The lonely truth

AGAINST THE WALL: Former CIA operative Glenn Carle says he didn't write his book to tell 'sexy tales of derring-do'.
AGAINST THE WALL: Former CIA operative Glenn Carle says he didn't write his book to tell 'sexy tales of derring-do'.

In a darkened room sits a man whom the American government says is a senior al Qaeda official. His interrogator, a long-serving CIA agent named Glenn Carle, thinks the man is far from a terrorist mastermind, but a bewildered halfwit. Carle's handlers tell him the man's silence proves he knows something, and insist "enhanced interrogation techniques" - many would say torture - will produce answers. Carle demurs, but is ignored, and his prisoner, while never entering a courtroom, will spend the next seven years in a secret jail far from American shores before his quiet release.

These are the bare facts of Carle's book, The Interrogator, which in the year since its publication has destroyed his life. It has caused outrage everywhere except America, where it has been smothered by what he claims is an insidious whispering campaign by friends of former American vice- president Dick Cheney. "Every word," he says, intensely. "Every f-----g word is true."

They called his publisher, he says, asking them to pulp his book; they rang every major network to prevent him going on air. They are, he says several times, "vicious" and have perpetrated a stain on America's national character.

And so Carle has begun to travel. He has been well received in Germany, Australia, Canada; he has come to New Zealand because the Star-Times wanted to interview him and he wanted to go hiking. Over lunch, he says: "They realised they could not keep me from every interview everywhere, so their strategy is to keep me from the major networks, then it doesn't matter if I talk to some guy in Auckland, or some guy in Butte, Montana, for a radio station that reaches 500 shepherds, for 'if we keep him off the major networks, then he does not exist'."

For those who listen, he has an amazing tale of how the War on Terror warped America's foreign policy and tested their laws and morals. Carle is bitter about the neocons, the new American right, who redefined what was acceptable, legally and morally, in these uncertain times. In particular, he despises George Bush's deputy attorney-general, John Yoo, who wrote the "torture memo", which permitted and claimed as legal such practices as sleep deprivation, binding in stress positions and waterboarding. Carle's prisoner, in his book codenamed CAPTUS, was surely subject to some of these, despite no evidence ever being tabled to suggest he was not a low-level money-changer, rather than, as the CIA speculated, Osama bin Laden's banker.

In the service of his state, Carle had lied, cheated and deceived; he had also seen operations go wrong before, but this was different. "If we screw someone over, because that was the job, because it is in our national security interests and done according to our obligations, legal and moral, then that's the job," he argues. "But in this instance, everything was f----- up, and it need not have been so, and it was kept that way, because people were breaking the law."

The life of a spy, he says, nonchalantly, was chiefly composed of passing the time before meetings chatting to hookers in hotel bars. The Interrogator mercilessly details Carle's own flaws and his wife's awful battle with alcoholism, inclusions designed to portray himself as "a full-bodied human being, not just a spy, none of this James Bond garbage where you are two-dimensional and nothing counts but the operation; that's never the case, everybody has to go buy toilet paper after work".

A silver-haired, erudite 55-year- old, Carle was raised in an elite Boston Brahmin family, the fourth generation in the same house. He studied and played ice hockey at Harvard, running the three miles home along the Charles River with his laundry, before a year in Paris widened his perspective. But on his return he found himself, deeply unhappy, at a Manhattan bank. So he decided to become a spy. A mistake, he says, he should have become a diplomat. "A wrong decision. One of many. Hindsight is easy. That would be another book, if I had the energy to write it."

The CIA had once been the preserve of the academic but by the time Carle joined, he was the oddity among MBA graduates and career soldiers who were intelligent, but not likely to be reading original French fiction, as he is both times we meet. "I thought I would try this for a while, and then maybe do something else, and the 'maybe I do something else' never happened," he says.

On one assignment he was one of six first-tour officers, and by its conclusion, the other five had resigned. "I had a joke I was the only one tough enough and talented enough to take it, or the only weak enough or foolish enough not to do something better. And I think both are true. Or at least, the latter is."

And now the job and the book have combined to leave him almost alone. "My career has isolated me, and I talk about this with my loved ones: 'Am I a loner because my career made me one, or did I chose my career because I am a loner?' I think both statements are probably true." Thoughtful silence. "That does disturb me, actually. But I've always been that sort of way . . . I will walk past a bar, see people laughing and the camaraderie and bonhomie they feel and think this is really cool, I would like that. I'm not some guy who lives in a cave alone but I'm not a joiner, I don't like to drink and laugh stupidly . . . so there you have it, I envy it and I don't want it at the same time."

You don't, he thinks, have many friends in life. He's in touch with one schoolfriend, three or four from college, barely nobody from his CIA career. His parents are dead; he has only one sibling. There's his wife and two children. "That's it. Maybe it is normal. But it's not like I go down to the pub to hang out with my buddies. I don't have buddies."

The agency made him infinitely adaptable; he's happy if he has a book, internet access, and the chance to exercise. "I am as good friends with you guys [myself and photographer Michael Bradley] as I am anybody else," he declares. "We've only met for an hour, but if I lived here, I would call you up next week and say let's go jogging . . . so you are my big buddy."

Inspired, I invite him to the pub that very night to watch State of Origin rugby league, and he is indeed good company, the convivial sort of guy you would be friends with. He ponders these personal revelations, then adds a coda: "That sounds more sad- sack, maybe, than I feel."

All this, of course, could be merely these superb spying skills at work. But he's at pains to prove himself human; never to claim heroism, but merely to be an average man wrestling a deep moral dilemma. There's a line in the book about being able to read people within a minute of meeting them. This, he says, was a throwaway that has caused him much angst with interviewers, to the extent that Australian comics The Chaser asked him to judge on air whether two guys were lying or not (he got it wrong). His book also has a memorable fourth sentence - "I lied every day, about almost everything" - but while he says the trick is simply to tell partial truths, he's a terrible liar. That said, throughout his 23-year career, nobody knew what he was truly doing. His wife knew enough to know that tennis games with Russian diplomat Igor were perhaps less about improving his forehand than obtaining secrets, but that was the limit. Even now, he won't reveal "sources or methods".

So he won't say where the prison was (others say Morocco) or the prisoner's name (others say it was an Emirati man, Pacha Wazir). Significant chunks of the The Interrogator have also been excised, replaced with thick black lines, because as a former spy, Carle is denied the right to freedom of speech and so the CIA were able to censor his words. Without those redactions, some as trivial as a quotation from TS Eliot, he says he would have been jailed. The rarely used, near 100-year-old Espionage Act, designed for foreign spies, is, he says, now being employed to prosecute no less than six former American spies.

Carle's experience with CAPTUS was in 2003; he retired from the CIA, by then one of their most senior counter-terrorism officials, some four years later. He has faced criticism for not leaving earlier. "What would leaving have done? Nothing aside from deprive me of a livelihood. I think fighting the good fight is better than walking away, and I think I was able to do a lot . . . while all this was all-consuming for the three months I was involved, this was one operation among dozens and dozens I did during my 23 years."

He describes the book as an "exploration of 'How do you say no? How do you make any difference?' " and it's clear CAPTUS troubled him through the subsequent years. This must be his intellectualism: it's clear he had deep internal debate about every action he committed while working for the CIA. I question his view that rendition is acceptable, and he launches into a long, complex and understandable explanation why in its original form, bringing offshore suspects to the American judiciary, was right, but what it became - detaining them in dark offshore prisons - was not. I can't see his colleagues, some of whom have told him he is courageous but foolish, torturing themselves so deeply.

The neocons have portrayed Carle as a limp-wristed left winger, although he seems stolidly centrist in his political views and eminently sensible on foreign affairs, with his assertion that terrorism was never a coherent, global threat. Since 9/11, he says just 15,000 people worldwide, and just 15 of them American, have died as a result of terrorism; 40,000 Americans die on highways every year. "I know al Qaeda was never more than 600 people. So why should 600 people shape our national existence? [There are bigger issues which seem] more important than the fact there are 60 guys with beards trying to blow me up."

The Obama administration, he believes, has brought a more rational tone to the debate, but he hopes he helped tip the pendulum somewhat. Sadly, he's not sure that he did.

Now he's writing his second, wholly different, book, about his mother.

His refined grandparents would host dinners for servicemen during World War II, men who would be surprised to see their daughter, Miss Brookline 1940, seated beside them. She had three love affairs, all accompanied by proposals, during the war: an Australian airman, a marine corps captain (who survived an air accident and a kamikaze attack respectively) and a navy lieutenant. The third was, says Carle, undoubtedly the love of her life. He was killed in a plane crash. Seven years later, she married Carle's father, himself a marine. Years later, Carle found some unusual military shoulder patches in a drawer at home and knew they were not his father's. "She started to cry: she had cried only twice in her life that I saw, then, and when President Kennedy was buried."

When she died, last year, Carle says there was a stack of letters on one side of her bed - the ones he had written home during his career, and another stack to the other side, from the dead sailor.

He agrees that his reason for writing it are in part that it is a great tale, in part because he doesn't want to be compartmentalised ("as the torture guy") and in part, to seek some respite from his vilification.

Without that, it would still have been a tough year. Both his parents died and his relationship with his wife became deeply strained. When I order a beer, he orders Diet Coke, and says: "I don't drink. Not after what has happened to my life. It destroyed my life, my career, my marriage. My life. And that's not overstating the case . . . it has been awful and unbearable but that's another story, and 20 years long."

He's also finding it hard financially: the media blackout means the book hasn't earned him much, and he's frozen out of the cushy post-agency security contracting market.

But money isn't the real cost to Glenn Carle. We're just finishing our main courses, Carle suffering food envy over my confit duck, when there are tears. The Interrogator's dedication is to his mother and father, because it reads, they taught him to "question everything . . . and that right and wrong are independent of authority and convention". Partway through, he describes himself as an everyman, confident anyone would have reacted as he did. A painful year later, he has his doubts. "I thought people would react the same way I did. Not one did. I am the one f------ person, the only one." His eyes water. "It affects me now, it is hard to believe that I am the only one with the intestinal fortitude to say what we have done is wrong.

"I said that I would be destroyed," he adds. "But what will not change is that what I say is the truth. It does make me emotional. The most rewarding thing for me - for I made no money - is the number of people who have come to me to say thank you for speaking up and being courageous enough to do it.

"Of course I care about being destroyed... but I will not NOT tell the truth. It is wrong. I didn't write the book, as I say, to tell sexy tales of derring-do, I wrote it because if I didn't, it goes unsaid, and if it is unsaid, it is accepted."

Sunday Star Times