Mistaken rendition

There is a must-read story in the Washington Post about the pitfalls of the ever-expanding rendition program run by the CIA:
In May 2004, the White House dispatched the U.S. ambassador in Germany to pay an unusual visit to that country's interior minister. Ambassador Daniel R. Coats carried instructions from the State Department transmitted via the CIA's Berlin station because they were too sensitive and highly classified for regular diplomatic channels, according to several people with knowledge of the conversation.

Coats informed the German minister that the CIA had wrongfully imprisoned one of its citizens, Khaled Masri, for five months, and would soon release him, the sources said. There was also a request: that the German government not disclose what it had been told even if Masri went public. The U.S. officials feared exposure of a covert action program designed to capture terrorism suspects abroad and transfer them among countries, and possible legal challenges to the CIA from Masri and others with similar allegations.

The Masri case, with new details gleaned from interviews with current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials, offers a rare study of how pressure on the CIA to apprehend al Qaeda members after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has led in some instances to detention based on thin or speculative evidence. The case also shows how complicated it can be to correct errors in a system built and operated in secret.

The CIA, working with other intelligence agencies, has captured an estimated 3,000 people, including several key leaders of al Qaeda, in its campaign to dismantle terrorist networks. It is impossible to know, however, how many mistakes the CIA and its foreign partners have made.

Unlike the military's prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- where 180 prisoners have been freed after a review of their cases -- there is no tribunal or judge to check the evidence against those picked up by the CIA. The same bureaucracy that decides to capture and transfer a suspect for interrogation-- a process called "rendition" -- is also responsible for policing itself for errors.

The CIA inspector general is investigating a growing number of what it calls "erroneous renditions," according to several former and current intelligence officials.

One official said about three dozen names fall in that category; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said.

"They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association" with terrorism, one CIA officer said.

While the CIA admitted to Germany's then-Interior Minister Otto Schily that it had made a mistake, it has labored to keep the specifics of Masri's case from becoming public. As a German prosecutor works to verify or debunk Masri's claims of kidnapping and torture, the part of the German government that was informed of his ordeal has remained publicly silent. Masri's attorneys say they intend to file a lawsuit in U.S. courts this week.

Masri was held for five months largely because the head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center's al Qaeda unit "believed he was someone else," one former CIA official said. "She didn't really know. She just had a hunch."
This story is very familiar to me, not because there have been other cases that appear similar (although they exist), but because it is reminiscent in what often happens in the Arab world. People are suspected, but either illegally or through emergency laws that let security services bypass normal legal procedures, suspects are essentially vanished. Some never reappear, others only after a long time during which their lives are shattered and they are often tortured. Such systems are of course ripe for abuse, whether because of the incompetence of the officials that run them (here the CIA high-ranking official with a "hunch") or because they are used for personal retribution (for instance as is now common in Iraq when informants turn in people they don't like over to US or Iraqi forces).

According to the Post's story, "On the day of his release, the prison's director, who Masri believed was an American, told Masri that he had been held because he "had a suspicious name," Masri said in an interview." Masri means Egyptian in Arabic, and there are countless number of people who bear the same name. One would have thought that counter-terrorism efforts would be a little more sophisticated than that. As he put it himself:

Masri can find few words to explain his ordeal. "I have very bad feelings" about the United States, he said. "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."
Incidentally, there seems to be growing indignation in Europe over the extent and scope of the CIA rendition program. An issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel released today outlined contained a detailed list of over 430 secret rendition flights, on the eve of Condoleeza Rice's visit to Berlin. The list was released by the German aviation authority at the request of the leftist parliamentary coalition, which may push for a public debate not only on rendition, but on the use of German airspace for US air force flights that have to do with other reasons, such as the war in Iraq. Germany has a large number of US air bases despite closures and is an important logistics center for US operations in the Middle East. (See this Le Monde article for more on this.) Le Figaro is also reporting that at least two rendition flights made a stop in France. There have also been over 300 flights that stopped in Europe overall, and Eastern Europe is particularly involved.

Apparently, the CIA rushed to move prisoners out of European prisons before Rice's trip began, which has allowed her to make statements that sound -- and might very well still be -- flat-out lies. I watched her give her speech on CNN yesterday and found it very legalistic; in other words, it may have been technically true but was highly misleading in spirit.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.