Adam Goldman?and Matt Apuzzo

WASHINGTON: A few hundred yards from the administrative offices of the Guantanamo Bay prison, hidden behind a ridge covered in thick scrub and cactus, sits a closely held secret.

A dirt road winds its way to a clearing where eight small cottages sit in two rows of four. They have long been abandoned. The special detachment of Marines that once provided security is gone.

But in the early years after 9/11, these cottages were part of a covert CIA program. Its secrecy has outlasted black prisons, waterboarding and rendition.

In these buildings, CIA officers turned terrorists into double agents and sent them home.

It was a risky gamble. If it worked, their agents might help the CIA find terrorist leaders to kill with drones. But officials knew there was a chance that some prisoners might quickly spurn their deal and kill Americans.

For the CIA, that was an acceptable risk in a dangerous business. For the American public, which was never told, it was one of the many secret trade-offs the government made on its behalf. At the same time the government used the threat of terrorism to justify imprisoning people indefinitely, it was releasing dangerous people from prison to work for the CIA.

Nearly a dozen current and former U.S. officials described aspects of the program to the Associated Press. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the secret program, even though it ended about 2006.

The program and the handful of men who passed through these cottages had various official CIA code names. But those who were aware of the cluster of cottages knew it best by its sobriquet: Penny Lane.

It was a nod to the classic Beatles song and a riff on the CIA’s other secret facility at Guantanamo Bay, a prison known as Strawberry Fields.

Some of the men who passed through Penny Lane helped the CIA find and kill many top al-Qaida operatives, current and former U.S. officials said. Others stopped providing useful information and the CIA lost touch with them.

When prisoners began streaming into the prison on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in January 2002, the CIA recognized it as an unprecedented opportunity to identify sources. That year, 632 detainees arrived at the island. The following year, 117 more arrived.

“Of course that would be an objective,” said Emile Nakhleh, a former top CIA analyst who spent time in 2002 assessing detainees but who did not discuss Penny Lane. “It’s the job of intelligence to recruit sources.”

Cozy quarters

By early 2003, Penny Lane was open for business.

Candidates were ushered from the confines of prison to Penny Lane’s relative hominess, officials said. The cottages had private kitchens, showers and televisions. Each had a small patio.

Some prisoners asked for and received pornography. One official said the biggest luxury in each cottage was the bed, not a military-issued cot but a real bed with a mattress.

The cottages were designed to feel more like hotel rooms than prison cells, and some CIA officials jokingly referred to them collectively as the Marriott.

Current and former officials said dozens of prisoners were evaluated but only a handful, from varying countries, were turned into spies who signed agreements to spy for the CIA.

CIA spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment.

Lawmakers’ concerns

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who serves on the Armed Services and Homeland Security oversight committees, said Tuesday that she was still learning more about the program but was concerned about the number of prisoners released by the Bush and Obama administrations that returned to fight with terrorists against U.S. interests.

“So, when I juxtapose that to the CIA actually thinking that they can convert these people, I think it was very ill-conceived program for them to think that,” Ayotte said on MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports. “These are some very hard-core individuals and many who have been released by both administrations have gotten back in to fight us and our allies, unfortunately.”

Appearing on the show with Ayotte, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said it was hard to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. “But it has a degree of recklessness to it that I would be very concerned about.”

Of the 779 people who were taken to Guantanamo Bay, more than three-fourths have been released, mostly during the Bush administration. Many others remain at Guantanamo Bay, having been cleared for release by the military but with no hope for freedom in sight.