Monday, February 14, 2011

No Accounting for CIA's Mistakes

      “Frances” was a “hard-charging” CIA counterterrorism analyst with no field experience in January 2004 when she pushed the agency into kidnapping a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, who was then imprisoned and tortured at a secret “black site” in Afghanistan. Others at the agency’s Counterterrorism Center doubted fingering el-Masri as an anti-American terrorist, but Frances persisted and won approval for the snatch from Elizabeth, one of the agency’s lawyers.
      Barely three months later, the CIA realized it had made a mistake. Agents had confused el-Masri with a suspected al Qaida operative with an almost identical name: Khalid al-Masri. El-Masri was flown from Afghanistan to Albania, where he was released at night without either apology or funds.
      Frances’s mistake led to an embarrassing diplomatic face-off with Germany, a helpful U.S. ally in the war on terror, and a still continuing legal battle in U.S. courts and international tribunals. But, according to a damning, 1,400-word account by Associated Press reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, Frances was not fired, suspended or even reprimanded. Instead, seven years later, Frances runs the CIA’s Global Jihad unit charged with hunting down al Qaida. Elizabeth, the lawyer, was reprimanded, but she too still works for the agency, now as a legal adviser to the Near East division.
      “That botched case,” Goldman and Apuzzo write, “is but one example of a CIA accountability process that even some within the agency say is unpredictable and inconsistent. In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, officers who committed mistakes that left people wrongly imprisoned or even dead received only minor admonishments or no punishment at all . . . .”
      The AP story, published on Feb. 9, was noteworthy for the decision to partially identify undercover CIA personnel responsible for some of the agency’s fiascoes. As explained in the story, the AP believed that identifying individuals by first name enhanced the credibility of the report without risking blowing their cover. (“Frances” has a distinctive first name, so her middle name was used instead.) A CIA spokesman called the AP’s decision “nothing short of reckless,” but the story noted that the agency did not go all out to argue against the partial identifications.
      The never-held-accountable CIA agents, according to the AP story, also include Paul, the agency’s top man in Afghanistan, and Matt, who ran the prison where a suspected terrorist froze to death in 2002. The CIA’s inspector general reportedly “faulted” both men, but “in the end” neither was disciplined. Paul is now reportedly chief of the Near East division; Matt is said to have completed assignments that included deputy chief of tribal operations in Pakistan.
      Only mild discipline was reportedly imposed for a CIA interrogator’s “mock execution” of a suspected terrorist at a secret prison in Poland. As recounted in an inspector general’s report, the interrogator, identified by the AP as Albert, put an unloaded gun and a bitless drill to the suspect’s head. Albert was reprimanded, according to the AP account, and his boss, Mike, retired during the investigation. But Albert stayed on until retirement and has now returned as a contractor. And Paul, the Poland station chief who witnessed the incident but failed to stop it, now runs the Central European Division.
      CIA spokesman George Little predictably defended the CIA’s record on discipline. “Any suggestion that the agency does not take seriously its obligation to review employee misconduct — including those of senior officers — is flat wrong,” Little said. The reporters quoted an unnamed U.S. intelligence official as saying that about 100 employees, including “more than a dozen senior officers,” have been subjected to disciplinary review under the current director, Leon Panetta. “Many were fired or resigned,” the story stated.
      Goldman and Apuzzo have scored other scoops in their reporting on the CIA. In December, they reported that the CIA had agreed to cover at least $5 million in legal fees for the two psychologists, Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who designed the agency’s now infamous “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the early days of the post-9/11 war on terror. Mitchell and Jessen personally waterboarded al Qaida facilitator Abu Zubaydah in 2002 — not once or twice, but 83 times, as officially acknowledged. Today, Mitchell and Jessen are being defended in Justice Department investigations by high-price Washington lawyers under an indemnity agreement that they requested in evident recognition of the dubious legality of their techniques.
      That story, like the more recent one, got some but enough attention. Some newspapers picked up the non-accountability story, but the New York Times, as one important example, only noted it in a non-print blog. The ACLU said the CIA’s failure underscores the need for judicial accountability, but that has been lacking. The government derailed El-Masri’s suit against CIA contractor airlines by claiming a state secrets privilege. El-Masri has other proceedings pending in international tribunals.
      Meanwhile, a controversial Justice Department investigation by career prosecutor John Durham has produced nothing so far. The statute of limitations for the notorious destruction of videotapes of waterboarding episodes passed in November with no prosecutions. In another country, unaccounted for human rights violations would warrant criticism from the U.S. government. For the CIA, however, the AP story indicates that non-accountability was — and perhaps still is — business as usual.

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