Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Ken Silverstein: How America tortured and murdered an innocent man

In 2002, Matthew Zirbel, a junior CIA officer, was in charge of the Salt Pit, a “black site” in Afghanistan referred to in the recent Senate torture report as “Cobalt,” where detainees were routinely brutalized and which one visitor described as a “dungeon.” A delegation from the Federal Bureau of Prisons was horrified by the Salt Pit’s sensory deprivation techniques, and a CIA interrogator said that prisoners there “literally looked like [dogs] that had been kenneled,” according to the report.

In fact, one of the most horrifying stories – and there are many – in the Senate report on torture takes place in the Salt Pit, where Gul Rahman was tortured and murdered by the U.S. government in November 2002.

Rahman, an Afghan, was rendered to the Salt Pit after being apprehended in Pakistan. At that time the torture center was being run by a man referred to as “CIA Officer 1” in the Senate report. News outlets have not named him in covering the report but he has previously been identified as Matthew Zirbel, after the government accidentally included his name in a report that had been declassified.

Zirbel was on his first foreign tour for the CIA, and colleagues had recommended that he not be allowed access to classified material due to his “lack of honesty, judgment, and maturity,” according to the Senate report. A Senate aide who briefed reporters about Zirbel said the CIA officer had “issues” in his background and should never have been hired by the CIA.

After Rahman had been beaten and tortured, the CIA officer deemed him “uncooperative,” and ordered that the detainee be “shackled to the wall of his cell in a position that required him to rest on the bare concrete floor.” He was soaking wet from having been water-boarded and suffering from multiple abrasions, contusions, and lacerations. The following morning Rahman, who was wearing only a sweatshirt, was found dead of hypothermia. He’d frozen to death in his cell, where the temperature hovered around 36 degrees Fahrenheit.

Zirbel’s initial cable to CIA headquarters about the case was riddled with lies — “misstatements and omissions,” as the Senate report put it. Four months later, a superior at the agency recommended Zirbel for a $2,500 bonus for “consistently superior work.”

— by Ken Silverstein writing for The Intercept

[Ed. note: The recent Senate report on CIA torture identified the case of Gul Rahman as one of ‘mistaken identity’ and Rahman has been posthumously cleared of wrong-doing. For CIA documentation showing the agency’s — as well as the Justice Department’s — attempts to cover-up the torture and murder of Gul Rahman, see History Commons.]


Gul Rahman in a photograph released by his family.

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