Inside a 9/11 Mastermind's Interrogation
NY Times
Published: June 22, 2008

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.

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.

By then, whether it was a result of a fear of waterboarding, the patient trust-building mastered by Mr. Martinez or the demoralizing effects of isolation, Mr. Mohammed and some other prisoners had become quite compliant. In fact, according to several officials, they had become a sort of terrorist focus group, advising their captors on their fellow extremists' goals, ideology and tradecraft.

Asked, for example, how he would smuggle explosives into the United States, Mr. Mohammed told C.I.A officers that he might send a shipping container from Japan loaded with personal computers, half of them packed with bomb materials, according to a foreign official briefed on the episode.

"It was to understand the mind of a terrorist — how a terrorist would do certain things," the foreign official said of the discussions of hypothetical attacks. Thus did the architect of 9/11 become, in effect, a counterterrorism adviser to the American government he professed to despise.

A Break in Pakistan

When Mr. Martinez flew to Pakistan early in 2002, he was joining an increasingly desperate campaign to catch and question anyone who might know the plans for the next terrorist attack.

Months had passed since Sept. 11, 2001, without a single senior Qaeda figure being taken alive. Intelligence agencies were alarmed by the eavesdropping "chatter" about threats. But without a high-level terrorist in custody, the government had few sources to warn of plots in progress.

Then, in February 2002, the C.I.A. station in Islamabad, Pakistan, learned that Abu Zubaydah, Al Qaeda's logistics specialist, was in Lahore or Faisalabad, Pakistani cities 80 miles apart with a combined population of more than 10 million. The hunt for the terrorist's electronic trail grew intensive.

Armed with Abu Zubaydah's cellphone number, eavesdropping specialists deployed what some called the "magic box," an electronic scanner that could track any switched-on mobile phone and give its approximate location. But Abu Zubaydah was careful about security: he turned his phone on only briefly to collect messages, not long enough for his trackers to get a fix on his whereabouts.

That was when Mr. Martinez arrived, beginning what would be an unlikely engagement with the world's worst terrorists.

The son of a C.I.A. technician who worked on the agency's secret communications and eventually became a senior executive, Mr. Martinez grew up in Virginia, majored in political science at James Madison University and went directly into the C.I.A. training program not long before his father retired. He wound up in the agency's Counternarcotics Center, learning to sift masses of phone numbers, travel records, credit card transactions and more to search for people.

"Deuce had a reputation as one of those eggheads who could sit down with a lot of data and make sense out of it," said one former C.I.A. officer who knew him well. In the agency's great cultural divide, he was a stay-at-home analyst, not an "operator," one of the glamorous spies who recruited foreign agents overseas. His tool was the computer, and until the earthquake of 9/11 his expertise was drug cartels, not terrorist networks.

After the attacks, officials recognized that tracking drug lords was not so different from searching for terrorist masterminds, and Mr. Martinez was among a half dozen or so narcotics analysts moved to the Counterterrorist Center to become "targeting officers" in the hunt for Al Qaeda.

Colleagues say Mr. Martinez, then 36, threw himself into the new work with a passion. On a wall at the American Embassy in Islamabad, he posted a large, blank piece of paper. He wrote Abu Zubaydah's phone number at the center. Then, over a week or so, he and others added more and more linked phone numbers from the eavesdropping files of the National Security Agency and Pakistani intelligence. They excluded known institutions like mosques and shops and gradually built a map of the network of contacts around Abu Zubaydah.

"It was a spider's web," said one person who saw the telephone chart. "Aesthetically it was quite pretty."

Using the numbers, and premises linked to them, Mr. Martinez and his colleagues sought to identify Abu Zubaydah's most likely hide-outs. They could not reduce the list to fewer than 14 addresses in Lahore and Faisalabad, which they put under surveillance. At 2 a.m. on March 28, 2002, teams led by Pakistan's Punjab Elite Force, with Americans waiting outside, hit the locations all at once.

One of the SWAT teams found Abu Zubaydah, protected by Syrian and Egyptian bodyguards, at a handsome house on Canal Road in Faisalabad. It held bomb-making equipment and a safe loaded with $100,000 in cash, according to a terrorism consultant briefed on the event. Photographs of the raid reviewed by The Times last month showed Abu Zubaydah, a cleanshaven 30-year-old Palestinian, shot three times during the raid, lying face down in the back of a Toyota pickup before he was taken to a hospital.

At first, Abu Zubaydah fell in and out of consciousness, emerging occasionally to speak incoherently — once, evidently imagining himself in a restaurant, ordering a glass of red wine, a C.I.A. official said. The agency, desperate to keep him alive, flew in a Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon to consult. Within a few days, Abu Zubaydah was flown to Thailand, to the first of the "black sites," the agency's interrogation facilities for major Qaeda figures.

Thailand, which had long faced Muslim insurgents in its south, became the first choice because C.I.A. officers had a very close relationship with their counterparts in Bangkok, according to one American intelligence official. At first, the official said, "they didn't even tell the prime minister."

Inside a ‘Black Site'

It was at the Thai jail, not far from Bangkok, that Mr. Martinez first tried his hand at interrogation on Abu Zubaydah, who refused to speak Arabic with his captors but spoke passable English. It was also there, as previously reported, that the C.I.A. would first try physical pressure to get information, including the near-drowning of waterboarding. The methods came from the military's SERE training program, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, which many of the C.I.A.'s paramilitary officers had themselves completed. A small version of SERE had long operated at the C.I.A.'s Virginia training site, known as The Farm.

Senior Federal Bureau of Investigation officials thought such methods unnecessary and unwise. Their agents got Abu Zubaydah talking without the use of force, and he revealed the central role of Mr. Mohammed in the 9/11 plot. They correctly predicted that harsh methods would darken the reputation of the United States and complicate future prosecutions. Many C.I.A. officials, too, had their doubts, and the agency used contract employees with military experience for much of the work.

Some C.I.A. officers were torn, believing the harsh treatment could be effective. Some said that only later did they understand the political cost of embracing methods the country had long shunned.

John C. Kiriakou, a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer who was the first to question Abu Zubaydah, expressed such conflicted views when he spoke publicly to ABC News and other news organizations late last year. In a December interview with The Times, before being cautioned by the C.I.A. not to discuss classified matters, Mr. Kiriakou, who was not present for the waterboarding but read the resulting intelligence reports, said he had been told that Abu Zubaydah became compliant after 35 seconds of the water treatment.

"It was like flipping a switch," Mr. Kiriakou said of the shift from resistance to cooperation. He said he thought such "desperate measures" were justified in the "desperate time" in 2002 when another attack seemed imminent. But on reflection, he said, he had concluded that waterboarding was torture and should not be permitted. "We Americans are better than that," he said.

With Abu Zubaydah's case, the pattern was set. With a new prisoner, the interrogators, like Mr. Martinez, would open the questioning. In about two-thirds of cases, C.I.A. officials have said, no coercion was used.

If officers believed the prisoner was holding out, paramilitary officers who had undergone a crash course in the new techniques, but who generally knew little about Al Qaeda, would move in to manhandle the prisoner. Aware that they were on tenuous legal ground, agency officials at headquarters insisted on approving each new step — a night without sleep, a session of waterboarding, even a "belly slap" — in an exchange of encrypted messages. A doctor or medic was always on hand.

The tough treatment would halt as soon as the prisoner expressed a desire to talk. Then the interrogator would be brought in.

Interrogation became Mr. Martinez's new forte, first with Abu Zubaydah; then with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the Yemeni who was said to have been an intermediary between the 9/11 hijackers and Qaeda leaders, caught in September 2002; and then with Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the Saudi accused of planning the bombing of the American destroyer Cole in 2000, who was caught in November 2002.

Mr. bin al-Shibh quickly cooperated; Mr. Nashiri resisted and was subjected to waterboarding, intelligence officials have said. C.I.A superiors offered Mr. Martinez and some other analysts the chance to be "certified" in what the C.I.A. euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation methods."

Mr. Martinez declined, as did several other C.I.A. officers. He did not condemn the tough methods, colleagues said, but he was learning that his talents lay elsewhere.

Another Suspect Is Seized

The hunt for Khalid Shaikh Mohammed involved the entire American intelligence establishment, with its billion-dollar arrays of spy satellites and global eavesdropping net. But his capture came down to a simple text message sent from an informant who had slipped into the bathroom of a house in Rawalpindi, near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

"I am with K.S.M.," the message said, according to an intelligence officer briefed on the episode.

The capture team waited a few hours before going in on the night of March 1, 2003, to blur the connection to the informant, a walk-in attracted by the offer of a $25 million reward. The informant, described by one American who met him as "a little guy who looked like a farmer," would later get a face-to-face thank you from George J. Tenet, then the C.I.A. director, at the American Embassy in Abu Dhabi, intelligence officials say, and he was resettled with his reward money under a new identity in the United States.

Within days, Mr. Mohammed was flown to Afghanistan and then on to Poland, where the most important of the C.I.A.'s black sites had been established. The secret base near Szymany Airport, about 100 miles north of Warsaw, would become a second home to Mr. Martinez during the dozens of hours he spent with Mr. Mohammed.

Poland was picked because there were no local cultural and religious ties to Al Qaeda, making infiltration or attack by sympathizers unlikely, one C.I.A. officer said. Most important, Polish intelligence officials were eager to cooperate.

"Poland is the 51st state," one former C.I.A. official recalls James L. Pavitt, then director of the agency's clandestine service, declaring. "Americans have no idea."

Mr. Mohammed met his captors at first with cocky defiance, telling one veteran C.I.A. officer, a former Pakistan station chief, that he would talk only when he got to New York and was assigned a lawyer — the experience of his nephew and partner in terrorism, Ramzi Yousef, after Mr. Yousef's arrest in 1995.

But the rules had changed, and the tough treatment began shortly after Mr. Mohammed was delivered to Poland. By several accounts, he proved especially resistant, chanting from the Koran, doling out innocuous information or offering obvious fabrications. The Times reported last year that the intensity of his treatment — various harsh techniques, including waterboarding, used about 100 times over a period of two weeks — prompted worries that officers might have crossed the boundary into illegal torture.

His cooperation came in fits and starts, and interrogators said they believed at times that he gave them disinformation. But he talked most freely to Mr. Martinez.

An obvious chasm separated these enemies — the interrogator and the prisoner. But Mr. Martinez shared a few attributes with his adversary that he could exploit as he sought his secrets. They were close in age, approaching 40; they had attended public universities in the American South (Mr. Mohammed had studied engineering at North Carolina A&T); they were both religious; and they were both fathers.

Mr. Mohammed, according to one former C.I.A. officer briefed on the sessions, "would go through these emotional cycles."

"He'd be chatty, almost friendly," the officer added. "He liked to debate. He got to the stage where he'd draw parallels between Christianity and Islam and say, ‘Can't we get along?' "

By this account, Mr. Martinez would reply to the man who had overseen the killing of nearly 3,000 people: "Isn't it a little late for that?"

At other times, the C.I.A. officer said, Mr. Mohammed would grow depressed, complaining about being separated from his family and ranting about his cell or his food — a common theme for other prisoners, including Abu Zubaydah, who protested when the flavor of his Ensure nutrition drink was changed.

Sometimes Mr. Mohammed wrote letters to the Red Cross or to President Bush with his demands; the letters went to C.I.A. psychologists for analysis.

And there were the poetic tributes to Mr. Martinez's wife, scribbled in Mr. Mohammed's ungrammatical English and intended as a show of respect for his interrogator, according to a colleague who heard Mr. Martinez's account.

But as time passed, Mr. Mohammed provided more and more detail on Al Qaeda's structure, its past plots and its aspirations. When he sometimes sought to mislead, interrogators often took his claims immediately to other Qaeda prisoners at the Polish compound to verify the information.

The intelligence riches ultimately gleaned from Mr. Mohammed were reflected in the report of the national 9/11 commission, whose footnotes credit his interrogations 60 times for facts about Al Qaeda and its plotting — while also occasionally noting assertions by him that were "not credible."

The interrogations the commission cited began just 11 days after Mr. Mohammed's capture and ended just days before the commission's report was published in mid-2004. Together they amount to a detailed history of Mr. Mohammed's initiation into terrorism along with his nephew, Mr. Yousef; his plotting of mayhem from Bosnia to the Philippines; and his alliance with Osama bin Laden, to whom the egotistical Mr. Mohammed was reluctant to defer.

Mr. Mohammed also claimed a role in a long list of completed and thwarted attacks. Human rights advocates have questioned some of Mr. Mohammed's claims, including the beheading of Mr. Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, suggesting that they may have been false statements made to stop torture.

But Mr. Martinez told colleagues that Mr. Mohammed volunteered out of the blue that he was the man who killed Mr. Pearl. The C.I.A. at first was skeptical, according to two former agency officials. Intelligence analysts eventually were convinced, however, in part because Mr. Mohammed pointed out to Mr. Martinez details of the hand and arm of the masked killer in a videotape of the murder that appeared to show it was him.

"He was a leader," said a foreign counterterrorism official briefed on the episode. "He wanted to demonstrate to his people how ruthless he could be."

Divergent Paths

On June 5, Mr. Mohammed made a theatrical return to the public eye at his Guantánamo Bay arraignment, with a long, graying beard and a defiant insistence that the American military commission could do no more to him than give him his wish: execution and martyrdom.

His interrogator has moved on, too. Like many other C.I.A. officers in the post-9/11 security boom, Mr. Martinez left the agency for more lucrative work with government contractors.

His life today is quiet by comparison with the secret interrogations of 2002 and 2003. But Mr. Martinez has not turned away entirely from his old world. He now works for Mitchell & Jessen Associates, a consulting company run by former military psychologists who advised the C.I.A. on the use of harsh tactics in the secret program.

And his new employer sent Mr. Martinez right back to the agency. For now, the unlikely interrogator of the man perhaps most responsible for the horrors of 9/11 teaches other C.I.A. analysts the arcane art of tracking terrorists.

Editors' Note: June 22, 2008
The Central Intelligence Agency asked The New York Times not to publish the name of Deuce Martinez, an interrogator who questioned Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other high-level Al Qaeda prisoners, saying that to identify Mr. Martinez would invade his privacy and put him at risk of retaliation from terrorists or harassment from critics of the agency.

After discussion with agency officials and a lawyer for Mr. Martinez, the newspaper declined the request, noting that Mr. Martinez had never worked under cover and that others involved in the campaign against Al Qaeda have been named in news stories and books. The editors judged that the name was necessary for the credibility and completeness of the article.

The Times's policy is to withhold the name of a news subject only very rarely, most often in the case of victims of sexual assault or intelligence officers operating under cover.

Mr. Martinez, a career analyst at the agency until his retirement a few years ago, did not directly participate in waterboarding or other harsh interrogation methods that critics describe as torture and, in fact, turned down an offer to be trained in such tactics.

The newspaper seriously considered the requests from Mr. Martinez and the agency. But in view of the experience of other government employees who have been named publicly in books and published articles or who have themselves chosen to go public, the newspaper made the decision to print the name.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: June 25, 2008
A chart on Sunday with the continuation of a front-page article about the C.I.A.'s secret interrogation program misidentified the Pakistan cities where two major Al Qaeda figures, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, were captured. As the article correctly noted, Mr. Zubaydah was captured in Faisalabad, not Rawalpindi, and Mr. Mohammed was captured in Rawalpindi, not Karachi. The chart also misstated the year of Mr. Mohammed's capture. As the article also correctly noted, he was captured in March 2003, not 2002.

The chart also overstated what is known about the location where the two men were held en route from a prison in Poland to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. While it is possible that the location may have been in the Middle East, that information has not been confirmed.

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