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 taken to a secret prison for interrogation in Afghanistan.
But he was the wrong guy.
A hard-charging CIA analyst had pushed the agency into one of the biggest diplomatic embarrassments of the U.S. war on terrorism. Yet despite recommendations, the analyst was never punished. In fact, she's risen in the agency.
That botched case is but one example of a CIA accountability process that even some within the agency say is unpredictable and inconsistent. In the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, officers who committed mistakes that left people wrongly imprisoned or even dead received only minor admonishments or no punishment at all, an Associated Press investigation has found.
And though President Barack Obama has sought to put the CIA's interrogation program behind him, the result of a decade of haphazard accountability is that many officers who made significant missteps are now the senior managers fighting Obama's spy wars.
The analyst at the heart of the el-Masri mishap, for instance, has one of the premier jobs in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center and helps lead Obama's efforts to disrupt al-Qaida.
The AP investigation of the CIA's actions revealed a disciplinary system that takes years to make decisions, hands down reprimands inconsistently and is viewed inside the agency as prone to favoritism. When people are disciplined, the punishment seems to roll downhill, sparing senior managers involved in mishandled operations.
"Someone who made a huge error ought not to be working at the agency," former Sen. Kit Bond said in November as he completed his tenure as the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "We've seen instance after instance where there hasn't been accountability."
For example, when a suspected terrorist froze to death in a CIA prison in Afghanistan in 2002, the CIA inspector general faulted Matt, the spy running the prison, and expressed concerns about Paul, the top officer in the country, according to former officials. Like most of the dozens of people interviewed by AP, the officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
In the end, however, the CIA decided not to discipline either Matt or Paul.
The AP is identifying Matt, Paul and other current and former undercover CIA officers — though only by partial names — because they are central to the question of who is being held accountable and because it enhances the credibility of AP's reporting in this case. AP's policy is to use names whenever possible. The AP determined that even the most sophisticated commercial information services could not be used to derive the officers' full names or, for example, find their home addresses knowing only their first names and the fact of their CIA employment. The AP has withheld further details that could help identify them.
The CIA asked that they not be identified at all, saying doing so would benefit terrorists and hostile nations. Spokesman George Little called the AP's decision "nothing short of reckless" but did not provide any specific information about threats. The CIA has previously provided detailed arguments in efforts to persuade senior executives at the AP and other U.S. news organizations to withhold or delay publishing information it said would endanger lives or national security, but that did not happen in this case.
The CIA regularly reviews books by retired officers and allows them to identify their undercover colleagues by first name and last initial, even when they're still on the job. The CIA said only the agency is equipped to make those decisions through a formal review process.
Paul has risen to become chief of the Near East Division, overseeing operations in the Middle East. Matt has completed assignments in Bahrain, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he was deputy chief of tribal operations.
In another case involving detainee mistreatment, an interrogator named Albert put an unloaded gun and a bitless drill to the head of a suspected terrorist at a secret prison in Poland. The inspector general labeled this a "mock execution" — something the U.S. is forbidden to do. Albert was reprimanded. His boss, Mike, who ran the prison, retired during the investigation.
Albert stayed on until retirement, then returned as a contractor. Ron, the Poland station chief who witnessed the incident but didn't stop it, now runs the Central European Division.
Little, the CIA spokesman, said the agency's accountability process is vigorous and thorough. CIA Director Leon Panetta has fired employees for misconduct in other cases, he said.
"Any suggestion that the agency does not take seriously its obligation to review employee misconduct — including those of senior officers — is flat wrong," he said.
The CIA wants officers to take chances. As former CIA Director Michael Hayden told Congress, officers should operate so close to the boundaries that they get "chalk on their cleats."
When officers cross those lines, discipline is usually carried out secretly. In complicated cases, the director can convene a panel of senior officers to review the matter. But the director has the final word on discipline.
These reviews, along with Justice Department and congressional investigations, can keep careers in limbo for years and leave veteran officers wondering why some were disciplined and others weren't.
"It's unpredictable and scattershot," said John Maguire, a former senior operations officer who spent 23 years at the CIA.
After the 9/11 Commission faulted the CIA for being "averse to risk," managers have been reluctant to do anything that might discourage risk-taking, officials said.
The el-Masri case reveals how that plays into disciplinary decisions.
Some at the Counterterrorism Center doubted el-Masri was a terrorist, current and former officials said. But Frances, a counterterrorism analyst with no field experience, pushed ahead. She supported el-Masri's rendition — in which the CIA snatches someone and takes him to another country. The AP agreed to the CIA's request to refer to Frances by her middle name because her first is unusual.
Senior managers were briefed, and a lawyer in the Counterterrorism Center, Elizabeth, signed off, former officials said.
The CIA's inspector general determined there had been no legal justification for el-Masri's rendition. Though the inspector general does not make legal conclusions, the CIA's watchdog had essentially said the agency acted illegally.
The report came down hard on Frances and faulted Elizabeth's legal analysis. Nobody in management was singled out.
Hayden decided that Elizabeth should be reprimanded, current and former officials said. Frances would be spared, he told colleagues, because he didn't want to deter initiative within the ranks.
Hayden wouldn't discuss the case but said fairness was only one factor.
"Beyond the requirements of fairness and justice, you always made these decisions with an eye toward the future health and operational success of the institution," Hayden said in an AP interview.
Frances now runs the CIA's Global Jihad unit dedicated to hunting down al-Qaida. Elizabeth is now legal adviser to the Near East division.
In his book "Beyond Repair," longtime CIA officer Charles Faddis contrasted the CIA with the military, where he said officers are held responsible for their mistakes and the mistakes of their subordinates.
"There is no such system in place within the CIA, and the long-term effect is catastrophically corrosive," Faddis wrote.
After a prisoner died at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, one CIA officer, Steve, was reprimanded for not seeking medical attention when the prisoner arrived. But nobody was explicitly punished for the death. Steve retired and is now back at CIA as a contractor.
CIA Director Leon Panetta may be getting tougher on discipline. On his watch, about 100 employees have been subjected to disciplinary review, a U.S. intelligence official said. Of those, more than a dozen were senior officers. Many were fired or resigned.
Last year, Panetta punished 16 current and former officers involved in a mishap in Peru nearly a decade ago. A civilian airplane that was misidentified as a drug flight was shot down, killing an American missionary and her young daughter.
In a more recent case, Panetta was less harsh after mistakes allowed an al-Qaida double agent to blow himself up at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing five officers and two contractors.
A review determined that warnings had been ignored and security protocols weren't followed. Panetta agreed but opted not to punish anyone.
"The conclusion was that the blame just didn't rest with one individual or group of individuals," Panetta said.
It was a collective failure, Panetta said. So nobody was held accountable.
AP's Washington investigative team can be reached at DCinvestigations(at)ap.org