The interrogation of 9-11's mastermind

In a makeshift prison in Poland, al-Qaida's engineer of mass murder faced off against his CIA interrogator. It was 18 months after the Sept. 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 Sheikh Mohammed.

The interrogator, Deuce Martinez, a soft-spoken analyst who spoke no Arabic, had turned down a CIA 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.”

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 Mohammed that astonished his fellow CIA officers.

A canny opponent, 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 Martinez's Catholicism, one CIA officer recalled. And, the officer added, there was one other detail no one could have predicted: “He wrote poems to Deuce's wife.”

Martinez, who by then had interrogated at least three other high-level prisoners, would bring Mohammed snacks, usually dates. He would listen to 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 CIA officer said.

The story of Martinez's role in the CIA's interrogation program, including his contribution to the first capture of a major figure in al-Qaida, provides a close look beneath the blanket of secrecy that hides the program from terrorists and from critics who accuse the agency of torture.

In the Hollywood cliche of Fox's “24,” a torturer shouts questions at a bound terrorist while inflicting excruciating pain. The CIA 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, Martinez or another interrogator took up the questioning.

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 Mohammed talk so expansively because he feared more of the brutal treatment he had already endured?

The very fact that 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.

In its scramble, the CIA made the momentous decision to use harsh methods the U.S. had long condemned. With little research or reflection, it borrowed its techniques from a U.S. military training program modeled on the torture repertoires of the Soviet Union and other Cold War adversaries, a lineage that would come to haunt the agency.

Seeking a longer-term solution to overseas jails, the CIA 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 Guantanamo.

By then, whether it was a result of a fear of waterboarding, the patient trust-building mastered by Martinez or the demoralizing effects of isolation, 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 U.S., Mohammed told CIA officers that he might send a shipping container from Japan loaded with 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.