Glenn Carle: The Spy Who Said ‘No’

Glenn Carle: The Spy Who Said ‘No’

Bethesda Magazine interview

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For 23 years, Glenn Carle of Bethesda lived a life built on lies.

He stole, broke laws and deceived people about who he was and what he was doing as he traveled the world recruiting and running assets for the CIA’s Clandestine Service.

The 55-year-old, self-described New England Yankee says being a spy was exhilarating, even though the job frequently took him away from his wife, Sally, and their two children, Spencer and Margaux, now 18 and 16. But that feeling changed in 2002, when he was sent to Morocco to interrogate a “high-value target.”

During long days of questioning, Carle concluded that the man was not the senior al-Qaida operative that the CIA believed him to be. Carle fought for the man’s release, even as superiors transferred the two men to a CIA black site prison in Afghanistan and pressured Carle to use “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Carle recounts his experiences and growing disillusion with the global war on terror in The Interrogator: An Education (Nation Books, 2011). The book was heavily redacted by the CIA, and Carle isn’t allowed to this day to identify the detainee he calls “CAPTUS” or say where the interrogations took place. However, news reports since have identified the aforementioned locales and the captive as an Afghan merchant named Pacha Wazir, who was believed to have been Osama bin Laden’s “banker.”

Over a cheeseburger and Diet Coke at Bethesda’s Mon Ami Gabi restaurant, Carle spoke with us about his book and about life since he retired in 2007 as the CIA’s deputy national intelligence officer for transnational threats. He’s now working on
another nonfiction book and hopes to teach college courses on national security.

Q & A

How did you deal with living a life of deceit?

The way one lies is to tell the truth, but you don’t tell all the truth. I would talk about the work that I could talk about, and everything else is unstated. My brother would come to visit and say, “I’d love to see your office.” I’d say, “Well, security is tight.” [He’d say,] “Well, let me see the front. I’ll drive with you to work and then I’ll take a walk.” So I would then drive to the State Department, let him off, then go around the corner and drive to my real office.

And it becomes routine, second nature, and it is, I find over time, isolating. You become cloistered, and your peers are only those behind the walls.

You write that the CIA hires case officers in part for their ability to thrive in ambiguity, choosing those who will make the honorable and right decisions. But the agency rejected your recommendation to release CAPTUS.

It comes down to a series of cultural and institutional paradigms. I had worked on terrorism issues, but I was not a terrorism specialist. So I was an outsider. I had not been confined intellectually by the standard paradigm. I also think I’m really good at my job and I was the man sitting looking at [CAPTUS] 16 hours a day. No one else had done it, and I listened to what he said.

My life has been to look into somebody’s eyes and decide if he’s being truthful. I get it wrong like everyone, but I was the guy doing it, and I think I can do it pretty well.

This is not a graduate student seminar where you can entertain all possibilities. This is the CIA and a quasi-military culture. So you have your orders and you fulfill the mission or you can formally oppose, but it’s not like you can say, “Well, gee, maybe we should consider these other [options].” You just can’t do it. So I started to progressively mull: How do I shift the paradigm?

The key to the book is the dedication [to my parents]. What they gave me is that you accept nothing, ever, you always challenge everything, always. I do think it’s why I stood up.

You were told to do whatever was necessary, even torture, to get CAPTUS to talk. But you refused.  

I simply would not do anything physical. I was horrified that that would even be discussed. I couldn’t even believe it. The lawyers had told me that anything that is not severe and lasting is not torture. But then you think about it for a second and it’s completely crazy, because if I whacked you on the side of the head and you have a golf ball-sized welt that diminishes after three days, that’s not lasting, is it? And if I make you crazy for a week and then you come to, that’s not lasting either. I thought: It is a totally meaningless guideline that allows us to do anything. This is appalling.

But the pros had told me that psychological methods worked. So you assume that the institution knows what it’s doing. I quickly decided that I was as appalled by that as I was by the physical measures. I decided that the way you understand someone and get them to answer questions is the job I had done my whole life. Hideously imbalanced as the interrogator-detainee relationship is, it is nonetheless a human dynamic, and you learn first to identify the person’s fears, hopes, motivations, quirks, knowledge, blind spots, and then how to manipulate them. That’s it.

It was very clear from the beginning what I would do and what I would not do. And I protected him to the extent that I could from anything else.

At what point did you decide CAPTUS was not who the CIA thought he was?

There was a clear arc from the get-go in which I found his answers and my assessments progressively at odds with the perspective of headquarters. I started to [report], “He answered this truthfully, and that is at odds with our assessments. I’m starting to think that things are not what we believe.” Then I came to these Kafkaesque moments when I said, “He can’t answer the following questions. I believe him.” Headquarters responded with: “The fact that he does not answer proves that he is withholding information. You will pressure him harder.” And I thought: This is stupid. I couldn’t believe that colleagues or my government could be so glaringly stupid and, frankly, corrupt.

Your superiors decided to transfer you and CAPTUS to the black site that you call Hotel California, where extreme interrogation measures were used. But you tried to avert the transfer.

I thought the only way I could save this guy was by being harsher to him than I ever had. And I thought: How can I do that in a way that I would consider remotely acceptable? So in the next days, I spoke to him pretty harshly.

He had come to trust me. I had said to him one time, “I’m your jailer and I’m from the CIA and you are completely helpless. You have disappeared from the face of the earth. I can do anything I want to you. If you are smart, and you are, you won’t believe anything I say. But you also know that I have dealt honorably with you. And the only friend you have is me. Because there are a lot of nastier people and they are all pressuring me. Unless you help me help you, I will be taken away and then you are screwed. Because there are much worse places you can go to than this, and you do not want to be there forever.”

And his response was, “I am trying to answer. Tell me what you want from me.” He was not entirely truthful, but he was fundamentally so. But I had only two days and couldn’t accomplish what [was necessary]. Two days later, the telegram came: “We have decided to transfer him to Hotel California where we instruct you to accompany him and where you can continue your good work.”

You agreed that CAPTUS was withholding information?

There were some questions he could not answer. He said he couldn’t. I didn’t believe him. Why he wasn’t answering was where headquarters and I differed. Headquarters’ view was he was not answering to protect the guilty. My view was that he was terrified and he knew if he answered, they would convict them. While he wasn’t the ardent, committed bad guy, he was the guy who knew the answer to some questions that would get him hanged. That does not convict him. I wanted the answers, too. But he wasn’t trying to save his al-Qaida partners—he was trying to save his own life.

You describe Hotel California as a place designed to psychologically “dislocate” the detainee. What was it like?

When you go through the door, it’s instantaneous utter darkness and disorienting sound. It was so dark that the guard who was guiding me through the corridors was a jailer with a lantern. That was the only light. And all I could see were his feet going into and out of the light.

It took me into a Kafkaesque netherworld where your senses no longer served because the sense of sight was taken away in the dark. You had no depth perception. Nothing has three dimensions because nothing has any dimensions. And one loses one’s distinctive reference points to orient oneself in time and space because the sounds are dissonant and always changing.

If you go into one of these chambers where all your senses are deprived, you go crazy really fast.

Ordered back to Washington, you write cables to your superiors criticizing the continued detention of CAPTUS and the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. You later learn the cables were never sent. And you didn’t know what had happened to CAPTUS—though I understand that you learned in late 2010 that he had been released earlier that year.

When your assignment is done, if you don’t have a need to know, you won’t know. In this instance, everything was so egregiously [messed] up that I was deeply disturbed—thus the cables that I wrote.

What can an officer do? This is a large institution with hundreds of operations going on simultaneously. I wasn’t only challenging city hall, I was challenging everything. If I say to the inspector general, “I think we’re breaking the law,” they can say, “Well, we have the direct, formal, explicit legal guidance approved by the Department of Justice.”

So you wrote a book?

If I don’t say anything, I am tacitly allowing the de facto putsch to remain accepted and to permanently shift our national culture and our institutional practices and our laws. The laws were there. People tried to uphold them. Everything failed. So only by shedding light on the darkness can we dispel it, maybe. That’s the only option there is.

What has the reaction been?

Most of the public reaction, to my surprise, has been favorable. A small number, of course, denounced me as a coward, an apologist, a critic of the neocons. And the formal response by the neocons and the agency, frankly, has been vicious. I expected to be criticized. I was naïve. They were more subtle. They tried to stop publication of my book. They called my publisher and said, “You will destroy yourself as a publishing company if you publish this book because Carle is not credible. He’s a liar. He’s an unemployed malcontent who made it all up.” My publisher called me and said, “This is unprecedented. What is going on?” I said, “Every word of the book is literally true and you can verify it, as journalists have.”

Now that you’ve retired, how do you feel about having been a spy?

I am finding that the costs have been greater than I knew at the time. My professional life has been phenomenal, stimulating and rewarding, but it also has been isolating. You’re always the man passing through. I had opportunities and experiences that other people don’t. It also means that you’re the guy sitting in the café while someone else is going to the school board meeting.

And the job that we do, I came to terms with and exulted in many times. But the job is to prey upon one’s deepest hopes and fears and earn the deepest trusts of life. And any emotion you have is more intense and intimate than one’s relationship with one’s spouse, truly, and then [you] manipulate it. It’s very stimulating and incredibly intimate, but it is perverse to take someone’s most admirable qualities and use them for your ends. I find that I am increasingly aware of the costs on me individually, on my spouse, on my family, on my life.

How have your kids reacted to your career?

They’re very proud of me. They think Daddy is a man of principle and he did a cool career that they probably don’t want to do. But they know me as a loving father and a man of integrity, and so they reflexively believe that I was on the good side of whatever fight I was having.

Julie Rasicot is an associate editor of the magazine.

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