Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Disappeared: "Mistaken" CIA Rendition

Dana Priest's Sunday WaPo piece is going to make some people very, very upset: "Wrongful Imprisonment: Anatomy of a CIA Mistake; German Citizen Released After Months in 'Rendition'." Priest recounts yet-another story of someone wrongfully identified as a terrorist who was then "rendered" (whisked away to a secret prison and tortured):
[US President Bush] signed a top secret presidential finding six days after the 9/11 attacks. It authorized an unprecedented range of covert action, including lethal measures and renditions, disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks against the al Qaeda enemy, according to current and former intelligence officials.
We're all too familiar with this process here in Canada. Maher Arar is still seeking justice for what the US (and some Keystone cops-style RCMP bungling) condemned him to in a Syrian hellhole. While Arar was apprehended in JFK/New York airport, Priest describes the more-general CIA approach to rendition: {emphasis mine}
To carry out its mission, the CTC [CIA's Counterterrorism Center] relies on its Rendition Group, made up of case officers, paramilitaries, analysts and psychologists. Their job is to figure out how to snatch someone off a city street, or a remote hillside, or a secluded corner of an airport where local authorities wait. Members of the Rendition Group follow a simple but standard procedure: Dressed head to toe in black, including masks, they blindfold and cut the clothes off their new captives, then administer an enema and sleeping drugs. They outfit detainees in a diaper and jumpsuit for what can be a day-long trip. Their destinations: either a detention facility operated by cooperative countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan, or one of the CIA's own covert prisons -- referred to in classified documents as "black sites," which at various times have been operated in eight countries, including several in Eastern Europe.
Priest's front-page scoop focuses on a German man who was "mistakenly" rendered. Meet Khaled Masri:
[click "Read on, MacDuff!" to continue reading]
Khaled Masri came to the attention of Macedonian authorities on New Year's Eve 2003. Masri, an unemployed father of five living in Ulm, Germany, said he had gone by bus to Macedonia to blow off steam after a spat with his wife. He was taken off a bus at the Tabanovce border crossing by police because his name was similar to that of an associate of a 9/11 hijacker. The police drove him to Skopje, the capital, and put him in a motel room with darkened windows, he said in a recent telephone interview from Germany.
The police treated Masri firmly but cordially, asking about his passport, which they insisted was forged, about al Qaeda and about his hometown mosque, he said. When he pressed them to let him go, they displayed their pistols. [...] The director of the [CIA's] al Qaeda unit supported [the rendition] approach. She insisted he was probably a terrorist, and should be imprisoned and interrogated immediately. Others were doubtful. They wanted to wait to see whether the passport was proved fraudulent. Beyond that, there was no evidence Masri was not who he claimed to be -- a German citizen of Arab descent traveling after a disagreement with his wife. The unit's director won the argument. She ordered Masri captured and flown to a CIA prison in Afghanistan.
[...] Masri said his cell in Afghanistan was cold, dirty and in a cellar, with no light and one dirty cover for warmth. The first night he said he was kicked and beaten and warned by an interrogator: "You are here in a country where no one knows about you, in a country where there is no law. If you die, we will bury you, and no one will know." [...] Masri's passport was given to the Office of Technical Services to analyze. By March, OTS had concluded the passport was genuine. The CIA had imprisoned the wrong man.
So what did they do with this new information? What do you tell Germany, exactly? The CIA and State dept. disagreed on whether or not to inform German authorities about their "mistake." The State dept. wanted to come-clean. In the end, Masri was flown to Albania and released; an Ambassador to Germany was tapped to give the Germans the bad news about what the CIA had done (May 2004). Oh...one more thing: the US Ambassador requested that the Germans keep all of this to themselves, even if/when Masri "went public" with his story. Just how common is this?
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. [...] About a dozen men have been transferred by the CIA to Guantanamo Bay, according to a Washington Post review of military tribunal testimony and other records. Some CIA officials have argued that the facility has become, as one former senior official put it, "a dumping ground" for CIA mistakes.
Priest goes on to describe several more cases of 'mistaken identity': Mamdouh Habib, who was rendered to Egypt and tortured (cigarette burns, electric shocks, beatings); Mohamedou Oulad Slahi, a former Canadian resident who was rendered to Jordan and tortured; Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni who was rendered to Egypt. Madni was actually tossed around several prisons: Indonesia-->Egypt-->Afghanistan-->Guantanamo Bay.

As for Khaled Masri, he has reunited with his family and, like Maher Arar, is having trouble finding his life again. He is unemployed and carries the obvious stigma of having been a person-of-interest. He has a lawyer working on his case and much of Masri's personal account of events has checked out with other sources (bus driver, border guards, flight-logs for CIA planes, etc.). Also: "A forensic analysis of Masri's hair showed he was malnourished during the period he says he was in the prison."

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