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.
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 in 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 nickname: 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, the 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 next year, 117.
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.
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.
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 numbers of prisoners who were released by the Bush and Obama administrations and returned to fight with terrorists against U.S. interests.
"These are some very hard-core individuals and many whom have been released by both administrations have gotten back in to fight us and our allies, unfortunately," Ayotte said on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports."
The U.S. government says it has confirmed about 16 percent of former Guantanamo Bay detainees rejoined the fight against America. Officials suspect but have not confirmed that another 12 percent rejoined.
Though the number of double agents recruited through Penny Lane was small, the program was significant enough to draw keen attention from President George W. Bush, one former official said. Bush personally interviewed a junior CIA case officer who had just returned home from Afghanistan, where the agency typically met with the agents.
President Barack Obama took an interest in the program for a different reason. Shortly after taking office, he ordered a review of the former detainees working as double agents because they were providing information used in Predator drone strikes, one of the officials said.
Infiltrating al-Qaida has been one of the CIA's most sought-after but difficult goals, something that other foreign intelligence services have only occasionally accomplished. So candidates for Penny Lane needed legitimate terrorist connections. To be valuable to the CIA, the men had to be able to reconnect with al-Qaida.
Vice President Dick Cheney called the prisoners "the worst of a very bad lot." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said they were "among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth."
In reality, many were held on flimsy evidence and were of little use to the CIA.