WASHINGTON (AP) — In December 2003, security forces boarded a bus in Macedonia and snatched a German citizen named Khaled el-Masri. For the next five months, el-Masri was a ghost. Only a select group of CIA officers knew he had been whisked to a secret prison for interrogation in Afghanistan.
But he was the wrong guy.
A hard-charging CIA analyst had pushed the agency into one of the biggest diplomatic embarrassments of the U.S. war on terrorism. Yet despite recommendations by an internal review, the analyst was never punished. In fact, she has risen to one of the premier jobs in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, helping lead President Barack Obama’s efforts to disrupt al Qaeda.
In the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, officers who committed serious mistakes that left people wrongly imprisoned or even dead have received only minor admonishments or no punishment at all, an Associated Press investigation has revealed. The botched el-Masri case is but one example of a CIA accountability process that even some within the agency say is unpredictable and inconsistent.
Though Obama has sought to put the CIA’s interrogation program behind him, the result of a decade of haphazard accountability is that many officers who made significant missteps are now the senior managers fighting the president’s spy wars.
The AP investigation of the CIA’s actions revealed a disciplinary system that takes years to make decisions, hands down reprimands inconsistently and is viewed inside the agency as prone to favoritism and manipulation. When people are disciplined, the punishment seems to roll downhill, sparing senior managers even when they were directly involved in operations that go awry.
Two officers involved in the death of a prisoner in Afghanistan, for instance, received no discipline and have advanced into Middle East leadership positions. Other officers were punished after participating in a mock execution in Poland and playing a role in the death of a prisoner in Iraq. Those officers retired, then rejoined the intelligence community as contractors.
Some lawmakers were so concerned about the lack of accountability that last year they created a new inspector general position with broad authority to investigate missteps in the CIA or anywhere else in the intelligence community.
“There are occasions when people ought to be fired,” former Sen. Kit Bond said in November as he completed his tenure as the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Someone who made a huge error ought not to be working at the agency. We’ve seen instance after instance where there hasn’t been accountability.”
In a makeshift prison fashioned out of an abandoned Afghan brick factory, CIA officers left terrorism suspect Gul Rahman overnight in an unheated cell as the early morning temperature hovered around freezing.
Known as Salt Pit, the jail was the precursor to the CIA’s secret network of overseas prisons. Guards wore masks. There, stripped half naked, Rahman froze to death in November 2002.
The CIA’s inspector general launched an inquiry. The results have never been made public but were summarized for AP by former officials who, like most of the dozens of people who discussed the CIA’s disciplinary system, insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it.
The investigation determined that the CIA’s top officer at the prison, Matt, displayed poor judgment by leaving Rahman in the cold. The report also expressed concerns about the role of Paul, the CIA station chief in Afghanistan, and later placed some blame on agency management at headquarters.
The AP is identifying Matt, Paul and other current and former undercover CIA officers — though only by partial names — because they are central to the question of who is being held accountable and because it enhances the credibility of AP’s reporting in this case. AP’s policy is to use names whenever possible. The AP determined that even the most sophisticated commercial information services could not be used to derive the officers’ full names or, for example, find their home addresses knowing only their first names and the fact of their CIA employment. The AP has withheld further details that could help identify them.