new details on the campaign against Al Qaeda, including the text message that led to Mr. Mohammed’s capture, the reason the C.I.A. believed his claim that he was the murderer of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the separate teams at the C.I.A.’s secret prisons of those who meted out the agony and those who asked the questions.
In the Hollywood cliché of Fox’s “24,” a torturer shouts questions at a bound terrorist while inflicting excruciating pain. The C.I.A. program worked differently. A paramilitary team put on the pressure, using cold temperatures, sleeplessness, pain and fear to force a prisoner to talk. When the prisoner signaled assent, the tormenters stepped aside. After a break that could be a day or even longer, Mr. Martinez or another interrogator took up the questioning.
Mr. Martinez’s success at building a rapport with the most ruthless of terrorists goes to the heart of the interrogation debate. Did it suggest that traditional methods alone might have obtained the same information or more? Or did Mr. Mohammed talk so expansively because he feared more of the brutal treatment he had already endured?
A definitive answer is unlikely under the Bush administration, which has insisted in court that not a single page of 7,000 documents on the program can be made public. The C.I.A. declined to provide information for this article, in part, a spokesman said, because the agency did not want to interfere with the military trials planned for Mr. Mohammed and four other Qaeda suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The two dozen current and former American and foreign intelligence officials interviewed for this article offered a tantalizing but incomplete description of the C.I.A. detention program. Most would speak of the highly classified program only on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Martinez declined to be interviewed; his role was described by colleagues. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the C.I.A., and a lawyer representing Mr. Martinez asked that he not be named in this article, saying that the former interrogator believed that the use of his name would invade his privacy and might jeopardize his safety. The New York Times, noting that Mr. Martinez had never worked undercover and that others involved in the campaign against Al Qaeda have been named in news articles and books, declined the request. (An editors’ note on this issue has been posted on The Times’s Web site.)
The very fact that Mr. Martinez, a career narcotics analyst who did not speak the terrorists’ native languages and had no interrogation experience, would end up as a crucial player captures the ad-hoc nature of the program. Officials acknowledge that it was cobbled together under enormous pressure in 2002 by an agency nearly devoid of expertise in detention and interrogation.
“I asked, ‘What are we going to do with these guys when we get them?’ ” recalled A. B. Krongard, the No. 3 official at the C.I.A. from March 2001 until 2004. “I said, ‘We’ve never run a prison. We don’t have the languages. We don’t have the interrogators.’ ”
In its scramble, the agency made the momentous decision to use harsh methods the United States had long condemned. With little research or reflection, it borrowed its techniques from an American military training program modeled on the torture repertories of the Soviet Union and other cold-war adversaries, a lineage that would come to haunt the agency.
It located its overseas jails based largely on which foreign intelligence officials were most accommodating and rushed to move the prisoners when word of locations leaked. Seeking a longer-term solution, the C.I.A. spent millions to build a high-security prison in a remote desert location, according to two former intelligence officials. The prison, whose existence has never been disclosed, was completed — and then apparently abandoned unused — when President Bush decided in 2006 to move all the prisoners to Guantánamo.