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.
Many of El-Masri’s claims have been confirmed, but until now it was not known what had actually gone wrong. Now NBC News has learned key details of the CIA operation, how the mistake was discovered, and how top officials in the US government, including Tenet and Condoleezza Rice were briefed.
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.
"It’s very deeply troublesome," says former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith, when NBC News told him of the story. Smith says el-Masri should have been released as soon as the CIA learned he was the wrong man.
"It's wrong morally, it’s wrong legally," he says. "And it violates the basic principles of the United States."
The American Civil Liberties Union has been investigating the CIA’s use of “renditions” on suspected terrorists.
"Use of rendition," says Steven Watt, an ACLU lawyer, "puts America in a legal black hole. But when it’s used to hold a man that the United States knows to be innocent, that puts us in a moral black hole as well."
Watt says this incident shows incompetence on the part of the CIA. "They denied a man his freedom, simply to avoid potential criticism or embarrassment," he adds.
The CIA, Tenet and Rice had no comment. Intelligence sources say the CIA inspector general is investigating, and the German government says prosecutors in Munich are also looking into El-Masri’s charges.