No Comment — March 29, 2010, 12:44 pm

Inside the Salt Pit

What does the Justice Department do when a prisoner dies as the direct result of a Justice Department-approved torture technique? The question presents a direct challenge to the integrity of the Department and its law enforcement mission, and it reveals the dilemma that the Department faces when it advises its “clients” on how to commit torture without being prosecuted. When a person dies as the result of torture, there should be a criminal investigation leading to the prosecution of a culpable person. There have been a number of such instances involving the CIA, one being the so-called “ice man” of Abu Ghraib, Manadel Al-Jamadi. But on Sunday, the Associated Press’s Adam Goldman and Kathy Gannon examined the death of Gul Rahman in a secret CIA prison in an abandoned brick factory just outside Kabul, Afghanistan, called the “Salt Pit.” Dana Priest first broke this story in 2005, but the AP team substantially develops the facts. The most revealing aspect of this story is, as Arthur Conan Doyle would say, the fact that the dog didn’t bark.

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, when the temperature dipped just below 36 degrees. He was naked from the waist down, said two former U.S. officials familiar with the case. Within hours, he was dead. CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., sent a team “to gather the facts,” the current U.S. official said. “The guidance was for the people on scene to preserve everything as it was.” 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 for burial.

A week later, Amnesty International issued a statement saying Baheer was being held without charge and possibly in CIA or FBI custody. No mention was made of Rahman. Rahman’s family, Baheer said, went to the Red Cross in Islamabad and Kabul. They are still uncertain of Rahman’s fate, he said. “The Americans have had enough time,” said Baheer. “They should expose all those missing people who have died. After nearly eight years, enough is enough.”

The exposure of a prisoner to extreme cold in order to affect his physical condition and “soften” him for interrogation was an accepted technique applied with a Justice Department “okay” during the war on terror. The following year, the AP piece notes, 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 it continues to be an approved technique used on prisoners held at Bagram, with its use being documented into the Obama years.

The death launched an internal CIA probe focusing on Mr. Z, the CIA officer directly involved in handing Rahman, and Mr. P, his supervisor. (Mr. Z’s name seems to have been inadvertently exposed in footnote 28 here.) [Update, April 2, 2010: The page has now been modified and the name redacted.] After an investigation, the case went to the CIA’s number three, Dusty Foggo, who declined any formal action against the officer involved. The AP reports that Mr. Z was promoted three times since the incident in 2003. Dusty Foggo, of course, is now serving a 37-month sentence for fraud at a federal penitentiary.

But inside the Justice Department, the matter was handed off to Paul J. McNulty and Chuck Rosenberg, the U.S. attorneys in the Eastern District of Virginia, which has special jurisdiction over criminal matters involving CIA operatives. McNulty went on to hold the number two job at Justice, while Rosenberg became chief of staff to a rapidly sinking Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Both names are tightly linked to the U.S. Attorneys’ scandal, which ultimately cost McNulty his job. The AP states that McNulty and Rosenberg “couldn’t make a case” against the CIA figures involved, and notes that they wouldn’t elaborate why not. A federal official with knowledge of the matter is quoted by the AP as stating that the lawyers could not establish that the CIA personnel involved “intended to harm the detainee.” This is the argument that has consistently been made by John Yoo and torture-apologists like Andrew McCarthy at National Review: if the techniques were applied for purposes of interrogation, then the necessary criminal intention is lacking, and prosecution is impossible. This reasoning has fairly obvious flaws, since it is both possible that a technique is being used for interrogation purposes and would reasonably be expected to lead to death or to cause serious pain meeting the standards for torture as well as homicide–a point which has been made repeatedly at international criminal tribunals, starting with those convened in Nuremberg and Tokyo at the end of World War II.

Going back over the recently released Justice Department documents, John Sifton notes that they are riddled with talk about “declination,” “declination letters,” “advanced declination decisions,” “pre-activity declination advice,” and so forth. The report about the Salt Pit helps us understand concretely what this was all about. In many of these cases, the CIA is pushing the Justice Department for assurance that, when Justice Department-approved torture techniques are used—or even something like the approved techniques—its personnel will face no prosecution. What we see is an unprecedented effort to lobby the Criminal Division and other policy-making echelons not to enforce a criminal statute, with the lobbying undertaken by persons who recognize they are about to engage in conduct which would ordinarily subject them to prosecution. Some declinations are sought pre-emptively (as when the agency proposed to waterboard Abu Zubaydeh); others after the incident has occurred. Either way, the declination is sought—just like the Office of Legal Counsel memoranda—as a shield against future prosecution.

The idea is simple. Suppose an attorney general comes into office who actually believes in enforcement of the Anti-Torture Statute. With a declination in hand, the perpetrator can say “my case was reviewed by professional prosecutors, who decided that no criminal case was warranted. The matter is closed.” And it can also be used as a sort of sword: “The fact that Bush-era prosecutors said no action was warranted, while you want to open this up, demonstrates that your prosecution is politically motivated.” In fact, all these arguments have been played out in the public debate surrounding the appointment of John Durham to conduct a special preliminary review—but the Justice Department documents show how the spade work for them was done carefully in advance.

Of course, the AP story focuses on the CIA’s role at the Salt Pit, the death, and the fact that no one was ever held accountable for it. But it seems to me, just as Sifton suggests, that the real focus of any sensible inquiry would be on any cover-up that occurred at the higher policy-making levels. The discovery of the death at the Salt Pit, like the one at Abu Ghraib, presented a direct threat to those who gave the green light for torture. The matter was handed to two politically trustworthy prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, the same prosecutors who deep-sixed inquiry into the Abu Ghraib contractors, and the matter is closed. What’s going on here? The Justice Department is squelching a criminal matter that threatens the integrity and reputation of the Justice Department—one that, properly investigated, could lead straight to high-echelon political appointees at Justice.

Review of these facts makes clear why Eric Holder was right to appoint John Durham to conduct a special review of these cases. But that still leaves the question of whether the Justice Department actually has the resolve to enforce the law when it’s politically inconvenient to do so.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Percentage of people who go to the bathroom in New York’s Penn Station who do not wash their hands:


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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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