In November 2002, a team of federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) employees traveled to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan known interchangeably by its nickname, “The Salt Pit,” and its code name, “COBALT,” according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report released last year.
The report, which examined the the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, describes in detail a visit in which BOP officials saw detainees shackled to walls and stripped naked. The cells holding detainees were kept in total darkness, and there was no interaction between the correction guards and inmates, who were given buckets to dispose their own waste.
The BOP team wasn’t just impressed, according to CIA documents cited in the report, they were “wow’ed” and had “never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived.”
It was an inspection and apparent vote of approval that raised questions about whether the BOP exceeded its bounds of authority as a domestic agency.
But the BOP says it has no record that it ever happened.
In February, a Freedom of Information Act request by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Carl Takei asked for information related to the expedition.
The agency rejected Takei’s request in April, writing that it had no documentation of the Afghanistan visit.
Stunned, Takei appealed the rejection on June 11.
“It is simply not plausible that a good-faith search effort would have failed to find any responsive records,” Takei wrote in his appeal.
Takei said in a June 12 interview that the agency either didn’t do a thorough search for records, or is “lying about the existence of records.”
“It’s completely implausible, we’re talking about federal employees traveling to an active war zone, making an inspection of a detention facility, making recommendations and training employees of another federal agency,” Takei said.
“There have to be records.”
In multiple calls and emails to the BOP, The Crime Report sought information related to the Afghanistan visit, as well as a clarification of its policies related to confidential records. Though many law enforcement and intelligence agencies can classify records to prevent public access, the BOP does not have the authority to do so.
Still, BOP spokesperson Ed Ross would neither confirm nor deny that the visit detailed by the Senate Intelligence Committee even happened. The agency also declined to comment on all questions related to the report.
“We will not be providing any information regarding your inquiry,” Ross said.
Editors note: See The Crime Report‘s earlier story about the BOP’s visit to Afghanistan.
In the meantime, Takei said, it will be months before a decision on his appeal is rendered. While waiting, he’s reviewing a previous ACLU case that may have bearing on his current request.
In a 2011 decision in the case Islamic Shura Council v. FBI, a federal judge sanctioned the U.S. government for lying about the existence of a broad range of documents related to surveillance of several prominent Muslim community leaders in California.
“This whole question of whether a federal agency can flat-out lie to a requester about records (that are available) is something the ACLU has litigated before and will litigate again.” Takei said.
“We’re going to be reading very closely what the basis for the records denial is. It is a very important issue in terms of maintaining the integrity of the Freedom of Information Act.“
Graham Kates is former deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.