Day 739: ‘Freedom’ Is In The Eye Of The Guy With The Big Stick

originally published January 8, 2014

Looking for a way to feel old? With a few exceptions, the only people who vividly remember the events of 9/11 first-hand are now legally eligible to vote. Those of us who can recall it are easily able to summon that cool twitch of nerves below the surface of our skin, and the shadowy ash of paranoia that all but blocked out the sun in the days that followed.

When President George W. Bush took action in pursuit of Osama bin Laden, he was hailed a hero and basked in the fleeting warmth of a 90% approval rating. Partisan lines that had been carved in the sand by jagged, blood-flecked sticks were swept clean and presidentially raked like a long-jump pit. Everyone wanted to get the bad guys, and we didn’t care if it took John McClane, John Rambo or every US Marine and his/her pet gerbil to get it done.

But as 2001 faded into the dim indigo glow of 2002 and then 2003, enthusiasm began to wane. The bad guys clearly couldn’t be taken down within the confines of a two-hour blockbuster storyline. It wasn’t a matter of claiming their base with a steel-toed thud, or chasing bin Laden to the edge of a volcano for a Hans Zimmer-scored climactic duel with battle axes. Instead we had the Patriot Act, the TSA, and home-spun atrocities that scantly trickled through our newsfeed.

Like the story of Khalid El-Masri.

Khalid was born and raised in Lebanon, but when the local political climate blew in a nor’easter of a civil war during the 1980’s, he booked a one-way trip to Germany and applied for political asylum. Since then, Khalid got married twice, and had settled into a comfortable lifestyle. In late 2003, he decided to take a short vacation from his home in Ulm to the city of Skopje, Macedonia, home of over 600 newspapers (seriously). At the Macedonian border, things began to go wrong.

In whichever script was on Khalid’s passport, “Khalid El-Masri” looked identical to “Khalid al-Masri”, who was a wanted mentor to the Hamburg cell of al-Qaeda. Khalid was hauled in for an interrogation, and put up in a local motel under heavy guard for three weeks while officials poked and prodded his identification in an attempt to prove it to be a forgery.

Then the CIA stepped in.

Back in Langley, Virginia, the CIA honchos discussed whether they should employ an extraordinary rendition to acquire Khalid from Macedonian custody. In post-9/11 political terms, ‘extraordinary rendition’ isn’t like John Coltrane covering “My Favorite Things” and elevating the tune beyond the original (which his version totally does). This is when one country – usually America – can transfer a prisoner from another. This was a presidential administration hungry for a win, and if Khalid might possibly be that Hamburg guy, this would be a huge ‘W’ for W.

Alfreda Frances Bikowsky was the head of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center at the time, and just like every nitwit head of CTU that Jack Bauer had to overcome, Alfreda had some issues in her past. Her department had allegedly bungled some important intel in 2000, things like future 9/11 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar’s entry into the US. Alfreda didn’t want another fumble on her stat-sheet. She had a hunch that Khalid El-Masri was a bit on the ‘terroristy’ side, and she had him brought in.

The CIA slapped a black hood on Khalid, crammed a suppository up his ass (not sure why), and shackled him for transport. He was flown to the ‘Salt Pit’ in Baghdad, a clandestine prison and interrogation center that may fall short of Guantanamo Bay fame, but fits snugly into the same category. There, Khalid was beaten repeatedly, given rancid water and meagre rations to eat, and was forcibly sodomized – again, I’m not entirely certain what they were trying to accomplish here.

The Jack Bauer argument – and indeed the defense that would be offered by many people who never forgot the horrors of 9/11 and who genuinely believed that such steel-fisted methods might drive a terrorist to repent and snitch – is that this treatment is necessary. Torture leads to the collapse of the psyche, and that collapse can lead to a sudden spewing of valuable intelligence information.

Turns out, not so much. Numerous recent studies have illuminated the inefficacy of torture in producing truthful confessions or valid information. It’s a brilliant time-saver on 24, but in reality it simply doesn’t work.

Oh, and let’s not forget – Khalid El-Masri wasn’t a terrorist to begin with.

In February – and here we’re only just over a month since his arrest – CIA officers in Kabul began to suspect that maybe Khalid’s passport wasn’t a forgery after all. They sent it to “the lab”, which concluded in April that holding him was a mistake. CIA director George Tenet himself was told this, but nothing was done. This was a sticky little problem; releasing Khalid would involve admitting a huge blunder and possibly facing some repercussions on a global scale. Also, it was an election year.

Meanwhile back in prison, Khalid began a hunger strike. He held out for 27 days before being granted a meeting with the prison director and a CIA agent. They told him that yes, they understood that it was wrong to keep him detained. But he’d best not pack his bags yet. There was paperwork, and the little matter of what the hell to do with him.

The CIA’s solution was to fly Khalid to Albania, which is located next to Macedonia where he had first been arrested, though nowhere near his home in Ulm, Germany. They dropped him off without an apology on a deserted road with no money and no means to get home. Buh-bye.

Khalid’s wife, believing her husband to have walked out on the family, had taken her children home to Lebanon, so getting together with her again took a bit of time. Khalid did make it back to Ulm, and by January of 2005, New York Times journalists Don van Natta and Souad Mekhennet cracked the story open and revealed Khalid’s case to the world.

The Macedonian government was sued for their part in this fiasco, and paid out a settlement to Khalid and his family. Despite the feverish efforts by the ACLU to push for Khalid’s case, the lawsuit against the US was dismissed. There would be no consequence.

And so Khalid El-Masri was left a broken man. Five months of his life were brutally stolen and the crumpled remains were tossed back in his lap. Khalid, who had lived a quiet life prior to all this, lives in a state of heightened paranoia. He has been arrested on counts of arson and assault, and has served time in prison. He claims it all stemmed from those five months of hell.

I’ll say it again: no consequence to any of the American people or organizations behind this. Is this truly the cost of fear?

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