Interrogating the Interrogator: a conversation with Glenn Carle

Is it ever acceptable for our government to torture (“enhanced interrogation technique” is the Orwellian neo-con term) or jail someone indefinitely without due process? What if you or someone close to you were condemned to this same fate?

I’m in DC for the weekend, which makes this the perfect time to blog about Glenn Carle’s recent book about his life as a career clandestine-services officer in the CIA, The Interrogator: An Education. My recent post about the impact of September 11 discusses the loss of Americans’ freedoms as a result of the War of Terror, a question illustrated in Glenn’s stark conversations with his bosses and his experiences as an intelligence agent in the years following 9/11.

A recent New York Times article by Scott Shane on last Friday’s U.S. airstrike that killed American citizen (and terrorist) Anwar al-Awlaki raises issues about the constitutionality of America’s new wartime code of conduct in the aftermath of September 11th.

This past August, a federal judge ruled that a former military contractor (and American citizen), who was imprisoned and tortured for nine months in Iraq, without being charged with a crime, and without his family knowing if he was dead or alive, can sue ex-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld personally for damages. The judge ruled that the Constitution protects US citizens during wartime, wherever they are.

Here’s Glenn discussing his book at the New America Foundation:

I sat down with Glenn over bagels and coffee and talked about his 23 years as a CIA spy, literature, the future of America, and urinals, among other things. When I told him The Interrogator reminded me of a cross between Catch 22 and Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis, he told me to read Laura Miller’s review of his book for, who makes similar comparisons.

Glenn, a self-deprecating, self-described “quintessential WASP,” looks more like a senior accountant than a spy. The Brookline born-and-bred, Harvard grad is not the typical CIA agent—or at least I don’t think so…I take Glenn’s word for it.

“I wrote The Interrogator to be a descriptive book that captures the blindness and deceptions on the global War on Terror—think of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American,” he said. “My character is that of someone in the same position.”

As a high level CIA interrogator in Morocco and Afghanistan during the Surge, Glenn became increasingly disturbed with the way he was instructed to interrogate his subject, CAPTUS, an alleged senior al-Qa’ida terrorist. But the more time he spent interrogating CAPTUS, the less convinced he became of the man’s guilt—and more convinced that our government’s newly mandated wartime code of conduct was off-track and dangerously unconstitutional.

Physical coercion—torture—has nothing to do with a useful interrogation. Torture is simple, crude, obtuse, and immoral, and does not work. It is patently stupid, an offense to any understanding of how a mind works, independent of its illegality and barbarity, independent of how it corrodes the principles the CIA is sworn to protect and U.S. society defines itself as embodying. Torture is more a projection of an individual’s or a state’s arrogant, self-absorbed sense of power, and sometimes a symptom of fear, than a meaningful tool to extract good information. Legal casuistry can assert that torture is a vague term, that there is ample leeway for a host of “coercive measures,” and that a moment of grave national danger justifies taking whatever measures are necessary for the national defense. In fact, there is almost no circumstance that justifies inflicting severe and lasting physical pain on someone to extract information, while basing a general practice and legal framework to authorize torture, call it what one will, upon the most extreme, unlikely case—the “ticking bomb” scenario—saps the foundation of our legal system. Such sophistry can justify any act for reasons of national expediency and urgency, erodes the foundation of the law, and attributes lasting power to those supposed to exercise momentary authority. We have seen liberties wither this way in other times, and other places…

…Slowly, progressively, first in dismay, then in anger, I had realized that on the CAPTUS  case the Agency, the government, all of us, had been victims of delusion. Our premises were flawed, our facts used to fit our premises, our premises determined, and our fears justified our operational actions, in a self-contained process that arrived at a conclusion dramatically at odds with the facts as I came to know them, that projected evil actions where there was, more often, muddled interest and unavoidable complicity, or nothing much at all.

And what was up with all the urinals built for 8-foot giants? I asked him. There are a few scenes in the book where Glenn finds himself forced to pee “up” into bizarrely built urinals fit for Yao Ming. Is that one of those deals where there’s no questioning the crazy reality that you’re in, I asked?

“Ah, yes…well that was interesting,” Glenn laughed. “That’s when you walk in and say, ‘What the hell?!’ But you don’t dare ask what was up, because you think: here I am, in the third world, they don’t know what they’re doing. So after a second coffee, you try a different bathroom, and you find the same thing! But then you remember: this is a secure CIA facility, so Americans built it. And when you say to someone ‘Hey, haven’t you noticed this? The goddamn urinals are five feet off the ground.’ And they tell you that you’re the one with the problem. ‘Man up! Get a bigger dick! What’s wrong with you?’ The urinals are a metaphor,” he explained. Even when something really is wrong, “everyone else is still buying into the program, but you’re the only one who sees what’s really going on.”

So where do we go from here? And what can we do about it?

“We are not in some Jimmy Stewart democracy,” Glenn said. “I’m not trying to tell just a tale of rendition, of detention, but to show how our government is rolling out laws that willfully undermine our original democracy. We are now a government of men, not laws…and that’s alarming. We haven’t seen this, at least not since the internment of the Japanese [Americans] in World War II. The War on Terror has changed people’s attitudes. Most Americans 35 years and older say no to torture,”  Glenn told me. “But the young, those younger than 35 or so, have grown up in a different world where they say ‘You gotta do what you gotta do.’ They watch shows like “24” and think Jack Bauer is a hero. Well he’s not—he’s a thug…democracy is inherently fragile,” Glenn continued. “We’re very complacent. We’re destroying the values that make us great.”

Thanks to all the redactions by the CIA’s censors, reading The Interrogator can be a bit disorienting at times—but a lot faster to read after you skip past all the naughty black-lined bits. Spoiled American that I am, I’m not used to reading books that must squeak past a team of censors. As a writer, however, I am used to lawyers picking over (and dare I say often ruining) my copy for compliance reasons, which is why I particularly enjoyed reading Glenn’s often sarcastic and entertaining footnote commentary on what’s missing.

When someone like Glenn Carle speaks out, the rest of us should listen. You may not agree with him. But read The Interrogator, and come to your own conclusion. Be aware. Don’t be complacent.