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An Afghan prison stirs doubts on CIA

A man's death brings inquiry

WASHINGTON -- In November 2002, a new CIA case officer in charge of a secret prison just north of Kabul allegedly ordered guards to strip an uncooperative Afghan detainee, chain him to the concrete floor, and leave him there overnight without blankets, according to four US government officials who have been made aware of the case.

The Afghan guards, paid by the CIA and working under CIA supervision in an abandoned warehouse code-named the Salt Pit, dragged their captive around on the concrete floor, bruising and scraping his skin, before putting him in his cell, two of the officials said on condition of anonymity.

As night fell, so did the temperature. And by morning, the Afghan man had frozen to death.

After a quick autopsy by a CIA medic -- ''hypothermia" was listed as the cause of death -- the guards buried the man, who was in his 20s, in an unmarked and unacknowledged cemetery used by Afghan forces, officials said. The captive's family has never been notified; his remains have never been returned for burial.

He is on no one's registry of captives, not even as a ''ghost detainee," the term for CIA captives held in military prisons but not registered on the books, they said.

''He just disappeared from the face of the earth," said a US government official with knowledge of the case.

The CIA case officer, meanwhile, has been promoted, two of the officials said, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about the matter. The case is under investigation by the CIA inspector general's office.

The fact that the Salt Pit case has remained secret for more than two years reflects how little is known about the CIA's treatment of detainees and its handling of allegations of abuse.

The public airing of abuse at Abu Ghraib prompted the Pentagon to undertake and release scathing reports about conduct by military personnel, to revise rules for handling prisoners, and to prosecute soldiers accused of wrongdoing. There has been no comparable public scrutiny of the CIA, whose operations and briefings to Congress are kept classified by the administration.

Thirty-three military workers have been court-martialed and an additional 55 have received reprimands for their mishandling of detainees, according to the Defense Department. One CIA contractor, David A. Passaro, has been charged with a crime related to allegations of detainee abuse. Passaro is on trial in federal court in North Carolina, facing four assault charges in connection with the death of Abdul Wali, a prisoner who died while at a US base in Afghanistan in June 2003.

The CIA is investigating at least half a dozen allegations of serious abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, including two previously reported deaths in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and the death at the Salt Pit, US officials said.

A CIA spokesman said last week that the agency actively pursues allegations of misconduct. Other US officials said CIA cases can take longer to resolve because, unlike the military, the agency must rely on the Justice Department to conduct its own review and to prosecute when warranted.

''The agency has an aggressive, robust office of the inspector general with the authority to look into any CIA program or operation anywhere," said a CIA representative. ''The inspector general has done so." The spokesman declined to comment on any case.

The Salt Pit was the top-secret name for an abandoned brick factory, a warehouse just north of the Kabul business district. The 10-acre facility included a three-story building, eventually used by the US military to train the Afghan counterterrorism force, and several smaller buildings, which were off-limits to all but the CIA and a handful of Afghan guards and cooks, said several current and former military and intelligence officers.

The CIA wanted the Salt Pit to be a ''host-nation facility," an Afghan prison with Afghan guards. Its designation as an Afghan facility was intended to give US personnel some insulation from actions taken by Afghan guards.

The CIA, however, paid the entire cost of maintaining the facility. The CIA also decided who would be kept inside, including some ''high-value targets," senior Al Qaeda leaders in transit to other, more secure secret CIA prisons.

In spring 2004, when the CIA first referred the Salt Pit case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, the department cited the prison's status as a foreign facility, outside the jurisdiction of the US government, as one reason for declining to prosecute, US government officials aware of the decision said.

The case officer in charge of the Salt Pit was on his first assignment. Described by colleagues as ''bright and eager," he was the kind of person the agency needed for such a dismal job. The officer's name could not be learned.

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