Secrets and lies

What happens when the United States seizes the wrong man and then holds him in secret.


Tim Grieve
December 5, 2005 7:50PM (UTC)

Oops.

U.S. Ambassador Daniel Coats was forced to deliver an awkward message to the German government in May 2004: We've wrongfully imprisoned one of your citizens for the last five months, but you can't say anything about it because doing so would draw attention -- and maybe a legal challenge -- to our system of capturing terrorism suspects abroad and transferring them among countries. As Dana Priest reports in Sunday's Washington Post, the case of Khaled Masri demonstrates how post-9/11 pressure on the CIA has led, in some instances, to "detention based on thin or speculative evidence" and shows "how complicated it can be to correct errors in a system built and operated in secret."

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Masri was arrested by Macedonian authorities in 2003 because his name was similar to that of an associate of a 9/11 hijacker. (We weren't aware that having a name similar to that of an associate of a hijacker was a crime, but it gets worse.) Macedonian officials alerted the local CIA office, which in turn alerted CIA headquarters, which in turn decided -- based on what one CIA official tells Priest was a "hunch" -- that the CIA should seize Masri for itself. The agency then sent Masri to Afghanistan for interrogation and incarceration. By March 2004, the CIA had figured out that Masri was who he'd said he was and that there wasn't any reason to detain him. But it took the United States another two months to figure out how to return Masri to his home without fingerprints -- and to extract itself from a diplomatic problem with Germany without revealing too much about an anti-terror system it wants to keep secret.

Understandably, Masri says he has "bad feelings" about the United States now. "I think it's just like in the Arab countries: arresting people, treating them inhumanly and less than that, and with no rights and no laws," he tells Priest.

But this must be an isolated incident, right? The kind of rare accident that occurs when people are doing their best to prevent the next act of terror? Maybe, maybe not. One official tells Priest that the United States may have detained -- and then sent to other countries through the practice called "rendition" -- about three dozen others. Several of the names on the list were given to the agency during interviews with al-Qaida members. One, Priest says, turned out to be "an innocent college professor" whose only crime was that he had given an al-Qaida member a bad grade.

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Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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