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Kevin Cullen

A CIA spy who refused to become the enemy

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / September 11, 2011

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Glenn Carle came home the other day, to Brookline, to the house where he grew up, to the house where four generations of his family made their home.

His parents are dead, Carle and his siblings are scattered, and so the house will be sold.

It is, for Carle, a week to remember so much.

Like everybody else in this country who has a pulse, today means something to Glenn Carle. When you and I and everybody else were looking at the smoldering ruins in Lower Manhattan, horrified and saddened and angry and wondering what life would be like after all this, Carle was working, because he was a spy, a CIA agent, and it was his job to find out who made 9/11 happen.

He had gone to Harvard, had gone off to Europe to get a boatload of degrees, and had almost 20 years in clandestine field operations with the CIA under his belt when his boss called him into the office, a year after 9/11, saying they had a big assignment for him.

The CIA had in its custody, at one of its black sites in North Africa, an Afghan they believed to be Al Qaeda’s money man, a guy they called bin Laden’s banker. Carle was to interrogate him, to break him.

Carle just wrote a book about all this, “The Interrogator: An Education,’’ but more than a third of the manuscript was redacted by CIA censors, and the CIA prevented him from specifying names and places. But Harper’s Magazine Scott Horton, who besides being a terrific writer is a human rights lawyer, and was able to figure out the detainee was Haji Pacha Wazir, and that Carle was dispatched to Morocco.

“We think he can lead us to bin Laden,’’ Carle’s boss said of Pacha Wazir. “You will do whatever it takes to get him to talk.’’

Carle grew uncomfortable with the language. He was told to work through the Moroccans, that they would ask the questions Carle gave them, and they’d get rough if they had to.

Carle asked what he should do if the Moroccans did something unacceptable.

“Well, then,’’ his boss said, “you just walk out of the room, if you feel you should. Then you won’t have seen anything, will you?’’

In the silence, it became obvious what they were talking about.

“We don’t do that sort of thing,’’ Carle said.

“We do now,’’ his boss replied, as Carle recalled it.

And in that instant, Glenn Carle realized that things had changed, utterly, that Al Qaeda had done more than stage the most audacious attack on US soil: The terrorists had brought us down to their level.

“What about the Geneva Conventions?’’ Carle asked his boss.

Carle’s boss narrowed his eyes and looked at him with something Carle recognized as disdain.

“Which flag do you serve?’’ his boss asked.

Carle’s mouth mumbled something noncommittal, but his head told him that the flag he served was the antithesis of those who tortured.

As someone trained to get information out of people, Carle opposed torture not only because it was illegal and immoral, but because it didn’t work.

“If you’re punching someone in the head, they will tell you whatever it is you want so you’ll stop,’’ he said. “But it goes way beyond that. We’re Americans. We don’t torture. End of story.’’

But the story didn’t end when he got to North Africa and met with Pacha Wazir. Over a series of long interrogations, he came to believe Pacha Wazir was not who the agency said he was.

“He wasn’t totally clean,’’ Carle said, “but he wasn’t a jihadist or a member of Al Qaeda.’’

When Carle explained his assessment to headquarters, headquarters said he was being duped.

“Push harder,’’ headquarters said.

Pacha Wazir was flown to Afghanistan for more interrogation, but not before Carle watched, with a pit in his stomach, as some CIA colleagues clad as ninjas beat and humiliated Pacha Wazir on a landing strip.

“I told my superiors, everything we’re doing is wrong. What we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and who we’re doing it to,’’ he said. “We had the wrong guy.’’

After a few months, Carle’s tour ended and he came back to America. But he never felt the same again.

“I wanted to get Al Qaeda as much as anyone,’’ he said. “But when we torture people, we’re not the America everybody believes we are, or what we believe we are.’’

President Bush shut down the black sites in 2006. President Obama signed an executive order banning torture. And, in March 2010, Pacha Wazir was finally released after eight years in custody. He was never charged. Carle, who retired in 2007, considers that vindication, but it was a Pyrrhic victory.

This is a day to remember the dead, the thousands who perished 10 years ago. To remember the firefighters who went up the stairs when everybody else was coming down. The police officers, the EMTs, the ordinary New Yorkers who did extraordinary things. The people who dug in the rubble with their bare hands at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. The passengers on United Flight 93 who fought back. It is a day to remember the sacrifice of those who joined the military, or were called up, in the years that followed.

But it is also a day to remember people like Glenn Carle, who know that the ultimate revenge against the savages who carried out 9/11 is to not become like them.

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