Unsealed CIA Memos Provide Shocking 'Salt Pit' Black Site Details
A new batch of 274 CIA documents connected with Bush era torture have just been made public as a result of a lawsuit brought by families of victims. Contained in the documents are newly unearthed details on the CIA’s “black site” program which reached its peak under Bush’s ‘war on terror’ as well as shocking details revealing how the agency integrated its contract psychologists into its ‘enhanced interrogation’ program in order to give torture a veneer of legality. While much of this story of CIA torture has already slowly come to light over the past few years, especially with the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report, the just released documents capture internal high level agency discussions revealing a cover-up in action.
Many of the memos focus on the CIA’s infamous ‘Cobalt’ site in Afghanistan (also code named The Salt Pit), routinely described in headlines as the “sadistic dungeon” and “dark prison” for its full sensory deprivation darkness which detainees experienced round the clock, sometimes for years, as well as the two psychologists credited with designing the program of brutal interrogation techniques: John “Bruce” Jessen and James Mitchell.
Two surviving prisoners and the family of a detainee who died at the Colbalt site reached an out-of-court settlement with the CIA psychologists in August after a lawsuit was brought for their role in the torture. As was hoped, the CIA and Pentagon were forced to declassify the documents related to the case in pretrial discovery.
Satellite image of Cobalt site, also called the Salt Pitt, from now public documents.
The documents show the psychologists had been directly involved in designing and implementing torture, and that the blurring of lines between CIA interrogators and the psychologists originally brought in for “research” and development of techniques had agency leadership worried over future legal ramifications. Jessen himself had spent 10 days at the Cobalt facility in November 2002 where he was involved in interrogating Gul Rahman – a suspected militant who died of hypothermia while chained naked from the waist down to a concrete floor. He died 5 days after Jessen left.
Ironically, a key fact rarely highlighted is that Gul Rahman was captured among Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami faction, which itself had previously been funded and vastly expanded by the CIA as part of Operation Cyclone. By 2010 terror leader Hekmatyar himself would enter negotiations with then President Karzai, and by 2017 would be fully reconciled with the US-backed government in Kabul.
- November 2002: Rahman wearing only socks and diaper; supervisor has concern regarding hypothermia
- Rahman subjected to 48 hours of sleep deprivation, rough treatment, cold shower and other measures but remained noncompliant.
- Subjected to cold conditions and minimum food and sleep… confused due to dehydration and fatigue.
- Cable recommends future use of continued environmental deprivations with interrogations 18 out of 24 hours daily
- Linguist asks questions about the temperature at which hypothermia occurs
- November 19 2200 hrs guard check – Rahman is alive.
- 2300 hrs guard check – Rahman is alive.
- November 20 0400 hrs guard check – Rahman is alive.
- 0800 hrs guard check – Rahman is alive.
- 1000 hrs guard check – Rahman is dead.
The Guardian further describes the now declassified documents as providing “the fullest picture yet of what the three men suffered [associated with the lawsuit] in that secret CIA dungeon – and of how fatefully their lives intersected with the rise and fall of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the men who designed the torture regime.”
Highlighted below are some revealing sections from the newly released batch of CIA torture memos – some of the below were already available before the latest release:
CIA contracted psychologists created an “Exploitation Draft Plan” which involved holding captives in soundproof cells in hidden facilities that were beyond the reach of the Red Cross, the press, and even internal US government oversight. The plan notes: No International Red Cross [IRC] nor even US observers. Detainees were essentially “disappeared” individuals and not even family members knowing their fates. Rahman’s family didn’t know of his whereabouts or death for seven years until an AP report unearthed his name. As noted in the below memo, Pentagon involvement ended with capture and transfer as a DoD psychologist accompanied the captive “unbeknown to the subject” after which the CIA psychologists would be involved in interrogation.
Particularly intense “interrogation” sessions involved medical personnel attending to detainee wounds, and even applying antibiotics, so that torture could continue: “The straps were removed: subjects breathing continued to be rapid. Subject was then instructed to off the [water] board under his own power, which he did. The interrogators pointed to the small box and said, ‘you know what to do.’… At 1130 hours, taken out of small box, hooded, and made to stand against a cell wall: at 1230 hrs, back into the large box (unhooded)–note that medical officers dressed as security team member at this time gave subject Betadine to clean wound. Subject was also given a topical antibiotic to apply to the leg wound… At 1450 hrs, back to large box. At 1601 hrs into small box: 1612 hrs, subject was heard crying/wimpering/chanting, 1635 went from small box to floor, sitting down hooded; and 1655 hrs, returned to large box, unhooded…”
CIA leadership envisioned that psychologists Jessen and Mitchel would provide a legally “defensible” veneer to torture sessions (after being paid $81 million). So long as their personal assessments vouched for detainees being of mentally sound mind, “enhanced interrogations” could be initiated. “In my read of the DOJ memo, providing we abide by our water board process on [redacted] (qualified medical staff present, the defensible exam is done and we follow our procedures) I believe the water board can be approved by CTC/LGL [CIA’s internal legal review team] without the need for further input from DOJ.” Jessen and Mitchel were paid $81 million by the CIA in the process.
CIA leadership suggested psych evals be done from afar based on mere review of a file in order to set up a minimally invasive rubber stamp process. “to get waterboard approvals, we need a psychological evaluation… [Name redacted] indicated that we need to make a ‘defensible’ psychological analysis indicating that, given the individual’s particular mental disposition, he would not suffer prolonged and sever psychological problems resulting from the enhanced interrogation techniques… can OTS make a defensible analysis based on a file review on the targets? Or do they need to have a psych eval done on the ground, face-to-face? [Name redacted] indicates that all it must [be] is ‘defensible.'”
Doctors and nurses were requested to be present during sessions. One email with the subject line “Medical coverage planning” asked “There would be nurses on site correct?” This was presumably to allow torture to continue after detainees were injured, wounded, or sick – while also preventing those running the program from being legally exposed to prosecution.
Internal admissions of “blatant disregard for ethics”: CIA contracted psychologists’ ethics were questioned even by colleagues. They “have both shown blatant disregard for the ethics shared by almost all of their colleagues.” Other emails admitted: “No professional in the field would credit their later judgments as psychologists assessing the subjects of their enhanced measures.” And also, “if some untoward outcome is later to be explained, their sole use in this role will be indefensible.”