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Nearly a dozen current and former U.S officials described aspects of the program to the AP. All of them spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the secret program publicly by name, even though it ended in about 2006.
Under the program, the CIA promised the prisoners freedom, safety for their families and millions of dollars from the agency's secret accounts. Officials knew there was a chance that some prisoners might quickly spurn their deal and kill Americans. But for the CIA, that was an acceptable risk in a dangerous business, the AP reported.
Lindsay Moran, a former CIA agent, spoke with Al Jazeera's Del Walters on Tuesday and said the report, if accurate, "hearkens back to CIA days of yore when they really took high risks for high rewards."
"The agency has been criticized over the past decade for not being able to infiltrate Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. My guess if this is true is that they saw the detainees at Guantanamo as kind of their one shot at getting someone into one of these groups," Moran said.
Moran also discussed what the risk and reward entailed for the CIA with regard to the alleged program.
"The risk is huge. We could have someone who then perpetrated or orchestrated an attack against the U.S. using the knowledge they have of the way that we operate," she told Al Jazeera. "The reward is huge too. It's virtually impossible to infiltrate these networks with your typical CIA officer or CIA agent. So this was probably the best chance we had to do that."
Prisoners agreed to cooperate for a variety of reasons, officials said. Some received assurances that the U.S. would resettle their families. Another thought Al-Qaeda had perverted Islam and believed it was his duty as a Muslim to help the CIA destroy it. One detainee agreed to cooperate after the CIA insinuated it would harm his children, a former official said, similar to the threats interrogators had made to admitted Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
All were promised money. Exactly how much each was paid remains unclear. But altogether, the government paid millions of dollars for their services, officials said. The money came from a secret CIA account, codenamed Pledge, that's used to pay informants, officials said.
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The program was reportedly carried out in a secret facility built a few hundred yards from the administrative offices of the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The eight small cottages were hidden behind a ridge covered in thick scrub and cactus.
Some of the men who passed through Penny Lane helped the CIA find and kill many top Al-Qaeda operatives, current and former U.S. officials told the AP. While others reportedly stopped providing useful information and the CIA lost touch with them.
When prisoners began streaming into Guantanamo Bay in January 2002, the CIA recognized it as an unprecedented opportunity to identify sources. That year, 632 detainees arrived at the detention center. The following year 117 more arrived.
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 a variety of countries, were turned into spies who signed agreements to work for the CIA.
CIA spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment.
The U.S. government said it has confirmed that about 16 percent of former Guantanamo Bay detainees rejoined the fight against America. Officials suspect but have not confirmed that 12 percent more rejoined.
It's not clear whether the men from Penny Lane are included in those figures. But because only a small number of people went through the program, it would not likely change the figures significantly either way.
None of the officials interviewed by the AP knew of an instance in which any double agent killed Americans.
Presidents took interest
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 the program for a different reason. Shortly after taking office in 2009, 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.
Candidates for Penny Lane needed legitimate terrorist connections. To be valuable to the CIA, the men had to be able to reconnect with Al-Qaeda.
From the Bush administration descriptions of Guantanamo Bay prisoners at the time, the CIA would have seemingly had a large pool to draw from. Vice President Dick Cheney called the prisoners "the worst of a very bad lot." Defense Secretary Donald H. 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.
While the agency looked for viable candidates, those with no terrorism ties sat in limbo. It would take years before the majority of detainees were set free, having never been charged. 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.
"I do see the irony on the surface of letting some really very bad guys go," said David Remes, an American lawyer who has represented about a dozen Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo.
But Remes, who was not aware of Penny Lane, said he understands its attraction.
"The men we were sending back as agents were thought to be able to provide value to us," he said.