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WASHINGTON – 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.
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
El-Masri says he was beaten, sodomized and drugged
"I was blindfolded, put back on a plane, flown to Europe and left on a hilltop in Albania — without any explanation or apology for the nightmare that I had endured," el-Masri wrote in The Los Angeles Times in 2007.
Nobody in management was singled out for discipline.
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.
Even after the CIA confirmed that the German passport was authentic, Frances was not convinced, former officials said. She argued against freeing el-Masri, saying his phone had been linked to terrorists. For weeks, the U.S. knowingly held the wrong man, as top CIA officers tried to figure out what to do.
The document has never been released but its findings were summarized by people who have seen it. The report came down hard on Frances. She had been warned about the uncertainties surrounding el-Masri's identity. There hadn't been enough evidence for a rendition, the report said, but Frances pushed ahead.
"You can't render people because they have called a bad guy or know a bad guy," a former U.S. intelligence official said, describing the investigation's findings on condition of anonymity because the report still has not been released. "She was convinced he was a bad guy."
Since 9/11, retired CIA officers have published a variety of books opining on what ails the CIA. Their conclusions differ, but they are in nearly unanimous agreement that the system of accountability is broken.
There are accounts of womanizing CIA managers who repeatedly violated the agency's rules, only to receive a slap on the wrist, if anything, followed by promotion. Officers who were favored by senior managers at headquarters were spared discipline. Those without such political ties were more likely to face punishment
Humam al-Balawi, a supposed al-Qaida turncoat whom the CIA codenamed "Wolf," had promised to lead the U.S. to Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But al-Balawi was really a double agent, and as the CIA ushered him onto its base in December 2009, he detonated a suicide bomb. The explosion killed five CIA officers, including the base chief, and two contractors. Six other people were injured in an attack that led to criticism in and out of the CIA that the officers had violated basic rules.
Nine months later, a CIA review determined the opposite. Warnings had, in fact, been ignored. Jordanian intelligence had raised concerns about al-Balawi. But the promise of killing or capturing al-Zawahiri clouded the agency's decision-making, the review found. Security protocols weren't followed. Officers displayed bad judgment.
Panetta agreed there were widespread problems. But, in a move that's been compared to former CIA Director Porter Goss' decision not to hold an accountability review for the failures before 9/11, Panetta opted not to punish anyone.