WASHINGTON – The CIA's independent watchdog is investigating fewer than 10 cases where terror suspects may have been mistakenly swept away to foreign countries by the spy agency, a figure lower than published reports but enough to raise some concerns.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush gave the CIA authority to conduct the now-controversial operations, called "renditions," and permitted the agency to act without case-by-case approval from the White House or other administration offices.
The highly classified practice involves grabbing terror suspects off the street of one country and flying them to their home country or another where they are wanted for a crime or questioning.
Some 100 to 150 people have been snatched up since Sept. 11. Government officials say the action is reserved for those considered by the CIA to be the most serious terror suspects.
Bush has said that these transfers to other countries — with assurances the terror suspects won't be tortured — are a way to protect the United States and its allies from attack. "That was the charge we have been given," he said in March.
But some operations are being questioned.
The CIA's inspector general, John Helgerson, is looking into fewer than 10 cases of potentially "erroneous renditions," according to a current intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigations are classified. Others in the agency believe it to be much fewer, the official added.
For instance, someone may be grabbed wrongly or, after further investigation, may not be as directly linked to terrorism as initially believed.
Human rights groups consider the practice of rendition a run-around to avoid the judicial processes that the United States has long championed. Experts with those groups and congressional committees familiar with intelligence programs say errors should be extremely rare because one vivid anecdote can do significant damage.
Said Tom Malinowski, Washington office director of Human Rights Watch: "I am glad the CIA is investigating the cases that they are aware of, but by definition you are not going to be aware of all such cases, when you have a process designed to avoid judicial safeguards."
He said there is no guarantee that Egypt, Uzbekistan or Syria will release people handed over to them if they turn out to be innocent, and he distrusts promises the U.S. receives that the individuals will not be tortured.
Bush and his aides have said the United States seeks those assurances — and follows up on them. "We do believe in protecting ourselves. We don't believe in torture," he said.
In the last 18 months, his administration has come under fire for its policies and regulations governing detentions and interrogations in the war on terror. At facilities run by the CIA and the U.S. military, graphic images of abuse and at least 26 deaths investigated as criminal homicides have raised questions about how authorities handle foreign fighters and terror suspects in U.S. custody.
Senior administration officials have tried to stress that the cases are isolated instances among the more than 80,000 detainees held since 9/11. Yet much remains unknown about the CIA's highly classified detention and interrogation practices, particularly when it grabs foreigners and spirits them away to other countries.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, has sued the CIA for arbitrarily detaining him and other alleged violations after he was captured in Macedonia in December 2003 and taken to Afghanistan by a team of covert operatives in an apparent case of mistaken identity.
Speaking to reporters by video hookup from Germany this month, al-Masri said he was "dragged off the plane and thrown into the trunk of a car" and beaten by his captors in Afghanistan. Five months later, his complaint says, he was dropped off on a hill in Albania.
Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born Australian, was arrested near the Pakistani-Afghan border shortly after Sept. 11 and flown to Cairo. He says for six months he was tortured there and was later transported to Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 2005, he was released without charge and allowed to return to Sydney.
Prior to Sept. 11, renditions were ordered to bring wanted criminals to justice. But the purpose was broadened after the attacks to get terrorists off the streets.
Renditions represent just a fraction of the captures handled by the CIA and its allies. More than 3,000 foreigners have been detained in operations involving the CIA and friendly intelligence services since Sept. 11, according to the intelligence official. Sometimes the United States may merely be providing information, training or equipment for the operations.
Countries including Jordan and Egypt are believed to cooperate with the operations. Although Saudi Arabia is thought to be involved, its ambassador to the United States has denied accepting any cases at the United States' request.
The spotlight on the issue has called attention to how the CIA does its work, causing consternation among some agency officials who prefer to operate in the shadows.
For instance, planes operated by CIA front companies are often used to move the terror suspects from one country to another, bringing scrutiny to a secret agency fleet that's traveled in the United States, Spain, Germany, Afghanistan, Poland, Romania and elsewhere.
Intelligence officials said the planes are more likely to be carrying staff, supplies or Director Porter Goss on his way to a foreign visit.