CIA Terrorism Abuses Coming to Light

WASHINGTON -- In May 2004, the White House dispatched the U.S. ambassador in Germany on an unusual visit to that country's interior minister.

Ambassador Daniel 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.

Unlike the military's prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 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.

One official said about 35 names fell in the category of "erroneous renditions"; others believe it is fewer. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the al-Qaida member a bad grade, an official said.

Masri was held for five months largely because the head of the al-Qaida unit of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center "believed he was someone else," one former CIA official said. "She didn't really know. She just had a hunch."

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, pressure coming directly from the office of U.S. President George W. Bush to locate and nab potential terrorists bore down especially hard on the Counterterrorist Center, or CTC. With operations officers and analysts sitting side by side in a basement room in the agency's sprawling headquarters, the idea was to act on tips and leads with speed.

The CTC relies on its Rendition Group to do this. Its job is to figure out how to snatch someone off a city street, remote hillside or secluded corner of an airport where local authorities wait.

Members of the 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. The destination is either a detention facility operated by cooperative countries in the Middle East or one of the CIA's own covert prisons, which at various times have been operated in eight countries, including several in Eastern Europe.

After Sept. 11, the CTC was the place to be for officers wanting in on the fight, ballooning from 300 to 1,200 overnight.

"It was the Camelot of counterterrorism," a former counterterrorism official said. "We didn't have to mess with others -- and it was fun."

One way the CIA has dealt with detainees it no longer wants to hold is to transfer them to the custody of the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, where defense authorities decide whether to keep or release them after a review.

Among those released from Guantanamo is Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, an Egyptian imprisoned by Indonesian authorities in January 2002 after he was heard talking -- he says jokingly -- about a new shoe bomb technology. After being held for 13 months in Afghanistan, he was taken to Guantanamo Bay, according to his testimony.

Meanwhile, a German prosecutor continues to work Masri's case. He can find few words to explain his ordeal: "I have very bad feelings" about the United States. "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."