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Barbaric Conditions That Led to a Detainee's Death Are Laid Bare in CIA Reports

Declassified internal CIA reports released Tuesday describes the systematic torture of the first high-value detainee to die in CIA custody.
An aerial view of the CIA black site code-named COBALT. (Photo via DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d/Getty Images)

The CIA black site prison had 20 cells. Described as "stand-alone concrete boxes," the cell block was outfitted with stereo speakers that played music 24 hours a day to prevent captives from communicating with each other. Captives, who first arrived there in September 2002, were often held in total darkness. Some were subjected to mock executions.

Four of the cells at the black site — it was located in Afghanistan and code-named COBALT, but it was also referred to as the Salt Pit — had "high bars… to which prisoners can be secured." These four cells were designed specifically for sleep deprivation.


The prison is where a 34-year-old Afghan militant and suspected al-Qaeda operative named Gul Rahman froze to death in November 2002 after undergoing a brutal torture regimen that included being beaten, doused with cold water, and left half-naked while chained to the floor of his cell. Several of the techniques CIA interrogators used on Rahman were unauthorized; in August 2002, a Department of Justice attorney named John Yoo had written a legal memo sanctioning nearly a dozen torture methods for use on high-value captives.

The graphic description of the conditions of Rahman's confinement and the disastrous operations of COBALT were laid bare in 14-year-old, closely guarded CIA reports that probed the circumstances of his death; those reports [pdf at the end of this article] were just turned over to VICE News in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. Separately, the CIA also declassified and publicly posted to its website a trove of other documents related to its so-called "rendition, detention, and interrogation" program and the treatment of detainees in custody of the agency in response to separate FOIA lawsuits filed by VICE News and the ACLU.

One of the documents is an email from the CIA's chief of interrogations who described the torture program as a "train wreak [sic] waiting to happen. I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens."

In a statement provided to VICE News, US Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has sparred with CIA director John Brennan over the veracity of the committee's blistering December 2014 report that probed the efficacy of the CIA's torture program, said, "It's important that more of these documents are being made available to the public, and many of them will help illustrate how the CIA's statements about the effectiveness of torture were inaccurate."


The release of the reports on Rahman's death is hugely significant. The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the architects of the torture program on behalf of Rahman's family, alleging human experimentation and torture. One of the two architects, retired Air Force psychologist Dr. Bruce Jessen, was present at COBALT prior to Rahman's death and performed a psychological evaluation on Rahman, deciding what torture techniques should be used on him "to render him compliant."

"Headquarters was motivated to extract any and all operational information on Al-Qa'ida and Hezbi Isl-ami from [Rahman]," the report said. "It was the assessment of the debriefers that Rahman may need to be subjected to enhanced interrogation measures to induce him to comply."

Jessen also participated in Rahman's interrogation and provided instruction to the manager of COBALT, Matthew Zirbel, on the use of certain techniques. Zirbel was a "first-tour operations officer with no experience or training in interrogations or prison operations, according to the report's.

Jessen is identified in both reports as a psychologist, but his name is redacted. Jessen told one of the interrogators assigned to COBALT, "You cannot harm or kill the detainees, but you can handle the debriefings/interrogations as you see fit."

"The new details are sickening," said Dror Ladin, an ACLU attorney who represents Rahman's family and two other torture victims suing Jessen and his former partner, Dr. James Mitchell. "The CIA and Jessen considered Gul Rahman to have a 'sophisticated level of resistance training' because he 'complained about poor treatment' and said he couldn't 'think due to conditions (cold)….' When they decided he wasn't sufficiently 'broken,' CIA personnel brutalized, starved, and froze him to death, then lied about it."


* * *

Two weeks ago, VICE News exclusively reported on Rahman's last hours, the lack of accountability at the CIA after his death, and the fact that the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) visited the black site and trained guards on a shackling technique, a "safer alternative to hog-tying prisoners." That story was based on other internal CIA reports declassified for us as part of our FOIA lawsuit.

The heavily redacted January 28, 2003 report from the CIA's Associate Deputy Director for Counterintelligence/Operations, titled "Death Investigation - Gul Rahman," and the April 27, 2005 IG report, titled, "Death of a Detainee," prepared by the CIA's then–inspector general, John Helgerson, contains the most detailed description to date about the torture to which Rahman was subjected after he was rendered to COBALT. Both reports said Rahman was slapped, punched, given cold showers, dragged through the dirt while hooded, and hung by his arms in a stress position.

Rahman's death was also highlighted in the Senate's torture report, which concluded that torturing detainees did not produce any "unique" or "valuable" intelligence about pending terrorist attacks.

According to the newly declassified CIA Inspector General (IG) report, a CIA detainee "begins his confinement with nothing in his cell except a bucket used for human waste."

During his first two days of detention, he underwent 'rough treatment,' consisting of being 'pushed and shoved' while hooded in order to 'disorient him.'


"Prisoners are given rewards for cooperation," the report said. "Rewards can consist of a light, 'foamies' for the prisoners' ears (blocks out the music), a mat to sleep on, extra blankets, etc. Additionally, a luxury room has been built which has a light, a rocking chair, a table, and carpeting on the floor. Prisoners are not punished for lack of cooperation. Instead, rewards that they have received for cooperation are taken from them if they become uncooperative."

Rahman, his interrogators wrote in CIA cables, was "resolutely defiant… the most stubborn individual detained" at COBALT, who had threatened to kill guards, according to the 2003 CIA counterintelligence official's report and the CIA IG report issued two years later.

The report said that during the flight to COBALT from Pakistan, where he was captured in October 2002, Rahman was wearing an adult diaper because detainees are prohibited from using the bathroom on the airplane. Upon arrival at the black site, detainees were given a physical examination and their heads and beards are shaved. They were fed on an "alternating schedule of one meal on one day and two meals the next day."

But the IG found that Rahman was not given a physical examination after he was rendered to the black site. He was subjected to sleep deprivation "almost immediately" after his arrival at COBALT and was often held in a "sleep deprivation cell" when he wasn't being interrogated.


"According to [redacted], Rahman's clothes were taken from him… and he was left wearing a diaper," the IG report said. "During this period of sleep deprivation, Rahman's arms were shackled to a bar that ran between the walls of the cell. This prevented Rahman from sitting down."

The January 2003 report into Rahman's death explained that sleep deprivation "is also used to enhance successful interrogation."

"The decision to use sleep deprivation is made by the individual CIA officer who is working with a particular prisoner," the report said. "When sleep deprivation is utilized, the prisoner is chained by one or both wrists to a bar running across the ceiling of the cell. This forces the prisoner to stand. [redacted] stated that he consulted with and was told that no prisoner should undergo more than 72 hours of sleep deprivation because lucidity begins to decline and questioning becomes ineffective."

During his first two days of detention, he underwent "rough treatment," consisting of being "pushed and shoved" while hooded in order to "disorient him."

At one point, Rahman complained "about the violation of his human rights," the reports said. At the same time, he "remained consistently unemotional, calm and composed." He "calmly picked at his skin/nails during confrontation with damning evidence against him" and was "unfazed by physical and psychological confrontations." Even when Rahman "was depleted psychologically, he would routinely respond that he was 'fine.'"


CIA interrogators interpreted Rahman's demeanor as a sign he had received a high level of training on resistance to interrogation techniques. The report, partially based on CIA cable traffic (which the IG said contained "material omissions and inaccuracies"), said that Rahman was given a cold shower "because the heater at the black site was not working." But, according to the report issued by the CIA's Associate Deputy Director for Counterintelligence/Operations, investigators interviewed a person at the black site who said Rahman was "deliberately given a cold shower as a deprivation technique." He then began to show signs of hypothermia.

According to the reports, when a detainee is removed from his cell for an interrogation session, "usually guards enter the cell with a flashlight" and a "hood is placed over the prisoner's head and he is lead to the interrogation room in shackles."

"The guards do not speak to the prisoners and all communication between the guards is completed with hand signals," the report said. "Once the detainee is placed in the interrogation room the guards depart, and the hood is removed by [redacted] personnel. Every effort is made to ensure that the only person a detainee communicates with is his CIA interrogator."

Detainees like Rahman, who the CIA believed "possessed significant or imminent threat information," are "stripped to their diapers during interrogation and placed back into their cells wearing only diapers."


"This is done solely to humiliate the prisoner for interrogation purposes," the report added. "When the prisoner soils a diaper, they are changed by the guards. Sometimes the guards run out of diapers and the prisoners are placed back in their cells in a handcrafted diaper secured by duct tape. If the guards don't have any available diapers, the prisoners are rendered to their cell nude."

Initially, a cable sent back to CIA said Rahman did not provide his interrogators with any intelligence despite his brutal treatment. However, the IG report later said there was a "small interrogation breakthrough" that resulted in Rahman admitting something: that his name was Gul Rahman. The CIA attributed this to the torture techniques to which he was subjected. That, along with the name of the village he came from (Kolangar), which he revealed after being subjected to at least six brutal torture sessions during his monthlong confinement at COBALT, were the only concessions he made.

(The ACLU maintains that Rahman fled Afghanistan after the US invaded in 2001 and settled in Pakistan with his wife and four daughters at the Shamshatoo refugee camp outside of Peshawar, earning a living by selling wood to other Shamshatoo camp refugees.)

Both the CIA counterintelligence report and the IG report also contain additional details about the role the BOP played in training guards who worked at COBALT. Between August and September 2002, according to the report, CIA headquarters "was able to make arrangements with the BOP to provide training."


The reports said the BOP instructors were assigned to temporary duty at COBALT, training guards in "restraint techniques, escort procedures, security checks, entrance procedures, cell searches, watch calls, and patdown searches." BOP also "made a number of recommendations to improve the security" at COBALT.

The Senate's torture report noted that a delegation of BOP personnel conducted an assessment of COBALT and the CIA's operations there, which they characterized as disastrous, but the report did not state that BOP personnel also provided training to interrogators and guards on specific interrogation techniques.

"Following the November [redacted], 2002, through November [redacted] 2002, visit, CIA officers in [Afghanistan] remarked that the Federal Bureau of Prisons assessments, along with recommendations and training, had 'made a noticeable improvement on how the day to day operations at the facility are performed,' and made the detention site a 'more secure and safer working environment for officers,'" the Senate report said.

A BOP spokesperson did not respond to VICE News' requests for comment about the report on Rahman's death. After the Senate report was released, VICE News filed FOIA requests with the BOP seeking documents pertaining to the presence of BOP personnel at COBALT and other black sites. The BOP responded by saying it could not locate any records.

* * *

On November 19, 2002, at about 3pm, guards brought food to Rahman's cell. The last meal he'd eaten had been the day before. When the guards entered the cell, he was nude from the waist down. The captive threatened to kill the guards and proceeded to throw his food, water bottle, and waste bucket at them.


The guards, acting on BOP recommendations, shackled Rahman to the wall "in a short chain position, which prevents prisoners from standing upright." Rahman was chained to a "metal grill located low on the wall of his cell" on orders from the CIA officer who managed the black site.

The next morning, at about 10am, Rahman was seen lying on his side. The guards tried to rouse Rahman by banging on his cell door with their nightsticks, but he didn't move. The guards then "notified several CIA officers who were present at the facility in conjunction with the interrogation of another prisoner."

Related: After a Detainee Died at a Black Site, the CIA Blamed Training From the Federal Bureau of Prisons

When the officers entered Rahman's cell, they saw "a small amount of blood coming from his nose and mouth." A CIA officer checked Rahman's pulse, but there was none. They unsuccessfully tried to resuscitate the detainee before he was pronounced dead.

Rahman, according to an autopsy performed by a CIA pathologist, likely died of hypothermia, a "diagnosis of exclusion." On the night Rahman died, the outside temperature was 31 degrees Fahrenheit. The black site was not insulated.

Remarkably, the CIA's Associate Deputy Director for Operations/Counterintelligence concluded that Rahman's "actions likely caused his own death."

"By throwing his last meal he was unable to provide his body with a source of fuel to keep him warm," the report said. "Additionally, his violent behavior resulted in his restraint which prevented him from generating body heat by moving around and brought him in direct contact with the concrete floor leading to a loss of bodyheat through conduction."

But the IG reached different conclusions and referred Rahman's case to the Department of Justice, which declined to prosecute. Six years later, a special prosecutor who was appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the destruction of nearly 100 CIA interrogation videotapes launched a separate, criminal investigation into Rahman's death and the death of another detainee who died in CIA custody. In 2012, the special prosecutor, Assistant US Attorney John Durham, concluded his probe but Justice again declined to prosecute. In a statement, Holder explained "the admissible evidence would not be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt."

Rahman was secretly buried; the location of his remains remain unknown.

In a statement provided to VICE News two weeks ago, CIA spokesperson Ryan Trapani said Rahman's death "is a lasting mark on the Agency's record."

Four months after Rahman died, the CIA station chief in Afghanistan recommended that Zirbel, the manager of COBALT who conducted interrogation sessions with Rahman, be awarded $2,500 for his "consistently superior work," according to the Senate's torture report.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold