Khalid Sheik Mohammed's Top-Secret Vacuum Design

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
July 11 2013 1:32 PM

The CIA Let 9/11 Mastermind KSM Design a Top-Secret Vacuum in a Bid to Keep Him Sane

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In this courtroom drawing reviewed and approved for release by a US military security official, Khalid Sheik Mohammed consults defense attorney civilian David Nevin during a break at Mohammed's military commission hearing on May 5, 2012 at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Photo by Janet Hamlin/AFP/GettyImages

The Associated Press brings us the previously untold story of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed's top-secret vacuum design:

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

Confined to the basement of a CIA secret prison in Romania about a decade ago, Khalid Sheik Mohammed ... asked his jailers whether he could embark on an unusual project: Would the spy agency allow Mohammed ... to design a vacuum cleaner?
The agency officer in charge of the prison called CIA headquarters and a manager approved the request, a former senior CIA official told The Associated Press. ... So, using schematics from the Internet as his guide, Mohammed began re-engineering one of the most mundane of household appliances.
It remains a mystery how far Mohammed got with his designs or whether the plans still exist. The secret CIA prison in Romania was shuttered in early 2006 and Mohammed was transferred later that year to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he remains inside a secret prison. It's unlikely he was able to take his appliance plans to Cuba.
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By the time KSM was asking permission for his new and rather unique hobby, he'd already been subjected to harsh enhanced interrogations (some might say torture), including being kept awake for 180 hours and being subjected to waterboarding 183 times, according to a CIA's inspector general's report. With an indefinite amount of time in U.S. custody in front of him, government officials were eager to find ways to keep him sane in case he could one day prove useful to future counter-terrorism efforts . And so his unusual request, as crazy as it might have sounded, was granted—even if, in the words of the AP, he may have had unknown "ulterior motives." (Regardless, he had earned a mechanical engineering degree from North Carolina A&T State University back in 1986, so the idea that he might want to tinker to fill his hours behind bars doesn't seem absurd.)

Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, the CIA is refusing to talk on the record about KSM's vacuum plans ("should they exist"), and KSM's lawyers say they're not allowed to. "It sounds ridiculous, but answering this question, or confirming or denying the very existence of a vacuum cleaner design, a Swiffer design, or even a design for a better hand towel would apparently expose the U.S. government and its citizens to exceptionally grave danger," Mohammed's military lawyer, Army Capt. Jason Wright, told the AP.

You can read more about KSM's time in U.S. custody—including his "office hours" and apparent love of Harry Potterhere. (h/t Gizmodo)

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