Inside the CIA’s Penal Colonies

In June 2006, President George W. Bush told Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Michael Hayden that he was worried. The subject of Bush’s concern was a picture of a CIA detainee chained to the ceiling, clothed in a diaper. This came almost five years into the agency’s detention and interrogation program, four years since it began waterboarding prisoners, three years after the revelations of Abu Ghraib, two years after a top-secret report had condemned the agency’s “inhumane and undocumented techniques,” and a year after the Washington Post reported the existence of the CIA’s “covert prison system” — but now President Bush was concerned.

The public knows this because the CIA recently released fifty previously classified documents — 821 pages in all. Among them is a two-page memorandum from June 7, 2006, consisting of nothing but redactions, save one sentence in which Hayden passed along the president’s concern.

Three months later, Bush gave a major speech in which he admitted to the existence of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, run through an archipelago of gulag-like secret prisons strung around the world. After the speech the program began to slowly wind down: once its existence was officially acknowledged, it could no longer function.

The fifty newly released documents ought to be read in full. They are in turns fascinating, infuriating, baffling, illuminating, and elliptical. They describe the day-to-day banality and terror inside the CIA’s black sites during those first five years — from their authorization less than one week after 9/11 to Bush’s public acknowledgment in September 2006.

The documents report field agents’ protests against the violence and the cruelty hidden behind euphemisms like “detention” and “interrogation”; they lay out the bureaucratic logic and headquarter cowardice prevalent inside the national security state; and they tell us, in their own way, that there is much more that remains unknown.

A Dark, Cold Day
Consider what we know about the plights of Gul Rahman and Khaled el-Masri, two CIA detainees whose ordeals can finally be reconstructed.

The report on the CIA’s internal investigation into the death of Gul Rahman makes for some of the grimmest reading in the collection. The contours of Rahman’s demise could have been pieced together from accounts already in the public record, but the report’s rendering of his final days captures the realities of detainee life like nothing else.

The report redacts the prison’s location, but this owes more to the agency’s stubbornness than its secrecy: we already know that Rahman died at a CIA compound near Kabul, Afghanistan known as the Salt Pit. “The facility is hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” states the report. It was the winter cold that killed Rahman.

In October 2002, the CIA captured Rahman in Islamabad. By November, he was on site, and the CIA was attempting to break him with “48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower, and rough treatment.”

In his first two days, his captors repeatedly pushed and shoved him while he was hooded; one person later described witnessing “a rough takedown,” which CIA officers had “thoroughly planned and rehearsed.” Later, when Rahman’s corpse was inspected, he had “surface abrasions” all over: “on his shoulders, pelvis, arms, legs, and face.” But all superficial, no severe wounds: an expert working-over.

While alive, Rahman refused to cooperate, even denying his identity. His obstinacy impressed his interrogators so much that they concluded that he had clearly received “a sophisticated level of resistance training.” They cited other evidence too: the fact that Rahman “claimed inability to think due to conditions” — in particular, the cold — and that he “[c]omplained about poor treatment” and “about the violation of his human rights.”

Although it was already cold outside and the prison had no central heating or insulation, his captors gave him a cold shower. Actually, according to one person interviewed, it was because it was cold that Rahman “was deliberately given a cold shower as a deprivation technique.” One witness remembered how Rahman began to show signs of hypothermia. Guards gave him a blanket, then later took it away.

In his cell, Rahman was kept “nude, with the exception of a diaper for most of his incarceration.” At some point, he was given a sweatshirt, and his diaper was taken off. (The report notes, “There is uncertainty as to when Rahman’s diaper had been removed.”) At the end of his life, he was restrained in a sitting position on a bare concrete floor, wearing nothing but a sweatshirt and shackled so that he could not stand up.

On his final day alive, at 4 AM, guards found him “sitting in his cell, alive, and shaking.” They continued their rounds. At 8 AM, guards again found him “alive, sitting on the floor, and shaking.” They continued their rounds. One guard later explained that nothing seemed amiss, “because all of the prisoners shake.”

Two hours later, Rahman was dead. Seeing that he had stopped shaking, guards entered his cell and examined him, finding blood in his nose and mouth.

They performed CPR. Blood flowed from his mouth and mucous from his nose after each chest compression. A doctor found “no evidence that the prisoner had been abused and no evidence of a cause of death.” An autopsy ruled the cause of death “undetermined,” though someone noted that “it was his clinical impression that Rahman died of hypothermia.”

During his last night, the temperature had been below freezing; Rahman was dehydrated; he died chained to a concrete floor, half naked, unable to move around to warm himself.

In the CIA’s report, the only individual found responsible is Gul Rahman himself: he had thrown his last meal — a plate of rice — across the floor, thus depriving his body of a “source of fuel to keep him warm.” Further, it had, after all, been Rahman’s violent behavior that “resulted in his restraint,” which “brought him” into sustained contact with the cold floor. With that, the report ends...


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