Khalid Sheik Mohammed's Secret Vacuum Cleaner Design

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: So this next story is really weird. You may have even seen or heard the headline already. We're talking vacuum cleaners, Harry Potter, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. You know Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or KSM as he's often known. He's the admitted mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He now sits in the prison at Guantanamo Bay. After KSM was first detained a decade ago by the CIA, he was held in secret prisons in eastern Europe and subject to harsh interrogations. Agency officers forced him to stay awake for a hundred and eighty hours. He also underwent a hundred and eighty-three instances of waterboarding. His handlers also let him take on an unusual project. KSM was allowed to design a vacuum cleaner. That last bit we found out this week from an Associated Press story by Adam Goldman. Adam, tell us first of all why the CIA allowed KSM to design a household appliance.

Adam Goldman: Well, after they put KSM through the ringer, waterboarding and keeping him awake for a hundred and eighty hours among other enhanced interrogation techniques, they needed to find a way to occupy him. They wanted to keep him mentally engaged. They might need information again from him in the future or he might even one day stand trial. So the CIA had to work hard to make sure in fact these guys didn't go insane.

Werman: So KSM has a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering. How far did he get designing this vacuum cleaner?

Goldman: It's not clear. I learned that the agency downloaded some schematics and plans and they gave them to KSM. I don't believe they actually allowed him to assemble anything and gave him parts, but I'm sure he probably did some scribbling.

Werman: Have any vacuum cleaner experts ever looked at the designs and critiqued them? Like how close might KSM be to being the next James Dyson?

Goldman: Well, that's a good question. I did call one major vacuum cleaner company and they were unaware that KSM had been working on a vacuum cleaner design and they said they needed to look into it. And then they got back to me and they asked that they didn't want to be mentioned in the story.

Werman: And did the CIA allow him to try to do anything else to keep him sane?

Goldman: Yeah, I mean he would hold lectures. KSM has a huge ego and he would like to lecture the CIA officers on his background, on al-Qaeda, on his past radicalization, his childhood, his family. Of course, he did this while chained to the floor and they would serve tea and cookies during these sessions. I think KSM wanted to prove to the people in the room that perhaps he might be smarter than them and, in fact, one time an agency officer came to KSM. He wanted to interrogate KSM and said, "I know everything about you." KSM leaned back and he said, "So why are you here?"

Werman: Wow. Adam, before I let you go, the Harry Potter business, that's kind of a sidebar, but you also learned about KSM's reading habits in detention when you broke the vacuum cleaner story. What's up with that?

Goldman: Well, apparently KSM and the other detainees in Romania, the five other detainees [??], enjoyed the Harry Potter series. Of course, the CIA didn't exactly, because they had to go through it page by page and make sure that KSM and the other detainees weren't passing
messages, and, in fact, they caught the detainees in Romania passing messages in a book, one of them not to talk about the courier who was working for bin Laden who ultimately led the CIA to the compound.

Werman: The dark arts meet the really dark arts.

Goldman: Yeah, the really dark arts. And the other [??] they did to keep these guys stimulated, it wasn't just KSM, they would literally give them homework. "You need to answer these questions about al-Qaeda", whatever it is the CIA needed to know or wanted to know. And they would be very diligent about doing it, particularly KSM, and they would reward them with candy bars. And I asked the person, "Candy bars? Well, really?" He said, "Yes, Snickers." I said, "Literally Snickers?" He said, "Yeah, Snickers."

Werman: Amazing. That was Adam Goldman of the Associated Press, author of an incredible story this week about the early detention of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and others by the CIA about a decade ago.