U Khalid al Masri is a broken man today. A decade after the CIA snatched him by mistake, flew him halfway around the world in secret, and questioned him as part of its detention and interrogation program, he’s yet to recover.
He’s abandoned his home. He no longer is part of the lives of his wife or children. Friends can’t find him. His attorneys can’t find him. German foreign intelligence will say only that he’s “somewhere in a western-leaning Arab nation.”
When his Ulm attorney and confidant Manfred Gnjidic last saw him, he was broke, unkempt, paranoid and completely alone. He’d been arrested twice and sent once to a psychiatric ward, once to jail. He was in deep need of psychological counseling but with no hope of the extensive help he needed.
Masri’s case is one of the 26 instances detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee report where the CIA snared someone in its web of secret dungeons by mistake, realized its error after weeks or months of mistreatment and questioning, then let them go. But the report, made public Tuesday, does not recount what that mistake meant to al Masri’s life.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I was stunned by the torture report,” Gnjidic said. “They had known and privately admitted for years that they had made a mistake regarding Khalid,” who is a German citizen.
And yet the CIA, which realized its error within weeks of al Masri’s January 2004 detention, remained silent, as did the Senate Intelligence Committee, which learned of the mistake in 2007.
“For a decade, a decade in which his life has been shattered, he’d asked for … an apology, an explanation, a chance to go ahead with his life,” Gnjidic said. “They knew this, they admitted this and they didn’t share this with him?
“How cowardly must they be, how weak must they be, to fear apologizing when they knew they were completely in the wrong.”
Al Masri’s CIA detention, combined with Macedonian intelligence detention that Gnjidic believes was at CIA request, totaled 35 days by CIA count; by al Masri’s, closer to four months.
The Senate report does not discuss his treatment in detention. But al Masri has insisted over the years that he was tortured. He’s described being shackled to the ceiling while naked, unable to sit for days, existing on nothing, in the dark, a scenario that appears to be common in the torture report. A European court ruled in 2012 that he’d been sodomized and drugged.
The shadow cast by that detention saw him labeled by German media as an “Islamist extremist.”
Neighbors shunned him. Potential employers turned him away. In 2010, the German national newspaper Bild ran a story about him under a headline asking “Why do we allow ourselves to be terrorized by such a man?”
The article went on to state that “for months the Islamist who claims to be a victim of CIA torture has terrorized the federal government, parliament and the public.” His terrorism of the federal government apparently was in asking for redress and an explanation for what had happened to him.
As Gnjidic notes, and the Senate report makes clear, those answers were available to Masri years before he finally broke. A grocer and a mechanic before he was detained, he was arrested the first time in 2007 for setting fire to a store over a dispute over a broken iPod. His second arrest came when he attacked the mayor of Ulm in 2009, reportedly over the city’s approval of a permit for a legal brothel.
But the truth of his case was evident just days after CIA agents stuffed Masri’s head into a hood and chained him to the floor of an aircraft that took him from Europe to Afghanistan in January 2004. The Central Intelligence Agency officers tasked with getting at his terror connections soon expressed doubts about whether he had any.
In emails contained in the Senate report, CIA officers in Afghanistan noted that Masri, who’d been on a cheap bus vacation to Macedonia, “seemed bewildered on why he has been sent to this particular prison … adamant that [CIA] has the wrong person.” The officers agreed with this, as did their “RDG,” an acronym that is not otherwise defined in the report.
He’d been picked up, after 23 days of similarly pointless interrogation in Macedonia, because counter terror Alec Station officers reported that “al Masri knows key information that could assist in the capture of other al Qaida operatives that pose a serious threat of violence or death to U.S. persons and interests and who may be planning terrorist activities.”
As the CIA became convinced it had the wrong guy, the question became what to do with him. Their decision was simple, fly him back to Macedonia, dump him on a roadside, hand him 14,500 euro (about $17,000 at the time) and tell him to make his way back home.
According to the Senate report, the CIA Inspector General concluded in a secret report on al Masri’s detention that “[a]vailable intelligence information did not provide a sufficient basis to render and detain Khalid al Masri.” The inspector general concluded that the “agency’s prolonged detention of al Masri was unjustified,” according to the Senate report.
On Oct. 9, 2007, the Senate report said, the CIA informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that it had “lacked sufficient basis to render and detain al Masri” and that the judgment by operations officers that al Masri was associated with terrorists who posed a threat to U.S. interests “was not supported by available intelligence.”
That finding was never made public, however, and there were no consequences for those who made the mistakes. The Senate report notes that the CIA argued against punitive action because “[t]he Director strongly believes that mistakes should be expected in a business filled with uncertainty and that, when they result from performance that meets reasonable standards, CIA leadership must stand behind the officers who make them.”
Neither the report nor the available CIA documents discuss what to do about the victim of that mistake, however.
In subsequent years, German officials insist that the CIA made investigating al Masri’s claims impossible by refusing to provide information. In the United States, the case he pressed over his torture failed, with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear it in October, 2007 – the same month the Senate was informed that there had been no valid reason for his detention.
U.S. attorneys in their briefs to the Supreme Court never confirmed or denied his allegations, but said hearing the case could jeopardize American security secrets.
In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Macedonia to pay al Masri 60,000 euros, at the time about $80,000, saying he’d been sodomized, drugged, flown to Kabul via Baghdad against his will and that his surrender by Macedonian authorities to the United States exposed him to “a real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”
The CIA refused to comment for this story. CIA director John Brennan did not address and was not asked about the mistaken detentions in an unprecedented televised news conference he held on Thursday.
Jamil Dakwar, director of the Human Rights Program at the American Civil Liberties Union, represented al Masri in his U.S. case, and still represents him in a case pending before Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. He said every American should pay attention to al Masri’s case because it’s a perfect example of the cost of allowing an intelligence agency run wild, without even minimal legal restraints.
“If you’re looking to show criminal conspiracy, look at this case,” he said. “His case is important in determining what went wrong.”
Why? It’s not as simple as the fact that Masri was wrongly arrested. He was. And it’s not as simple as the torture he had to endure, the life he lost. The great tragedy here is that there was no reason for him to be a part of the CIA rendition program. Yet he was, and the CIA has yet to publicly own up to that mistake.
“Masri brought his case, he told his story, and they knew it was true,” Dakwar said. “Yet he never received redress. He never received an apology. He never even received acknowledgment. His case gives you an idea of the level of lawlessness, the magnitude of this atrocity. His life was devastated. And the United States didn’t care.”