The last brother

Walter Pincus of Washington Post describes the counterterrorism masterclasses conducted by Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed stood before U.S. intelligence officers in a makeshift lecture hall, leading what they called “terrorist tutorials.” … “KSM, an accomplished resistor, provided only a few intelligence reports prior to the use of the waterboard, and analysis of that information revealed that much of it was outdated, inaccurate or incomplete,” according to newly unclassified portions of a 2004 report by the CIA’s then-inspector general released Monday by the Justice Department. … The debate over the effectiveness of subjecting detainees to psychological and physical pressure is in some ways irresolvable, because it is impossible to know whether less coercive methods would have achieved the same result. But for defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken in the month after his capture March 1, 2003, as the inspector general’s report and other documents released this week indicate.


When a man “breaks” under interrogation, he does more than blurt out secrets. The process truly breaks something inside him; changes something forever. The mystery is what. It isn’t morals: Mohammed’s transition from the man who boasted of decapitating Daniel Pearl to a hunter of his former associates still leaves a man who deals in violence and death. Breaking didn’t turn KSM into Gandhi; it didn’t convert him into a man you’d like to invite to dinner. Like others who have switched sides — double agents or police informers — betrayal is a lateral move within the same business.

The real key to breaking someone is to make him do something that will forever estrange him from his former life; to put him beyond the pale of forgiveness; to create such a change in attitude that he can never go back to his fold. It wasn’t the duress that broke KSM, it was what he did and said and thought under duress that brought him to the other side. He crossed some line which made him realize he could never come back into the Brotherhood. And he knows that he crossed it himself. Where did it leave him? In the night, facing some other way. Among the damned, betrayal is another pathway in the dark. But that’s where the damned like to live; amid things that are already broken. Real psychological conversion is something beyond the power of waterboarding to achieve, but interrogators are not in the business of offering salvation. They are in the profession of allowing vile men to reinvent themselves, to live for just a moment more on Raskolnikov’s ledge. “Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once!” If intelligence agencies had a pill that would turn a fanatical monster into Mother Teresa, they would be foolish to use it. Duress isn’t meant to shatter a man; it’s sole purpose is to leave all the fanatic’s vile cunning intact, only to break that thing which keeps him working for the other side. The fictional George Smiley’s ambivalence toward turning Karla as crossed over to the West arises because Smiley is aware of the sordidness of the moment.


Don’t come, thought Smiley. Shoot, Smiley thought, talking to Karla’s people, not to his own. There was suddenly something terrible in his foreknowledge that this tiny creature was about to cut himself off from the black castle behind him … an unholy vertigo seized him as the very evil he had fought against seemed to reach out and posses him and claim him despite his striving, calling him a traitor also; mocking him, yet at the same time applauding his betrayal. On Karla had descended the curse of Smiley’s compassion; on Smiley the curse of Karla’s fanaticism. I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s-land.

Smiley hated that square yard as much as Karla did. But was Smiley’s compassion simply the salve of superiority an aging civil servant of a tottering empire could use to console himself behind an American wall or did he want to take that risk and fly away? Out on Raskolnikov’s ledge it is always just ‘one minute more’, ‘one last thing’; and forever is a long time.

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