The Wronged Man
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
RICHMOND, Nov. 28
Khaled al-Masri was supposed to have been disappeared by black-hooded CIA paramilitaries in the dead of night. One minute he was riding a bus in Macedonia, the next -- poof -- gone. Grabbed by Macedonian agents, handed off to junior CIA operatives in Skopje and then secretly flown to a prison in Afghanistan that didn't officially exist, to be interrogated with rough measures that weren't officially on the books. And then never to be heard from again -- one fewer terrorist in the post-9/11 world.
Instead, on Tuesday, Masri finds himself sitting in an American courtroom so elegant that even his experienced lawyers are commenting on its beautiful dark wood and graceful chandeliers. Dressed in white shirt sleeves and a modest maroon vest, Masri is waiting to see if the judges will allow the CIA to disappear him again.
This time, it's not the physical, flesh-and-blood, burly, ponytailed German citizen with six kids whom the U.S. government wants to make vanish from the face of the Earth. It's his legal case, his very right to have his argument heard in open court, that the CIA is seeking to have disappeared. They argue, citing the state-secrets privilege, that to proceed with the case would damage national security and that this damage outweighs any legal rights Masri may have.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District agreed with the government in May.
If they have their way this time, the pale Justice Department lawyers swaying back in their chairs before the three judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit would prohibit any judge and any jury anywhere from ever hearing the arguments in Masri's six legal pleadings and 40 exhibits, more than 1,000 pages in all. Much of the evidence was unearthed by German prosecutors and European Parliament investigators.
There are also the eight U.S. officials who confirmed to at least one American reporter that Masri spent months in a dank Afghan cell because a couple of CIA officials in Washington had a hunch he was someone he was not and that they just didn't move fast enough when they found out he wasn't. Countless other reporters in the United States and Europe have been told the same by unnamed government officials.
So basically, "the entire world can discuss this case . . . but not the U.S. courts?" Masri's lawyer Ben Wizner will momentarily ask the panel.
But for now, the first Invisible Man to appear on U.S. soil is listening intently to the other cases the judges have to consider before his, including one about an Internet user's First Amendment free-speech rights. Masri's translator, Ulrike Wiesner, whispers in his ear: "They can even burn the American flag here." Burning a German flag is illegal in Germany. Those crazy Americans.
Masri whispers back: "Well, let's see if that applies to us Indians." They laugh quietly.
* * *
Much of Masri's ordeal has been confirmed by the German government. He fled the civil war in Lebanon in 1985 when he was 21 and married a German woman. He was divorced 10 years later and then married a Lebanese woman. He worked as a carpenter, then truck driver, then car salesman. Since 2004 he has been unemployed and living with his children and wife in a one-room apartment.