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 made 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 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 identity issue
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.