On Tuesday, out of nowhere, the Associated Press ran a story about a secret prison at Guantánamo that attracted a huge amount of attention from the media around the world — more attention, in fact, than at any time since the prison-wide hunger strike earlier this year, which, surprisingly, managed to retain much of the media’s attention for several months.
That, however, was a current story, whereas the AP’s story dealt with a secret facility that apparently existed between 2003 and 2006, in a now overgrown clearing at the end of a dirt road behind a ridge near the administrative offices of the prison.
There, in eight small cottages, the CIA housed and trained a handful of prisoners they had persuaded to become double agents, according to Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, who spoke to around ten current and former US officials for their story. All spoke anonymously “because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the secret program.”
Goldman and Apuzzo described the program as “a risky gamble,” because although the double agents might locate terrorist leaders for them, they might also turn against their employers. That, of course, is always a problem with double agents, although the AP was correct to note the stench of hypocrisy when it came to recruiting double agents at Guantánamo. “At the same time the government used the threat of terrorism to justify imprisoning people indefinitely,” Goldman and Apuzzo wrote, “it was releasing dangerous people from prison to work for the CIA.”
As they described it, “only a handful” of prisoners, from a variety of countries, “were turned into spies who signed agreements to spy for the CIA,” although dozens of prisoners were evaluated for the program. The officials told the AP that some of these men “helped the CIA find and kill many top al-Qaida operatives,” while others “stopped providing useful information and the CIA lost touch with them.”
According to Goldman and Apuzzo’s sources, there were a number of reasons that prompted prisoners to cooperate. “Some received assurances that the US would resettle their families,” they wrote, adding, “Another thought al-Qaida had perverted Islam and believed it was his duty as a Muslim to help the CIA destroy it.”
Another only agreed to cooperate “after the CIA insinuated it would harm his children,” according to a former official, which, the AP claimed, was similar to threats made against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the five prisoners currently at Guantánamo who are charged with involvement in the 9/11 attacks. This, however is not an accurate statement, as Mohammed’s children were captured in September 2002 and interrogated before their father was seized six months later, and, according to a statement by the father of Majid Khan, another “high-value detainee” at Guantánamo, were “denied food and water,” and had “ants or other creatures put on their legs to scare them and get them to say where their father was hiding.”
Goldman and Apuzzo also noted that all the double agents were paid for their services, with payments totaling millions of dollars, which, officials said, “came from a secret CIA account, codenamed Pledge,” that is “used to pay informants” — which is rather ironic, given that Tariq al-Sawah and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, two of the most useful informants at Guantánamo, according to the authorities, have been paid nothing, are still held, and, in 2010, were recommended for prosecution by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009.
According to the AP, both the program and the agents “had various official CIA codenames,” but the secret camp was generally known as “Penny Lane.” For anyone aware of Guantánamo’s darker secrets, this was obviously a play on another secret camp at the prison, codenamed “Strawberry Fields,” whose name was exposed in another Associated Press report by Goldman and Apuzzo in August 2010. In existence from September 24, 2003 until March 27, 2004, it held four “high-value detainees,” according to the AP — Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi Bin al-Shibh — and was closed when the Bush administration realized that the Supreme Court was likely to grant habeas corpus rights to the prisoners at Guantánamo (which it did in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, opening the prison’s doors to lawyers for the first time). Sent to the prisons the CIA operated in eastern Europe and Morocco, these four men men did not return to Guantánamo until September 2006, when they were flown back with ten other men, emptying — or mostly emptying — the CIA’s “black sites.”
While the “Strawberry Fields” reference was horribly clear, as a “forever” prison, from the lyrics, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the reference to “Penny Lane” might only have been because both songs were on a double A-side single issued by the Beatles in 1967. It’s rather disturbing, I think, to imagine Guantánamo’s unpleasant experiments being dreamt up by people who enjoyed the Beatles, and who, perhaps, when their work was done, went home and listened to these songs with their families.
Unlike “Strawberry Fields,” “Penny Lane” was apparently intended to replicate the feeling of a hotel. Officials told Goldman and Apuzzo that the cottages in the camp “had private kitchens, showers and televisions,” and each one “had a small patio.” The biggest luxury, they said, was “a real bed with a mattress.” They also spoke of privileges being made available to some of the men — pornography, for example. Officials also told Goldman and Apuzzo that some CIA officials “jokingly referred to” the cottages as “the Marriott.”
The AP article also noted that the double agent program had drawn the attention of both President Bush and President Obama. Bush, apparently, “personally interviewed a junior CIA case officer who had just returned home from Afghanistan, where the agency typically met with the agents.,” and, shortly after taking office, Obama “ordered a review of the former detainees working as double agents,” because, apparently, “they were providing information used in Predator drone strikes.”
I’m not quite sure what to make of the whole “Penny Lane” story. Clearly, there were double agents at Guantánamo. Omar Khadr’s brother, Abdurahman, was one, and his file was one of 14 that were missing when WikiLeaks obtained classified military files on almost all the prisoners, which were published in April 2011. I wrote an article about the missing files, “WikiLeaks and the 14 Missing Guantánamo Files,” and it may be that some of these men were also used as double agents, although it seems unlikely in most of these cases. Over the years, I have had my suspicions about other prisoners, and there have been a variety of rumors about others, but nothing that I would want to commit to print.
Now that I have had a few days to reflect on this story, I find a few aspects of it to be troubling — beyond its unexplained timing. The first, noted by my friend and colleague Jeff Kaye, is that the location of “Penny Lane” corresponds with the location identified in 2009 as “Camp No” by a number of soldiers working at Guantánamo, who told Scott Horton that they believed it was connected to the deaths of three prisoners in June 2006, allegedly as the result of a triple suicide. Horton subsequently wrote an award-winning article for Harper’s Magazine about the men’s claims, although the establishment closed ranks and refused to acknowledge the story.
To be honest, I don’t know what to make of this information although it unnerves me. If “Camp No” is “Penny Lane,” for example, then where was “Strawberry Fields” located, as some observers have thought that “Camp No” was “Strawberry Fields”? What I do know, however, is that I am saddened that a story relating to events that took place many years ago attracted the attention of the world’s media in a way that the plight of the men still held at Guantánamo no longer does. After the interest sparked by the hunger strike earlier this year, when, for a moment, it seemed as though, in newsrooms all around the world, journalists and their editors had remembered the injustice of Guantánamo we are now back to square one, with the media, for the most part, interested only in stories that have a whiff of scandal.
The men still held at Guantánamo — the 84 long cleared for release but still held, and the 80 others, for whom, in most cases, justice has gone AWOL — deserve more than this as the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo approaches, on January 11, 2014. I will be interested to see if more information emerges about the story of Penny Lane and the double agents, but I now intend to turn my attention back to the men who are still held — and I invite you to join me.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. This article appeared on his website on November 29, 2013.