The Cobalt and the Salt Pit prisoner was used to teach enhanced torture techniques
A detainee at a secret CIA detention site in Afghanistan was used as a living prop to teach trainee interrogators, who lined up to take turns at knocking his head against a plywood wall, leaving him with brain damage, according to a US government report.
The details of the torture of Ammar al-Baluchi are in a 2008 report by the CIA’s inspector general, newly declassified as part of a court filing by his lawyers aimed at getting him an independent medical examination.
Baluchi, a 44-year-old Kuwaiti, is one of five defendants before a military tribunal on Guantánamo Bay charged with participation in the 9/11 plot, but the case has been in pre-trial hearings for 10 years, mired in a dispute over legal admissibility of testimony obtained after torture.
According to the inspector general’s report, the CIA was aware that the 2003 rendition of the detainee, Ammar al-Baluchi, from Pakistani custody to the “black site” north of Kabul was conducted “extra-legally,” because at the time he was in Pakistani jurisdiction and no longer represented a terrorist threat.
The report said that interrogators at the site, known both as Cobalt and the Salt Pit, went beyond the CIA’s guidelines in torturing Baluchi, using two techniques without approval: using a stick behind his knees in stress position that involved leaning back while kneeling, and dousing with ice-cold water.
The technique of “walling” was approved by the “enhanced interrogation technique” guidelines sent by CIA headquarters. It involved placing the detainee’s heels against a specially designed plywood wall “which had flexibility to it” and putting a rolled up towel around the detainee’s neck.
“The interrogators would then grab the ends of the towel in front of and below the detainees face and shove [Baluchi] backwards into the wall, never letting go of the towel,” the report said. One of the interrogators (identified only by a code) said the goal was to “bounce” the detainee off the wall. The report noted that Baluchi was “naked for the proceedings.”
There was no time limit for the “walling” sessions but “typically a session did not last for more than two hours at a time.” They went on for so long because Baluchi was being used as a teaching prop.
One former trainee told investigators “all the interrogation students lined up to ‘wall’ Ammar so that [the instructor] could certify them on their ability to use the technique.”
The report said that: “In the case of ‘walling’ in particular the [Office of the Inspector General] had difficulty determining whether the session was designed to elicit information from Ammar or to ensure that all interrogator trainees received their certification.”
The fact that interrogators lined up to “wall” Ammar suggested that “certification was key,” the report concluded.
A neuropsychologist carried out an MRI of Baluchi’s head in late 2018 and found “abnormalities indicating moderate to severe brain damage” in parts of his brain, affecting memory formation and retrieval as well as behavioral regulation. The specialist found that the “abnormalities observed were consistent with traumatic brain injury.”
The inspector general’s report also concluded that Baluchi’s treatment did not yield any useful intelligence. It noted that the interrogators at Cobalt “focused more on whether Ammar was ‘compliant’ than on the quality of the information he was providing.” It called the CIA’s logic in justifying the detention “fuzzy and circular.”
BY RICHARD A. SERRANO For LA Times
DEC. 9, 2014
Reporting from Washington —
The first detainee interrogated in the old abandoned brick factory north of Kabul became the model for what would later unfold in the cave-like halls of a CIA interrogation facility known as the “Salt Pit.”
Ridha Najjar, a suspected former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, often was left alone in the shadows under a barrage of shrieking music, cold, shackled and hooded, his dark figure handcuffed to an overhead bar for 22 hours a day, according to a report released Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Later, another detainee, Gul Rahman, believed to have served in a security detail for an Afghan warlord, would die in the Salt Pit.
He was dragged though the dirt and grime of the corridors, his mouth taped, his clothes falling off. His captors slammed and punched him, and left him chained to a concrete floor in a sweatshirt but no pants. Officials labeled the death hypothermia, though his face, legs, shoulders and waist were cut and bruised.
A few months later in March 2003, with the outside world still unaware of the secret facility, a lead CIA officer who ordered Rahman to be shackled naked in his cell was presented a $2,500 “cash award” for his “consistently superior work,” the report states.
For two years, about 64 detainees filled the darkened hallways and small side rooms of the factory. The CIA began using the facility in September 2002, a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
There, the Senate report concludes, a culture of brutal interrogation tactics and torture reigned, often led by untrained and unsupervised officers using methods that CIA leaders did not know about.
The Salt Pit, one supervisor is quoted in the report as saying, was “good for interrogations because it is the closest thing … to a dungeon.”
Republicans and officials from the George W. Bush administration strongly defend the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used at the Salt Pit and other facilities as having been necessary to prevent another terrorist attack. Accounts of torture have emerged from similar CIA-designated “black sites” abroad.
But the Salt Pit in Afghanistan stood out, the Senate report concludes, as the domain of rogue officers, many woefully unprepared for their assignments. They roamed the factory largely unchecked, with CIA headquarters officials either unconcerned or unwilling to peek behind the blacked-out windows.
The agency placed a junior officer “with no relevant experience in charge of Cobalt,” the report says, using the committee’s code name for the Salt Pit.
Even some interrogators at Salt Pit complained about what was occurring there, saying that their techniques were unsafe or ineffective. One complaint urged CIA leaders to revoke the classified clearance of an officer “due to a lack of honesty, judgment and maturity.”
Some senior leaders in the factory did not have the linguistic or analytical experience “to conduct effective questioning of CIA detainees.” The result was “diminished intelligence” gathering, the report says. Almost no records were kept of the detainees or the progress of interrogations in the first year.
Guards and interrogators tiptoed through the darkness, carrying headlamps to count detainees packed into two dozen cells. Their lights illuminated prisoners hanging from overhead bars, next to buckets on the floor to catch their waste. One hung there for 17 days.
Another detainee “looked like a dog that had been kenneled,” wrote an interrogator. “When the doors to their cells were opened, they cowered,” according to CIA documents quoted in the report.
Indeed, reports of sleep and sensory deprivation; of nudity and unhealthful, unsanitary food; of cold showers and ice buckets; and of rough takedowns and mock executions never were reported to supervisors.
Everything seemed shrouded, everything secret. Documentation was sketchy, meaning a full account of what happened at the Salt Pit may never be known.
According to official reports, no waterboarding took place. But the study refers to a CIA photograph depicting a “waterboard device” surrounded by buckets, with a bottle of unknown pink solution nearby, two-thirds full, and a watering can resting on wooden beams.
Few in the CIA leadership seemed to know much about the Salt Pit or what happened there. Then-CIA Director George Tenet told investigators from the inspector general’s office he was “not very familiar” with the Salt Pit or what the agency “is doing with medium-value targets.”
CIA General Counsel Scott Muller erroneously thought it was just a holding facility and said he had “no idea who is responsible” there, according to the report. Jose Rodriguez, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, was focused on “other higher priorities.”
That left the guards and the interrogators to run the place. Just a month after it was opened, they let in an inspection team from the federal Bureau of Prisons. The inspectors quickly gave their blessing, noting that they were “WOW’ed” by the factory “because there is nothing like this” in the bureau’s prison system in the U.S.
Najjar, who was captured in Pakistan, was designated a high-priority prisoner. There was no evidence he resisted, yet hoods, restraints and round-the-clock interrogations were approved for him. He was forbidden toilet privileges and instead given a diaper. Threats were made that his family would be killed, the report states.
CIA officers saw a “reasonable chance of breaking Najjar” to learn more about Bin Laden. According to the CIA, he “became the model” for future interrogations.
Within a month, Najjar was a “clearly a broken man … on the verge of complete breakdown,” according to CIA documents quoted in the report. Whether he ever cooperated is unclear. He reportedly is now held at the U.S. airfield at Bagram, Afghanistan. He would be in his late 40s.
Despite its stated interest in Najjar, the CIA in the end sent only one intelligence report discussing his incarceration and interrogations.
Rahman, who died two months after the Salt Pit opened, was described in CIA documents as an “Islamic extremist.” The initial cable to Washington regarding Rahman’s death “included a number of misstatements and omissions” by Salt Pit officials, the report states.
On the last night of his life, Rahman was dragged down the corridors by five CIA officers, who shackled him to the wall and floor.
“He had been judged to be uncooperative during an earlier interrogation,” the report states. At dawn, his broken corpse was no longer of any use to U.S. officials hoping to gather intelligence.