The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the federal Bureau of Prisons for refusing to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to its officials’ visit in 2002 to a CIA detention site in Afghanistan, their positive assessment of the conditions, and the training they provided to the site’s administrators. Code-named COBALT and also called “the Salt Pit,” the site held people suspected of terrorism, and they were tortured there, according to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report that was declassified in 2014.

In 2015, the Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Department of Justice, declined the ACLU’s FOIA request for documents related to the COBALT visit, writing that “no such records exist.” The ACLU appealed the request; the bureau denied the appeal.

According to the Senate torture report, the Bureau of Prisons deemed COBALT, which operated from 2002 to 2004, as “‘not inhumane.’” The team that visited the site was “‘wowed’” by the level of sensory deprivation the CIA had achieved.

As a result of our litigation, the Bureau of Prisons revealed that the CIA directed the bureau to take extraordinary measures to cover up the bureau’s visit to COBALT.  The personnel who visited “were not even allowed to speak with our supervisor about what was going on.” The Bureau of Prisons further revealed that although two bureau employees had in fact visited a CIA detention site in an undisclosed country in 2002, their official travel histories omitted any mention of international travel during that visit.    

The Bureau of Prisons’ work at the COBALT detention site illustrates how torture — and the secrecy surrounding it — corrupts every institution it touches. This case raises serious questions for federal officials in future administrations: If torture once again becomes policy, will I have the courage to do the right thing and blow the whistle?  

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