When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was strapped down to the water-board, he felt humiliated -- not by the treatment but by the fact that a woman, a red-headed CIA supervisor, was allowed to witness the spectacle, a former intelligence officer told ABC News.
The al Qaeda mastermind, known as KSM, stubbornly held out for about two minutes -- far longer than any of the other "high-value" terror targets who were subjected to the technique, the harshest from a list of six techniques approved for use by the CIA and Bush administration lawyers, sources said.
Then KSM started talking, in idiomatic English he learned as a high school foreign exchange student and polished at a North Carolina college in the 1980s, sources said.
THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS
"It was an extraordinary amount of time for him to hold out," one former CIA officer told ABCNews.com. "A red-headed female supervisor was in the room when he was being water-boarded. It was humiliating to him. So he held out."
"Then he started talking, and he never stopped," this former officer said. KSM was never water-boarded again, and in hours and hours of conversation with his interrogators, often over a cup of tea, he poured out his soul and the murderous deeds he committed.
"He was sitting across the table from his interrogator, and he just blurted out, 'I killed Daniel Pearl. I killed him Hahal (slit his throat in a ritual fashion).' There was no water-boarding, no belly slapping; just two guys sitting across the table having a cup of tea."
Water-boarding consists of strapping an individual to an inclined board with the person's head slightly lower than the feet and pouring water over the face to simulate drowning. It triggers a gag reflex and can make a person believe death is near. Water-boarding has been denounced as "torture" by human rights groups and many U.S. officials, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who likened it to a mock execution.
A current CIA official says that KSM actually told interrogators the only reason he confessed was because of the water-boarding.
But what if that one episode of water-boarding KSM had not occurred? It is a question at the center of the debate over the harshest technique in the CIA's repertoire that has raged for three years now, a time frame, intelligence officials note, in which the technique has not been used.
Would the agency have eventually worn KSM down? Would the confessions have poured forth about Daniel Pearl's beheading, about his role in the 1995 plot by his nephew, master bomber Ramzi Yousef, to assassinate Pope John Paul II during a visit to Manila, and detailed information about his role as mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks?
In the case of 9/11, U.S. intelligence officials were in the dark as to how exactly it was plotted because at the time KSM brought the idea to Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda terrorist leader had just stopped using mobile telephones after media reports raised suspicions they were monitored by U.S. intelligence.
"If one water-board session got him to talk, you could have gotten him to talk (without it), given time and patience," said Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant and former FBI agent. Garrett has 30 years of experience interrogating terrorists such as Yousef, the Pakistani man who killed two CIA employees at the gates to the agency's Langley, Va. headquarters in 1994 and hundreds of violent criminals.
"If in fact it's true that they water-boarded him once and then he started talking and provided reliable information, then he falls under the category of the small minority of people on whom it works. But torture seldom works. Most people start talking...to get the pain to stop," Garrett said.
But in many cases, the harsh intelligence techniques led to questionable confessions and downright lies, say officers with firsthand knowledge of the program. That included statements that al Qaeda was building dirty bombs.
"It is true that the person who was saying the nuke stuff said it under pressure. The analysts believed it was not true; it did not conform to other information," one former intelligence officer told ABC News.
As these targets were subjected to the increasingly harsh interrogation methods -- in some cases including water-boarding -- KSM sat in his cell in Poland, writing poetry in English, writing letters to the president and to the head of the CIA, and debating the merits of Christianity and Islam with his captor.
"Using torture says that we aren't any better than countries that historically tortured people. What are we telling the world about the United States?" Garrett, who has lectured on the subject of interrogation and torture and the perception of a nation, asked.
And just yesterday, an intelligence source told ABC News that the dapper man behind the most successful terror plot against America was not rumpled and disheveled when he was apprehended. He was as well-kept as ever.
But the CIA, conscious of the propaganda value of appearance, messed his hair and pulled his shirt from his pants, leaving us with the image of KSM we have today, and according to days of NSA intercepts, leaving his fellow al Qaeda terrorists chagrined over the changes to their esteemed colleague.
This post has been updated.