By Aglaia Staff

Marty Martin wastes no time in establishing his status as a former CIA agent. “Hi, Neil, pleased to meet you,” he says, with a broad grin, as he shakes my hand. “Now, I hope that what you print from this interview is going to be very positive. Otherwise, Neil, as you can imagine, I have a skill set… You will be tapped on the shoulder as you are walking down the street…”

He’s joking. At least, I hope he’s joking. Martin was a senior CIA manager during a particularly brutal period for the agency – the Bush administration’s programme of “enhanced interrogation techniques” against al-Qaeda detainees. This included waterboarding, which many class as torture, a crime under international law.

On Tuesday, Martin will contribute to Sky Atlantic’s documentary Manhunt, which tells how the CIA managed to track down Osama bin Laden.

Martin is a big character, with a colourful turn of phrase. Yet he speaks slowly and reflectively about the decision-making process that – in the febrile years post-9/11 – led to the use of waterboarding. “It’s not payback, it’s not emotional, it’s not revenge,” he says. “What happens if we capture a high-value target with time-sensitive operational information? What do we do? If I have time, a year, a year and a half, I’m happy to give them Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme latte. But we had to keep our moral basis, and at the same time, save lives.”

These “extraordinary measures” were, Martin says, only ever employed on three detainees. One of them – Abu Zubaydah, a member of bin Laden’s inner circle – divulged information that allowed at least three al Qaeda commanders to be captured. The CIA has also publicly said that another detainee, suspected 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, provided useful information. “When I think about the innocent men and women, all around the world, who are enjoying their lives today because of those measures…that programme was effective,” says Martin, in its defence.

So, with hindsight, is Martin happy with that process, and the CIA’s controversial methods? “That’s a good question,” says Martin. “I’m content in knowing that we did what we had to do, and we saved lives. It doesn’t mean you have to apply that forever.”

Martin is also quick to connect the practice of waterboarding back to the film’s main theme: the years of analytical back-office work that was done, largely unrecognised even inside the CIA, by a small group of female officers. “The key to that programme, which people have missed, is not so much the [interrogation] techniques… as the expertise in the collating, the synthesising of the information, which allowed the CIA to get to the facts – to know, when a detainee was compliant, whether they were misleading or not.”

That expertise had been built up, back at CIA HQ, over a period of 20 years. Manhunt’s director, Greg Barker, spends much of the early part of his film on testimonies from long-serving CIA analysts who had warned of the danger posed by bin Laden and al-Qaeda long before 9/11. All of them were women.

Barker points out that, pre-9/11, ambitious men at the CIA were unlikely to focus on the largely-unknown bin Laden. “From a career standpoint, being obsessed with bin Laden from the early Nineties onwards wasn’t exactly a great move,” he says. “Guys like to move up a career ladder [and thus be out working in the field], and most of these women for a long time were based in Washington and did jobs that allowed them to raise families.”

Certainly former real-life CIA analyst Cindy Storer, interviewed at length in Manhunt, plump and maternal-seeming in style, seems to give credence to that theory. She’s also a world away from Jessica Chastain’s no-nonsense character, Maya, in Zero Dark Thirty, Hollywood’s fictionalised version of the same story, where Maya is the woman who finally tracks down Bin Laden. “I like [the director] Kathryn Bigelow’s work, but I think tonally, the coldness of the female characters in Zero Dark Thirty was inaccurate,” says Barker. He also confirms that Maya was not based on any of the women who are interviewed in Manhunt.

And then there’s the thorny issue of the waterboarding. “Yes, it [Zero Dark Thirty] glorifies torture,” says Barker. His own film, he says, tries to give the audience “a sense of the human side of these decisions – how they came to that, and what they thought was the justification for it. If, for instance, there’s another big terrorist attack, I think this debate’s going to come back. I wanted to present it in as dispassionate a way as I could, so we can see all sides.”

If the debate about torture by the US government does reignite, Martin will be ready with his own pragmatism, based on the effectiveness of the techniques Barker portrays in his film. “People love to be simplistic,” he says. “I would say, ‘Never say never.’” For Martin, at least, the end justifies the means.


 Manhunt: How The CIA Traced Osama Bin Laden
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