Did the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) approve and possibly help design Afghanistan’s notorious “Salt Pit,” which was used by U.S. intelligence operatives to detain and torture suspected terrorists?
A small section of a 500-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s “detention and interrogation program” — a declassified version of which was released in December — prodded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the BOP for more information about its role in the war on terror.
The request, filed January 13, is still winding its way through the federal bureaucracy.
Carl Takei, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, spotted a paragraph in a subsection of the Senate report describing a visit by BOP officials in November 2002 to the COBALT Detention Center, known as the “Salt Pit,” in Afghanistan. The section noted that federal corrections “personnel” had been invited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to assess conditions at the detention center.
One key question posed by the ACLU’s FOIA request is whether the federal prison agency, whose functions include the design and construction of prisons around the U.S., actually helped design the secret overseas facility.
No details about the number of prison officials or their positions were provided, but the report contains a graphic description of what the visitors saw,
They were taken to areas where detainees were shackled to the walls and stripped naked. The cells holding detainees were kept in total darkness, and there was no interaction between the correction guards and inmates. The inmates were given buckets in which to dispose their own waste.
Despite the conditions outlined in the report, the BOP team appeared to have been impressed with the facility. The report quoted bureau officials as telling CIA officers after the inspection that they were “WOW’ed” and had “never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived.”
The heavily redacted account, described on page 60 of the report, went on to quote the BOP officials as saying, “There is nothing like this in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (but they) explained that they understood the mission and it was their collective assessment that in spite of all this sensory deprivation, the detainees were not being treated inhumanely.”
“COBALT included the use of interrupted sleep, loud music, and reduction in food quality and quantity. Less than a month after the death of (detainee) Gul Rahman from suspected hypothermia, the plans also called for detainees’ clothes to be removed in a facility that was described to be 45 degrees Fahrenheit,” the report said.
The only other reference to the BOP appears earlier in the Senate report, detailing discussions between CIA and federal prison officials shortly after the 9/11 attacks about the construction and administration of new detention facilities for presumed terrorists. Acknowledging the agency’s “lack of experience in manning detention facilities,” the agency said it “would consider acquiring cleared personnel from the Department of Defense or the Bureau of Prisons with specialized expertise to assist the CIA in operating the facilities.”
In an interview with The Crime Report, Takei said he wants to know what officials of the BOP were doing at COBALT in the first place, considering that the agency’s primary mandate is overseeing the U.S. federal prison system, which currently houses over 210,00 prisoners in government and private facilities.
But what concerns him even more is whether the agency’s apparent willingness to close its eyes to conditions abroad suggested lax standards for its own domestic facilities.
“That is so difficult to reconcile … that conclusion that it is not inhumane or even that it is sanitary,” said Takei, whose organization has been working on correction reform issues since 1972.
“The idea that a prison can be sanitary while providing only buckets for human waste is hard to imagine.”
The brief information gleaned from the CIA report not only raises questions about the extent of BOP’s involvement with secret detention facilities—an involvement which has received scant public attention—but sheds a disturbing light on the agency’s approach to solitary confinement at home, said Takei.
Concerns Over Solitary
Human rights activists have been concerned for some time about the BOP’s use of solitary confinement. The BOP currently operates one ADX prison, near Florence, Colo., which houses solitary cells. In September 2016, the bureau is opening a new prison, ADX Thompson, in Northwestern, Illinois, which will be a 1,600-cell Supermax prison devoted entirely to solitary confinement.
The new facility comes as the federal prison system is drastically expanding its use of solitary confinement. The total federal inmate population housed in solitary increased by approximately 17 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to a May 2013 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
By comparison, the overall federal inmate population grew by just six percent during that period.
An internal audit of the use of solitary in federal facilities is expected to be released later this year, Takei said.
Solitary confinement has become an increasingly touchy subject for the BOP, according to Todd Bussert, a Connecticut-based attorney who has spent his entire career litigating the Bureau of Prisons, and is widely considered an expert on the institution.
“There’s been a growing scrutiny of solitary confinement.” Bussert said. “And the BOP is becoming more sensitive to negative public opinion.”
There is not much publicly available about BOP’s relationship with the COBALT detention center beyond the CIA report, or for that matter about the BOP’s relationship with institutions outside of the United States.
There is some indication that the COBALT visit was not the first or last time BOP officials were sent overseas. In November 2010, the website WikiLeaks published more than 250,000 leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden.
Among those was a report filed by the Narcotics Affairs Section at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, which describes consultations between Colombian officials and BOP officials about “electrical, electronic, security, and architectural aspects of new prison designs.”
Repeated queries by The Crime Report to the federal Bureau of Prisons were not returned.
The bureau responded to the ACLU’s information request on January 15 with a letter informing them more time was required to coordinate with different agencies and comb through the voluminous amount of expected material.
And the BOP, apparently, has to clear its response with the CIA.
The letter cited, “the need for consultation … with another agency having a substantial interest in the determination of the request.”
Cara Tabachnick and Graham Kates are, respectively, managing editor and deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. They can be found on Twitter at @CaraOnCrime and @GrahamKates. They welcome comments from readers.