Wrongfully detained, no apology

RICHMOND, Va.–Khaled el-Masri was supposed to have been disappeared by black-hooded CIA paramilitaries in the dead of night. One minute he was riding a bus in Macedonia, the next–poof–gone. Grabbed by Macedonian agents, he was handed off to junior CIA operatives in Skopje and then secretly flown to a prison in Afghanistan that didn’t officially exist, to be interrogated with rough measures that weren’t officially on the books. And then never to be heard from again–one fewer terrorist in the post-9/11 world.

Instead, on Tuesday, Masri found himself sitting in an American courtroom so elegant that even his experienced lawyers are commenting on its beautiful dark wood and graceful chandeliers. Dressed in white shirt sleeves and a modest maroon vest, el-Masri is waiting to see if the judges will allow the CIA to disappear him again.

This time, it’s not the physical, flesh-and-blood, burly, ponytailed German citizen with six kids that the U.S. government wants to make vanish from the face of the Earth. It’s his legal case, his very right to have his argument heard in open court that the CIA is seeking to have disappeared

There are eight U.S. officials who confirmed to at least one American reporter that el-Masri spent months in a dank Afghan cell because a couple of CIA officials in Washington had a hunch he was someone he was not and just didn’t move fast enough when they found out he wasn’t. Countless other reporters in the United States and Europe have been told the same by unnamed government officials.

So basically, "the entire world can discuss this case … but not the U.S. courts?" el-Masri’s lawyer Ben Wizner will momentarily ask the panel.

Much of el-Masri’s ordeal has been confirmed by the German government. He fled the civil war in Lebanon in 1985 when he was 21 and married a German woman. He was divorced 10 years later and then married a Lebanese woman. He worked as a carpenter, then truck driver, then car salesman. Since 2004 he has been unemployed and living with his children and wife in a one-room apartment.

To make a very long story shorter, Macedonian police took him off the bus and interrogated him at the Skopski Merak Hotel for 23 days.

This being the Internet age, el-Masri says in one legal declaration: From the hotel Web site "I can identify the actual room where I was held. … I even recognize one of the waiters who served me food during my detention there."

For his flight to Afghanistan, el-Masri was blindfolded, "my ears were plugged with cotton, and headphones were placed over my ears. A bag was placed over my head and a belt around my waist. They put something hard over my nose. Because of the bag, breathing was getting harder and harder for me. … I began to panic."

He spent five months in a filthy, secret prison set up by the CIA and guarded by Afghans. He was beaten and interrogated many times, sometimes by people he believes to be Americans. He went on a hunger strike, lost 60 pounds.

Eventually the CIA caught up with its mistake. They argued with the State Department over whether to tell the Germans or not and eventually agreed they could not lie to such a close ally. So they chose to tell then-Interior Minister Otto Schily because he was thought to be Washington-friendly.

E-Masri was released in Albania, then flown to Germany, where he made his way home to Ulm. There, he contacted a lawyer and then the German authorities. "What I really want is for them to admit that injustice was done. I’d like an explanation and I’d like an apology," he said.

Is a state secret still a secret if everyone knows it? That’s what the court case boils down to at this point.

El-Masri’s lawyers say no.

They point to President Bush’s Sept. 6, 2006, disclosure that the CIA ran secret prisons abroad and conducted covert rendition flights as part of its counterterrorism campaign. The CIA and Justice Department lawyers strongly disagree. They argue that allowing a case to go forward could lead to a "cascading" of disclosures, many unforeseen, and that foreign governments would refuse to work in secret with the CIA for fear they could end up in court.

Before all this happened, "I was a very simple person with not many problem," el-Masri says, straining and pausing to find words, or gather his thoughts. "I had lots of friends. My head was not burdened with so many things. I felt more safe."

Today’s el-Masri "has less freedom. … This Khaled stays mostly at home. There’s too much stress. And my interests have changed. I am reading a lot now, about politics and prisoners."

He has testified before government panels in Spain, Germany and to the European Parliament investigating the CIA’s covert activities. He is in the news constantly, often with allegations of alleged ties to terrorist groups.

"I think it’s really good I’ve gotten this far," he says with a slight smile.

Asked how he feels towards the United States after all this, he shrugs.

"I never thought badly of the United States. I do think badly of the foreign policy aspects and the sitting government."

Nudge a little further and he’ll say he’d like "an America without Bush."

And a little further:

"I’d like to drive with the top down in a fancy car through New York City and to look up at all the tall buildings," he laughs, looking up to the ceiling and throwing open his arms. "You’ve got a real view of the whole thing from a car without a top."

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Title: Wrongfully detained, no apology | Author: Dana Priest | Section: News | Published Date: 2006-11-29 | Internal ID: 5314