Inside the CIA’s Penal Colonies

Declassified CIA documents reveal a deadly security state operating far outside the bounds of democratic control.

Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Billings

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.

Reading Kafka in Kabul, 2004

Khaled el-Masri was also held in the Salt Pit, but he didn’t die there. Some of the basic facts of his surreal ordeal have been public knowledge since January 2005, when Don Van Natta Jr and Souad Mekhennet first reported his detention in the New York Times. But at the time, Masri’s claims were unsubstantiated: the CIA refused to comment.

The newly declassified documents corroborate Masri’s nightmare, revealing the depths of the event’s absurdity, the lengths to which the CIA went to conceal its own incompetence, and the agency’s profound and prolonged human disregard.

Masri apparently once described his ordeal as something out of “a Kafka novel,” and indeed the documents confirm this perception. His trials, however, were far from exceptional. Taken together, the fifty documents read like a poorly edited volume of Kafka parables: nameless agents operate in small, spartan chambers inside unspecified prisons; they, and their prisoners, wait for clearance from nameless bureaucrats from headquarters.

Mostly, the characters are interchangeable: “the agent” in one document faces the same dilemma another faceless agent does in another; their captives likewise often blur together. Identifiable characters appear only by bureaucratic function, even though different people fill the same role at different times: sometimes the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) is Hayden, sometimes George Tenet, sometimes Porter Goss.

It doesn’t seem to matter much inside the penal colonies. And like in Kafka’s greatest works, time wastes away, years pass, little progress is made, and no satisfying conclusion is offered.

The CIA took Masri into custody in January 2004. A month later, on-site agents concluded that it had been a mistake to kidnap him, after someone finally realized his German passport was authentic. Yet the CIA held him for more than three months after agents concluded that there was “no justification for his detention”: an understated way of admitting that they got the wrong man.

Masri remained in the Salt Pit as headquarters debated “the exit strategy.” “[S]enior CIA officials and managers” including the DCI (at that point, Tenet) held out hope that Masri could be returned to his home country (Germany) without the German government finding out about his false detention.

While Tenet twiddled his thumbs, Masri wasted away in his cell, “desperate and depressed and prone to thoughts of suicide.” A psychologist described him as “visibly trembling from the anger he is currently experiencing,” “openly tearful and speechless.” Between the time the CIA realized his innocence and finally released him, he conducted “at least one hunger strike” and lost fifty pounds.

Masri claims he was “shackled, beaten, injected with drugs, and sodomized,” and that his captors had broken his hunger strike by force-feeding him. The agency’s inquiry found no evidence of “physical abuse or trauma.”

The agency concluded that “the experience that gave rise to al-Masri’s allegation he was sodomized was, in fact, a routine rectal examination,” and that he had chosen to end his hunger strike of his own volition, “when faced with the possibility of being force-fed.” Someone, whose name is redacted, “concluded that al-Masri’s hunger strike was a ploy to gain attention.”

Ultimately it took even longer to release Masri than it did to determine that he was who he said he was. Not until mid-May — more than three months after agents requested “Headquarters concurrence to release al-Masri” — did Tenet even tell Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice about Masri.

Armitage and Rice “indicated” that Tenet should get Masri home “quickly” and made clear that, yes, the Germans would be told what the agency had done. Someone suggested giving Masri €40,000 plus travel expenses. Instead, according the CIA’s report, Masri received €14,500, for which the agency had him sign a receipt.

Masri said the agency dumped him on the side of an Albanian road in the middle of night. “This was,” the CIA’s report of investigation notes, “five months after he had been detained.”

Waterboard Power

Rahman’s death and Masri’s mistaken rendition are only two of many incidents of mistreatment and cruelty acknowledged in these records. But an equally morally deflating aspect of the documents is that nowhere in over eight hundred pages does anyone (at least on my reading) ever define torture.

The closest is the occasional acknowledgment that something “could be a violation of Title 18 U.S.C. §2340A Torture.” These concerns uniformly arise when a field agent has improvised. What matters is not the harm or pain inflicted, but who chose it and whether formal channels pre-evaluated it. In these scenarios, the national security state’s legal wing’s true role becomes apparent: its lawyers launder torture, scrub it of its brutality, and iron it into standard operating procedure.

In the documents, officials describe this as constructing a “safe harbor.” A 2003 White House meeting included discussion of a Department of Justice memo that establishes “a legal ‘safe harbor’ (a statement that the conduct described within is lawful, so that no prosecution would be mounted as a result of any such conduct.)”

The general logic of safe harbors can be fathomed from an incident that played out without the comfort they provide — the interrogation of Khalid al-Sharif, also known as Abu Hazim, at a black site in 2003. An interpreter told the CIA’s internal investigators that he witnessed an interrogator employ what we have learned — following CIA parlance — to call “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

The pages documenting Sharif’s treatment and the security state’s evaluation of it demonstrate how much bureaucratic time and energy went into parsing these techniques and their legality, relative to what was put into any un-“enhanced” effort to gather intelligence by interrogation.

The phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” has become so thoroughly a part of the vernacular that it is startling to consider it was not publicly known or used when Sharif was imprisoned: it didn’t enter our lexicon until 2004, the following year. Before then, the phrase appeared only in the classified chatter running through the national security state’s inner workings. Some of the earliest uses of the term appear in these now-available documents, along with its acronym, “EITs.”

Sharif endured one infamous EIT: “water dousing,” though with a cloth on his face. Water poured on a detainee’s cloth-covered face usually goes by another name: waterboarding. But, the CIA has asserted that it waterboarded only three detainees.

So note the careful language in the account of Sharif’s interrogation: here the CIA claims only to have employed “water dousing,” not waterboarding. Yet the interrogator had used cloth, had poured cold water “directly onto [Sharif’s] face to disrupt his breathing,” and his face had “turned blue.”

The report concludes that though “Headquarters personnel” had approved “the use of water dousing,” it had not endorsed the use of cloth over the mouth — indeed, the report goes so far as to suggest that, properly understood, “the water dousing technique” does not involve using a cloth, and “pouring water on the face was not allowed.”

Why, then, doesn’t what happened to Sharif count as waterboarding? Perhaps because Sharif was not pressed down onto a board? One previously top-secret memo argues:

If one is held down on his back, on the table or on the floor, with water poured in his face I think it goes beyond dousing and the effect, to the recipient, could be indistinguishable from the water board.

“Beyond dousing.” “Indistinguishable from the water board.” The memo adds that this “is just too close to the water board, and if it is continued may lead to problems for us.” The memo recommends water dousing “in a standing position only.”

If this is the distinction that makes the treatment of Sharif “water dousing” rather than “waterboarding” — it’s unclear what position he was in — that would make his “dousing” less severe than waterboarding. But the investigation into Sharif’s treatment concludes, “if water dousing was applied as described it could be a violation of Title 18.” Why would this be the case unless waterboarding were, indeed, torture?

Waterboarding’s contaminating effect on the entire program is difficult to overstate. In the final days of the Bush years, Dick Cheney once argued by analogy, in an interview on Fox News, that because the president could unleash nuclear war, he was empowered to unleash any lesser violence, any action within the outer limit of nuclear war. This was the “bomb power” justification for the imperial presidency.

In the CIA interrogation program, waterboarding offered a similar license. If the agency authorized waterboarding as an approved EIT, whatever seems less vicious is permissible as well. One debriefer rationalized using a handgun and a power drill during his interrogation, saying that he believed the props “were less fear provoking than EITs, in particular the waterboard.” He explained that he thought using them “for psychological effect” fell below “the EIT threshold.”

This is waterboard power. Military strategists recognized that the United States used the atomic bomb every day of the Cold War simply by enjoying nuclear strike capability. Likewise, waterboarding’s effect during the global “war on terror” cannot be calculated simply by counting the number of people waterboarded, nor how many times they endured it. The fact of waterboarding’s authorization weighed on every day of the interrogation program’s existence.

Underground Leviathan

Finally, these documents reveal that any accounting the CIA has given of the program should be understood as provisional. More effectively than any written words likely could, the acres of blank white redaction boxes that sprawl across the documents make evident the immensity of the underground complex of deep-state black sites tunneled through the world, hidden from view.

Consider a section of the previously classified 2006 internal audit titled, “CIA-controlled Detention Facilities That Were in Use at the Time of the Audit.” Fourteen pages of white emptiness follow. How many secret prisons did the CIA run?

Another section follows, “Detention Facilities That Were Not in Use or Were Under Construction at the Time of the Audit.” Five white pages. Exactly how many people did the CIA detain? How many more were the agency planning on rendering, that it needed five pages to list compounds either not in use or under construction — when already the agency was running fourteen pages worth of active prisons?

The national security state’s scale remains unknown, but reading these documents outlines a subterranean leviathan. We still lack the political language to even describe it in its entirety, let alone hold it (or anyone) accountable.

This shadow state does not exactly engage in lawless or criminal behavior; such concepts fail in any effective way to describe or check its actions. To read these fifty formerly top-secret and still heavily redacted documents is to reach down into the depths and grope in the dark, occasionally feeling the texture and shape of some salient facet jutting out from the void and occasionally feeling the leviathan’s bite.

Not only is the national security state vast, arcane, and largely ungoverned, it is also — and predictably — vicious. Even a benign covert apparatus of this magnitude should concern any free people professing self-government. But the deep state displays all the traits of an arbitrary despot, most of all its facility for torturing its subjects in chambers hidden far away from the public eye.