After being mistakenly abducted in Macedonia and detained in a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, Khaled El-Masri told his interrogators that his ongoing detention was like “a Kafka novel.” A cable to CIA headquarters reported that El-Masri said he “could not possibly prove his innocence because he did not know what he was being charged with.”
Much has been reported on this tragic case of mistaken identity at the hands of the CIA. But this week, additional details on El-Masri’s case emerged when the CIA released a new batch of documents in response to an ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. Among the many disturbing details relating to the CIA’s post-9/11 torture and rendition program was a revealing investigation carried out by the CIA’s inspector general into the rendition and torture of El-Masri, an innocent German citizen who was disappeared, detained, and abused by the CIA for over four months in early 2004. (The ACLU now represents El-Masri in a pending case against the U.S. before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.)
The investigation makes clear that El-Masri’s unlawful rendition and detention were rife with neglect, abuse, and incompetence, reaching to the highest levels of the CIA. It reveals that even as the CIA “quickly concluded he was not a terrorist,” two CIA officers who had been involved in his rendition justified his continued detention “despite the diminishing rationale, by insisting that they knew he was ‘bad.’”
The document also confirms that former CIA Director George Tenet “was informed about the ... January 2004 ... rendition shortly after it happened and then again in late April 2004.” Yet El-Masri was not freed and allowed to return to his family in Germany until May of that year after former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice ordered it. The CIA didn’t inform Congress of the mistaken rendition until after his repatriation and after it learned that he had retained an attorney.
The report confirms the grueling psychological torture that El-Masri was subjected to, along with the CIA’s blatant disregard for his physical and mental health while in custody. In protest of his wrongful detention, El-Masri went on a hunger strike and lost 50 pounds. A CIA psychologist described him as “openly tearful and speechless” and suffering from “feelings of helplessness, hopeless … [and] wishing he was dead.” Another psychologist confirmed the intensity of his “depression, loneliness, hopelessness, and anger.”
The source of his deteriorating mental health, the psychologists believed, was “the unknown status of his case and the uncertain length of his detention, complicated by lack of interaction with Agency personnel.” The psychologists recommended releasing him. Their reason was not his innocence or his mental health, but the need to avoid “potential long-term issues for HQs.”
The CIA’s inspector general report confirms that El-Masri’s prolonged arbitrary detention and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment included solitary confinement in a “small cell with just a bucket for his waste.” The report concludes:
“[T]here was an insufficient basis to render and detain al-Masri and the Agency’s prolonged detention of al-Masri was unjustified. His rendition and long detention resulted from a series of breakdowns in tradecraft, process, management, and oversight. CTC and [redacted] failed to take responsible steps to verify al-Masri’s identity. ALEC Station exaggerated the nature of the data it possessed linking al-Masri to terrorism. After the decision had been made to repatriate al-Masri, implementation was marked by delay and bureaucratic infighting.”
Yet after it was decided that El-Masri should be freed, he languished in the CIA prison for more than two months because of “bureaucratic infighting” and “bureaucratic differences.” At one point, the CIA considered transferring El-Masri to the custody of the U.S. military. This option was ultimately ruled out because “such a move could complicate matters”; “the U.S. military would register al-Masri and notify the Red Cross of his detention”; and, without grounds to suspect he had a role within al-Qaida, “the US military would have no grounds on which to detain him” and “he could be a free man within hours.”
Despite recognizing a terrible mistake had been made, the Bush administration pressed the Supreme Court to refuse to hear El-Masri’s case (brought by the ACLU) against Tenet. The court acquiesced, deciding not to review the case — which had been dismissed by the lower courts on “state secrets” grounds — the very same month the inspector general report was submitted to the administration.
Beyond an “oral admonition” given to three CIA attorneys, no one has been held accountable for El-Masri’s ordeal. The CIA’s inspector general referred El-Masri’s case to the Department of Justice for prosecution — but in May 2007, the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia declined to pursue the case.
This report confirms what the ACLU has said for years: At the height of the so-called “War on Terror,” the CIA made grave mistakes and committed outrageous violations of domestic and international law. Yet no one responsible for these acts has been held accountable. Despite the CIA’s best efforts to keep this and so many other stories secret — the CIA told El-Masri that a condition for his release was “that he would not reveal his experiences to the media or local authorities” — the truth is steadily coming out.
And still, El-Masri and other victims of CIA torture continue to wait for what they deserve — a full criminal investigation into those responsible for overseeing and implementing the program, an acknowledgement of what they went through, an official apology, and compensation to help them rebuild their lives. This is the very least President Obama can do for them before leaving office.