In December 2003, along the Macedonian border, a German citizen claims he was kidnapped and turned over to what he believes were Americans. So began what he says was a harrowing five-month ordeal.
"I got beaten up from all sides with some sort of sharp device, maybe knives," Khalid el-Masri told NBC News through a translator. "They started to cut my clothes off my body."
El-Masri claims he ended up in prison in Afghanistan, where he was treated harshly.
"I wanted to know why I was there and he said, 'You are here in a country without laws and no one knows where you are,'" says el-Masri.
He claims interrogators repeatedly grilled him about al-Qaida, Islamic charities and whether he knew any of the 9/11 plotters.
"He said that I should say I was a member of al-Qaida," says el-Masri.
After five months el-Masri says he finally was taken back to the border and released. Once home, el-Masri provided travel documents and layouts of where he was held to German prosecutors, who, after lengthy interrogations, say they believe him.
The CIA will not confirm or deny el-Masri's allegations. But the agency has acknowledged that it conducts snatch operations overseas — known as renditions — in which suspected terrorists are grabbed and flown to a third country for questioning.
Former CIA officer Melissa Mahle argues that these operations are valuable because they get potential terrorists off the street.
"By using it judiciously, I think that our intelligence services have saved American lives," says Mahle.
However, critics call the tactic an underhanded way to get around the rule of law.
"There's no check on the government abusing innocent peoples' rights," says David Cole, a civil liberties expert at Georgetown University.
Intelligence officials tell NBC News el-Masri may have been a victim of mistaken identity. He has the same name — spelled differently — as a man whom the 9/11 commission tied to 9/11 hijackers.
But el-Masri doesn't accept that explanation.
"The Americans treat people with their cowboy-style politics as if the entire world was Indians," he says.
U.S. officials defend the secret operations, but critics complain they come at too high a price.