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Kevin Cullen

Unshackling the truth: CIA and torture

Glenn Carle worked as an interrogator for the CIA.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Whenever you hear the word “patriot” being thrown around cavalierly, it’s never good. It has something to do with that old saw about the last refuge of scoundrels.

And so last week we were treated to the spectacle of not one but two presidents, one current, one former, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, using the word “patriot” to describe the people who tortured or presided over the torture of suspected enemies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Glenn Carle was sitting in his house in Duxbury when he heard the word being used to excuse the inexcusable. He cringed. Carle was one of the CIA interrogators tasked with getting suspected Al Qaeda members and associates to talk.


He was aggressive. He didn’t play patty-cake. But neither did he torture. Even after a superior ordered him to, he refused. His prisoner was passed on to another black site in another country, where the waiting interrogator was constrained by neither conscience nor oversight.

For a career CIA officer such as Carle, it wasn’t a hard call. He, like most CIA interrogators, knows that beyond being illegal and immoral, torture doesn’t work. It produces bad intelligence.

“When someone is punching you in the head or waterboarding you, you are going to tell them whatever they want to hear so they’ll stop,” said Carle. “But it goes way beyond that. We’re Americans. We don’t torture.”

Carle asks how the same country that executed Japanese soldiers who waterboarded American POWs during World War II could justify waterboarding suspected enemies.

Carle grew ill when he saw Dick Cheney, the original Mr. Sunshine, go on TV and dismiss the Senate report on torture while almost boasting he hadn’t even read it. He called the people who were tortured bastards. He called the people who did the torturing heroes. He called a report he hadn’t read “full of crap.”


Like other career CIA officers, Carle points to Cheney as epitomizing what went wrong. He said it took a shockingly few number of individuals to recalibrate a nation’s moral compass for the worse.

“A fish rots from the head down. Some people say we were winging it. The agency [CIA] does not wing it. You cannot even sneeze in the field without authorization. The authorization for this came from the White House. None of this would have happened had not an infinitesimally small number of neo-cons decided they had to be tough guys after 9/11.”

Carle says James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the two psychologists hired to justify the torture methods euphemistically referred to as Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, or EITs, were quacks, pushing unproven theories.

“Everybody [in the CIA] knew these guys were frauds. They had never done intelligence work. They had never done interrogations,” he said. “Our government paid them $81 million and they gave the agency the cover the White House thought it needed.”

As did John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general who Carle contends “basically said you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t kill them.”

As for Gul Rahman, a bodyguard for an Afghan warlord, they did kill him. During his interrogation in the Afghan dungeon called the Salt Pit, Rahman was chained, pantless, to a concrete floor, where he froze to death. Two months after Rahman died, the CIA officer who oversaw his interrogation got a $2,500 bonus.


After talking to former CIA officers who witnessed some of this stuff, I find it amazing how much of the degrading treatment doled out was unnecessary. Beyond not producing reliable information, torture was employed often simply because those doing it didn’t think it through.

One former CIA officer told me of how a rendition team showed up to move his prisoner to another black site.

“They came in dressed in Ninja suits, beat my prisoner up, stripped him naked, put a hood over his head, tied him to the floor, and stuck probes up his rear end,” the CIA officer said.

“Why are you sodomizing my prisoner?” the CIA officer demanded of the head Ninja.

“He may be secreting weapons in his anus,” the head Ninja replied.

“He’s been in custody for six weeks,” the CIA officer shot back.

Mike Mone, the Boston lawyer who represented Ali Shaabaan, a Syrian who had been held in Guantanamo without charge for 12 years, flew down to Uruguay last week to greet him on his release. Mone was shocked that Shaabaan and the five other long-term detainees, who had been cleared by the US military of any terrorist activity, were forced to fly to Montevideo from Cuba in shackles, blindfolds and earplugs.

“Does anybody think this stuff through?” Mone asked.

The short answer is, um, no.

Unfortunately, like almost everything in this country, the Senate report findings are playing out as partisan football. Those on the right dismiss them as bunk, a bunch of leftist propaganda whipped up by Democrats.


As if the propriety of shoving food up a prisoner’s rectum is a partisan issue.

Not everybody on the right dismisses it. John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona who was tortured by the North Vietnamese after being shot down in combat, embraced the report’s findings and has expounded eloquently on the utter futility and inherent immorality of torture.

So, whom do you believe?

A war hero like McCain, who served his country honorably and endured torture, or a draft avoider like Dick Cheney, who sent other people’s kids to fight the wars he enthusiastically helped start?

Like Glenn Carle, when he was faced with the choice of debasing another human being, himself, and his country, this is an easy call: I’m with John McCain.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.