NEW YORK (IPS/GIN) – The U.S. government has again invoked the “state secrets” privilege, arguing that a public trial of a lawsuit against a former head of the CIA for abducting and imprisoning a German citizen would lead to disclosure of information harmful to U.S. national security.

Once rarely used, the “state secrets” privilege has over the past five years become a routine defense used by the George Bush administration to keep cases from being tried.

The current case involves a suit brought by Khalid El-Masri, who was on vacation in Macedonia when he was kidnapped and transported to a CIA-run “black site” in Afghanistan. After several months of confinement in squalid conditions, he was abandoned on a hill in Albania with no explanation. He was never charged with a crime.


Mr. El-Masri, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is seeking an apology and money damages from the CIA. The first, and perhaps the last, hearing on the case took place recently before a federal court in Alexandria, Va. The lawsuit charges former CIA director George Tenet, other CIA officials and four U.S.-based aviation corporations with violations of U.S. and universal human rights laws. It claims Mr. El-Masri was “victimized by the CIA’s policy of ‘extraordinary rendition.’”

The Lebanese-born Al-Masri says he took a bus from Germany to Macedonia, where Macedonian agents confiscated his passport and detained him for 23 days without access to anyone, including his wife. He says he was then put in a diaper, a belt with chains to his wrists and ankles, earmuffs, eye pads, a blindfold and a hood. He was put into a plane, his legs and arms spread-eagled and secured to the floor.

He says he was drugged and flown to Afghanistan, where he was held in solitary confinement for five months before being dropped off in a remote rural section of Albania. He claims it was a CIA-leased aircraft that flew him to Afghanistan, and CIA agents who were responsible for his rendition to Afghanistan.

The aviation companies accused of transporting him during his detention are also protected by the “state secrets” privilege. A federal judge must decide whether to grant the government’s motion to dismiss the case, but an ACLU spokesperson told IPS this could take weeks or months.

A parliamentary inquiry into El-Masri’s kidnapping is also currently ongoing in Germany. During her first meeting with the newly elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel several months ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted Mr. El-Masri’s kidnapping and detention was the result of a “mistake” by the CIA. The incident threatened to again sour U.S. relations with Germany, which Ms. Rice traveled to Europe to repair following Germany’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Ms. Rice has defended the practice of rendition, saying it was a vital tool in the war on terror. However, she has said the U.S. does not “send anyone to a country to be tortured.”

But most human rights and foreign affairs experts believe that such “diplomatic assurances” are worthless. They say there is ample evidence that detainees who are “rendered” to other countries are frequently subjected to torture. The U.S. has rendered prisoners to a number of countries that have notoriously poor human rights records, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Afghanistan and Algeria, as well as to suspected CIA secret prisons in Eastern Europe.

A special committee of the European Parliament recently issued an interim report concluding that the CIA has on several occasions illegally kidnapped and detained individuals in European countries. The report also found that the CIA detained and then secretly used airlines to transfer persons to countries that routinely use torture during interrogations.

Italy is currently suing the U.S. for kidnapping an Italian citizen on Italian soil.

Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, deplored the fact that the U.S. authorities had not moved closer to granting the ICRC access to persons held in undisclosed locations. “No matter how legitimate the grounds for detention, there exists no right to conceal a person’s whereabouts or to deny that he or she is being detained,” he said.

Investigators for the European Parliament reported in April that they had evidence the CIA had flown 1,000 undeclared flights over Europe since 2001, in some cases transporting terrorist suspects abducted within the European Union to countries known to use torture.

But in an appearance before the UN Committee on Torture, the body that monitors compliance with the Geneva Conventions, the lead State Department attorney labeled as “absurd” charges that prisoners being rendered were on all these flights. He added that terrorist suspects could pose a threat to security if allowed to meet with ICRC representatives.