When secrecy goes by any other name


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

No justice, no peace. The phrase is worn from overuse at too many protests of too many wrongs, real or perceived.

Still, it is the most apt reaction to the sad and infuriating case of Khaled al-Masri.

Masri is a German citizen who was mistakenly seized from a tourist bus en route to the Macedonian capital of Skopje in 2003, then held for five months of what he says was hellish treatment.

He was accused of being a terrorist, turned over to Americans and flown to a prison in Afghanistan. In the course of his detention, he claims he was shackled, beaten, sodomized, stripped naked, photographed nude and injected with drugs. After five months, Masri was released as suddenly as he'd been seized -- dropped along a winding mountain road at the border between Albania and Macedonia, where he was handed a box containing his belongings, including his passport, which had been taken from him when he was captured.

German prosecutors have verified much of Masri's account. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last December that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had admitted the United States erred in Masri's case -- his name apparently is similar to that of an al-Qaida suspect on terrorist watch lists. The U.S. government says Rice indicated that when mistakes are made, they are rectified.

Yet just last week, the CIA succeeded in squashing Masri's lawsuit against the U.S. government. He sought compensation and a public apology, trifling demands that surely could be met. And perhaps they would be met by an American government still inspired by the ideal of justice.

But this government said Masri's suit must be blocked because to acknowledge his situation -- to confirm or deny it -- would reveal a "state secret," and so jeopardize national security. U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III agreed, although he made clear that accepting the "state secrets" argument wasn't a judgment on Masri's claims.

"Every single fact that is needed to prove liability is already in the public record," says Ben Wizner, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represents Masri.

Several European governments and the United Nations, as well as unnamed American sources, have confirmed that the United States runs a secret program of "renditions" in which terrorism suspects are swept off the streets and spirited away to secret detention centers.

To whisper the word "secret" in connection with this case is to bend the language beyond absurdity. Stonewall is more accurate.

The secrecy blanket that the Bush administration routinely throws over its questionable conduct also was used to cloak the case of Sibel Edmonds, a former FBI translator who was fired in 2002 after reporting security breaches and other misconduct. Unclassified briefings given to members of Congress about Edmonds' claims verified many of them -- so then-Attorney General John Ashcroft classified the information retroactively.

The Justice Department's inspector general also found that Edmonds' revelations of malfeasance were a factor in her dismissal. That report, too, was classified, though an unclassified version was released.

The Supreme Court ended the Edmonds case by refusing to hear it. Planned appeals of Masri's lawsuit would seem to be similarly doomed

Some discomfort, at least, seemed to unsettle Ellis. Even though Masri's claims couldn't be brought in court, the judge wrote that if they are "essentially true," then "all fair-minded people ... must also agree that Masri has suffered injuries as a result of our country's mistake, and deserves a remedy."

Masri, then, has no recourse. Yet the more the United States heaps injustice upon the innocent, the more we stoke grievances. And the longer we will go without something resembling peace.

Marie Cocco writes for The Washington Post. Reach her at mariecocco@washpost.com