ACLU Sues for Bureau of Prisons Documents on Approval of CIA Torture Site

Posted April 20, 2016

MP3 Interview with Carl Takei, staff attorney with the ACLU, conducted by Scott Harris


Since the public first learned about the Bush administration's approval of torture techniques used by the CIA and military personnel against suspected terrorists held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay Naval base in Cuba and other covert sites around the world, there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to hold government officials accountable for their violation of international and U.S. law.

On April 14, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons for their refusal to turn over requested documents under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents sought by the civil liberties group relates to a 2002 visit by Bureau of Prisons officials to a CIA secret detention site in Afghanistan, code-named "Cobalt," also known as the "Salt Pit," where the bureau's staff reportedly gave a positive assessment of the conditions there, and offered training to the site's administrators. This, despite documented evidence in the Senate Intelligence Committee's torture report that detainees held at this site were subjected to torture, solitary confinement and sensory deprivation conditions, which led to at least one known death of a prisoner held there.

Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Carl Takei, staff attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project who talks about why his group launched the lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons – and the larger issue of U.S. personnel and their superiors not being held accountable for their violation of international treaties and U.S. laws that prohibit the torture of prisoners.

CARL TAKEI: So the first revelations about the Federal Bureau of Prisons being involved in the CIA torture sites came out when the executive summary of the Senate Torture Report was released in December 2014. We went through and realized, "Wait a minute. What is the Federal Bureau of Prisons doing at a CIA torture site?" This is an agency that is responsible for running the federal prison system. They provide technical assistance to state prison officials around the country and it was surprising to see them involved in visiting these black sites run by the CIA.

What was especially surprising, though, was that the report indicated that they went to a particular torture site in Afghanistan that's code-named "Cobalt" in the report. Many people know it as "The Salt Pit." And they looked at the conditions where people locked up indefinitely in solitary confinement in total darkness, shackled wall with only a bucket to use as a toilet and said, "We think this is not inhumane," and gave it a thumbs up, and allowed the CIA to continue doing what it was doing.

And that's profoundly disturbing for a number of reasons. So we filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all of the documents regarding the bureau's visit to the CIA black site and all of the advice to the CIA afterwards afterwards, and they stonewalled us. They said, "We have no responsive documents." We did an administrative appeal and they responded the same way, and that's why we're now filing this lawsuit.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Carl, from the Senate Torture Report, what else do we know about this particular detention center that the CIA was running? I know that the torture report cited some instances where detainees lost their lives, who were severely injured in the abuse of prisoners there by U.S. personnel. What do we know about this particular site, as you said, code-named Cobalt or The Salt Pit?

CARL TAKEI: Actually, on the very day that the Bureau of Prisons sent its inspection team to The Salt Pit, a detainee named Gul Rahman died. One of the interrogators had ordered he be stripped of all of his clothing, except for a sweatshirt. So he was mostly naked on the floor of his cell, chained to the wall in darkness in temperatures cold enough that overnight he died of suspected hypothermia. If you can just imagine the setting. Some CIA officials called this place a dungeon. Another CIA official said that the baseline conditions of confinement were so extreme that itself operated as an "enhanced interrogation technique."

BETWEEN THE LINES: Carl maybe you can discuss for us the larger issues of accountability here for torture undertaken by U.S. personnel in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks under the Bush administration. We know that higher-ups in the White House approved these torture techniques. They called it by a euphemism, "enhanced interrogation" I think was the term they used. How does this case figure in, from your point of view, with the utter lack of accountability for military and political leaders during those years when torture was officially sanctioned by the White House?

CARL TAKEI: Well, it's part of a larger pattern of impunity for the officials who approved torture by the CIA. But I think another aspect of this is it shows how the culture of torture crossed over back and forth between the domestic prison system and all of these torture sites abroad. One of the things that many people don't realize is that, for example, Charles Graner Jr., who was the ringleader of the Abu Ghraib in Iraq, worked as a prison guard in Pennsylvania before he was in the Army Reserves. And the prison where he worked was filled with accusations that guards there engaged in brutal abuse, beating prisoners, spitting in their food, using racial epithets, and in one case, beating a prisoner and using his blood to write the words, KKK. That is the environment that Graner came out of and then brought to Iraq.

So, all of this is connected. The toleration of abuse and torture in domestic prisons helps normalize it in all of the torture that the CIA engaged in abroad. The accountability is lacking and it's something that remains important to address now. In the future, at some point, we need to reckon with this history of torture because otherwise there is no way to stop it in the future.

Learn more about the ACLU's National Prison Project at

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