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Death shed light on CIA ‘Salt Pit’ near Kabul

In 2002, a suspected Afghan militant was brought to a dimly lit CIA compound northeast of the airport in Kabul. The CIA called it the Salt Pit. Inmates knew it as the dark prison.
Ghairat Baheer
Ghairat Baheer, seen here in 2008, has said he was jailed at the CIA's 'Salt Pit' along with Gul Rahman, a terror suspect who later died there. Baheer, a physician, is a son-in-law of anti-U.S. Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.Mohammad Sajjad / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

More than seven years ago, a suspected Afghan militant was brought to a dimly lit CIA compound northeast of the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. The CIA called it the Salt Pit. Inmates knew it as the dark prison.

Inside a chilly cell, the man was shackled and left half-naked. He was found dead, exposed to the cold, in the early hours of Nov. 20, 2002.

The Salt Pit death was the only fatality known to have occurred inside the secret prison network the CIA operated abroad after the Sept. 11 attacks. The death had strong repercussions inside the CIA. It helped lead to a review that uncovered abuses in detention and interrogation procedures, and forced the agency to change those procedures.

The CIA's program of waterboarding and other harsh treatment of suspected terrorists has been debated since it ended in 2006. The Salt Pit case stands as a cautionary tale about the unfettered use of such practices. The Obama administration shut the CIA's prisons last year.

Little has emerged about the Afghan's death, which the Justice Department is investigating. The Associated Press has learned the dead man's name, as well as new details about his capture in Pakistan and his Afghan imprisonment.

The man was Gul Rahman, a suspected militant captured on Oct. 29, 2002, a U.S. official familiar with the case confirmed. The official said Rahman was taken during an operation against Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, an insurgent group headed by Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and allied with al-Qaida.

A reference to Rahman's death also turned up in a recently declassified government document.

This account of the case was assembled from documents and interviews with both militants and officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and with more than two dozen current and former U.S. officials. The Americans spoke on condition of anonymity because the details of the case remain classified.

Doctor arrested as well
Rahman was arrested with Dr. Ghairat Baheer, a physician who is Hekmatyar's son-in-law and a leader of Hezb-e-Islami, an insurgent faction blamed for numerous bombings and violence in Afghanistan.

Baheer, who said he spent six months in the Salt Pit during six years in Afghan prisons, said in an interview in Islamabad that he never learned what happened to Rahman. Rahman's family repeatedly pressed International Red Cross officials about his fate, Baheer said.

"If he died there in interrogation or he died a natural death they should have told his family and ended their uncertainty," Baheer said.

Rahman had driven from Peshawar, Pakistan, in the northwest frontier to Islamabad for a medical checkup. He was staying with Baheer, an old friend, when U.S. agents and Pakistani security forces stormed the house and took both men, two guards and a cook into custody.

After a week, Rahman was separated from the others. "That was the last time I saw him," said Baheer, now a member of a Hezb-e-Islami delegation that met this month in Kabul, the Afghan capital, for peace talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Baheer said he was flown to Afghanistan and taken to the Salt Pit, the code name for the abandoned brick factory turned CIA prison. In small, windowless cells, detainees were subjected to harsh treatment and at least one mock execution, according to several former CIA officials.

"I was left naked, sleeping on the barren concrete," said Baheer. His toilet was a bucket. Loudspeakers blared. Guards concealed their identity with masks and carried torches.

Baheer said his American interrogators would tie him to a chair and sit on his stomach. They hung him naked, he said, for hours on end.

Rahman was violently uncooperative in custody, current and former U.S. officials said.

At one point, he threw a latrine bucket at his guards. He also threatened to kill them. His stubborn responses provoked harsher treatment. His hands were shackled over his head, he was roughed up and doused with water, according to several former CIA officials.

The exact circumstances of Rahman's death are not clear, but the Afghan was left in the cold cell on the morning of Nov. 20. He was naked from the waist down, said two former U.S. officials. Within hours, he was dead.

CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., sent a team to gather the facts, the current U.S. official said.

A CIA medic at the site concluded the Afghan died of hypothermia. A doctor sent later confirmed that judgment. But the detainee's body was never returned to his family, and Baheer said his friend's relatives still don't know what happened.

"The Americans have had enough time," said Baheer. "After nearly eight years, enough is enough."

At CIA headquarters, the agency's inspector general, John Helgerson, learned about the Salt Pit death and the existence of the agency's secret interrogation program. Helgerson began an investigation into the death as well as a special review of the program.

The case appeared to prod the CIA to codify its interrogations. The same month that the detainee died, the CIA's Counterterrorism Center started training courses for interrogators, according to public documents.

The following year, the CIA issued guidelines covering the use of cold in interrogations, with detailed instructions for the "safe temperature range when a detainee is wet or unclothed."

But harsh interrogation techniques continued until 2006.

When the inspector general's report on the Salt Pit death emerged, it focused on decisions made by two CIA officials: an inexperienced officer who had just taken his first overseas assignment to run the prison, and the Kabul station chief, who managed CIA activities in Afghanistan. Their identities remain classified.

The report found that the Salt Pit officer displayed poor judgment in leaving the detainee in the cold. But it also indicated the officer made repeated requests to superiors for guidance that were largely ignored, according to two former U.S. intelligence officials.

That raised concerns about not only officials in Afghanistan but the CIA's management in Langley. Similar concerns were later aired in the inspector general's review of the CIA's secret interrogation program.

"The agency — especially in the early months of the program — failed to provide adequate staffing, guidance and support to those involved with the detention and interrogation of detainees," the report said.

The inspector general referred the Salt Pit death to federal prosecutors, who decided they couldn't make a case. The former U.S. official familiar with the case said it could not be proved that the CIA officer running the Salt Pit intended to harm the detainee.

The CIA wouldn't say whether the two agency officers cited by the inspector general were punished. But no administrative action was taken when the No. 3 CIA official reviewed the case, said two former intelligence officials.

Now, a Justice Department criminal inquiry is looking at whether CIA operatives crossed the line in a small number of cases including the Salt Pit death.

Since that episode, the Kabul station chief has been promoted at least three times, former officials said. And the officer who ran the prison went on to other assignments, one overseas.