The wronged man

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 8, 2005

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION has a new public relations nightmare, and his name is Khaled Masri. His case has turned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's tour of Europe into a debacle, and if even half of his allegations are true, America's ever-grimier reputation in "old Europe" will have another indelible stain.

Masri, a 42-year-old German citizen, filed suit Tuesday against former CIA Director George J. Tenet and three private aviation companies. He claims he was snatched while on vacation in Macedonia in December 2003, drugged and flown to Afghanistan, where he was held for five months in one of those secret CIA prisons that the administration pretends don't exist.

In prison, he says, he was beaten, photographed naked and held in squalid conditions. According to his lawsuit, he was detained for two months even after the CIA learned it had nabbed the wrong man, apparently because the Lebanese-born Masri's name was confused with that of an Al Qaeda operative. He was released on an Albanian hillside in May 2004, having never been charged with a crime.

Masri is no enemy combatant; he was a car salesman. If the Bush administration had any secret evidence of his links to terrorism, Rice would presumably have shared it with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom she met on Tuesday.

Instead, Merkel said Rice admitted that the United States had kidnapped Masri by mistake. A Rice aide then made matters worse by denying that the secretary had admitted error in the Masri case. (The aide spoke on condition of anonymity, using diplomatic cover to imply that the new leader of Germany is either a ditz or a liar.) Now the American and European public is left to wonder who is lying: the German chancellor or the U.S. secretary of State?

If the Bush administration has any evidence to show Masri's story is false, it should present it. If, on the other hand, it knows that CIA officials masterminded the kidnapping and detention of an innocent man, it should apologize and explore his offer of a settlement.

Either way, it should spare Americans the disgrace of a trial at which the U.S. government attempts, through legal sophistry, to justify "extraordinary rendition." Can this administration truly believe the war on terrorism justifies snatching anyone it suspects, anywhere in the world, and interrogating him in secret prisons for any amount of time, all without any judicial oversight?

Rice's response so far has been unconvincing and legalistic. She insists that the U.S. as a matter of policy does not "condone" torture, yet she refuses to acknowledge the existence of secret CIA prisons in Europe, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Nor will she comment on the growing numbers of people like Masri who claim to have been tortured in these prisons.

Rice's performance is not only disappointing but counterproductive. She has done more than any other U.S. official to mend the rupture with Europe over the Iraq war, helping to craft more sensible and multilateral policies on Iran, Syria and North Korea. Now, chastened by her reception in Europe and the unpopularity of the administration's tactics, perhaps Rice can come home and persuade President Bush to adopt a more sensible and multilateral approach.