The ACLU has joined a lawuit filed by Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, who was illegally snatched by the CIA on Christmas Eve 2003 while on his way to visit relatives in Macedonia, then sent to a CIA prison in Afghanistan (a country where he has no relatives or other connections) where he was held without charges for five months.
Last year, the CIA thought it had an important al-Qaida terrorist in custody. CIA agents secretly detained him in Europe and flew him to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, in a so-called "rendition." But now senior U.S. officials tell NBC News that CIA realized early on, it had the wrong man — but kept him in prison anyway. They say he was kept in the primitive prison for more than a month after CIA director George Tenet was informed of the case, while officials tried to figure out a way to fix their mistake.
On New Year’s Eve 2003, German citizen Khaled El-Masri says he was kidnapped in Macedonia, and then flown by U.S. officials to Afghanistan where he was held in secret in harsh conditions until May. The mysterious events were seen as a case study in "renditions," or secret CIA operations to move terrorist suspects to third countries, outside U.S. legal authority.
Al-Masri, which the US admitted falsely imprisoning earlier this year, isn't suing for a great deal of money-- reportedly only $75,000 to cover the lost income and medical bills he has suffered as a result-- so clearly the man isn't trying to profit from this. He would be justified if he sued for a lot more though:
Among the details NBC News has learned:
Macedonian officials arrested El Masri first and told the CIA that El-Masri’s German passport was fake. His name set off bells because it matched someone who had trained in Osama bin Laden’s camps.
A CIA "black renditions" team swept into Macedonia and then flew El-Masri to a prison in Afghanistan nicknamed the "Salt Pit."
In February, CIA officers in Kabul began to suspect he was the wrong man, and they raised the red flag. They sent his passport back to the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va. In March, sources say, the CIA finally finished checking his passport and found it was not a fake. The Macedonians had been wrong. The CIA realized it had the wrong man, a genuine German citizen, in custody.
El-Masri told NBC News that back in Afghanistan, in the prison, one American was frustrated over what was happening.
"He seemed to get mad about the situation and shouted, 'I don't think you belong here, I will once more call Washington,'" El-Masri says.
But in Washington, sources say, in mid April, officals called a special meeting at the CIA to brief director George Tenet. An officer quotes Tenet as saying, "You’ve got an innocent guy in the Salt Pit?" Tenet said El-Masri should be released.
By May, sources say National Security Council Director Condoleezza Rice learned of the mistake and ordered El-Masri's immediate release. She said as well that the German government should be told of the incident, for diplomatic reasons. But that didn’t end the case. About two weeks later, Rice learned El-Masri was still being held and ordered him released again.
In late May 2003, he finally was freed.
but the more important aspect of the suit are these:
1. It makes it plain that this is happening. Some on the right have said that the idea that people are being sent to secret prisons without a hearing to determine guilt are pure speculation. But now we have someone who it happened to.
2. It makes the case as well as anything could, that due process is necessary. People on the right are always going on about how terror suspects don't deserve due process. But they forget what due process is. Due process is a way to determine whether someone who is accused, is in fact guilty. Without it, you can have people like al-Masri who are innocent and still end up in secret prisons, with no access to legal help, and for as long as our government decides to keep them there. Due process rights are not to 'coddle' the guilty, but to protect the falsely accused, and as we see for example the writ of habeas corpus, an integral part of the law since the middle ages and since the founding of the United States (thereby guaranteeing access to the Federal Courts), about to be jettisoned in the newly revised Patriot Act III, we would do well to remember that. Get rid of due process, and an accusation becomes the foundation for punishment, as happened to Mr. al-Masri.
3. According to the article, George Tenet and Condoleeza Rice both demanded, once they found out that an innocent man was in prison, that he be released immediately. But he was not for several more weeks. If that is accurate, then someone else is exercising more power than the CIA director and the Secretary of State. It might be the President. It might be the Vice President. Or it might be someone you have never heard of. The implications of this are so frightening that it makes me HOPE that this part of the story is false, and that they are only covering up now.
IN THE COMMENTS:
This post originally made reference to torture. However, a reader points out that there has been no evidence offered that Mr. al-Masri was physically tortured while there. Therefore, all references to torture have been expunged (we will follow the trial closely), but the point about due process continues to stand.