At CIA, Mistakes by Officers are often Overlooked
By Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
In December 2003, security forces boarded a bus in Macedonia and snatched a German citizen named Khaled el-Masri. For the next five months, Masri was a ghost. Only a select group of CIA officers knew he had been taken to a secret prison in Afghanistan for interrogation.
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. fight against terrorism. Yet despite recommendations, the analyst was never punished. In fact, she has risen within 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 attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 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 although 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 his spy wars.
The analyst at the heart of the 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-Qaeda.
The AP investigation revealed a CIA 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 senator Christopher S. Bond (Mo.) 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 agency's inspector general faulted the spy running the prison and expressed concerns about the top officer in the country, former officials said. In the end, the CIA did not discipline either.
Like most of the dozens of people the AP interviewed, the officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The man running the prison has completed assignments in Afghanistan, Bahrain and Pakistan, where he was deputy chief of tribal operations, while his boss has become chief of the Near East Division, overseeing operations in the Middle East.
In another case involving detainee mistreatment, an interrogator 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 United States is forbidden to do. The interrogator was reprimanded. The CIA officer who ran the prison retired during the investigation.
The interrogator stayed on until retirement, then returned as a contractor. The Poland station chief, who witnessed the mock execution but did not stop it, now runs the Central European Division.
CIA spokesman George Little 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.
On Panetta's 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.
The CIA wants officers to take chances. As former CIA director Michael V. 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 longtime 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.
'Averse to risk'
After the 9/11 Commission faulted the CIA as being "averse to risk," managers have been reluctant to do anything that might discourage risk-taking, officials said.
The Masri case reveals how that plays into disciplinary decisions.
Some at the Counterterrorism Center doubted Masri was a terrorist, current and former officials said. But a counterterrorism analyst with no field experience pushed ahead. She supported Masri's rendition - in which the CIA snatches someone and takes him to another country.
Senior managers were briefed, and a lawyer in the Counterterrorism Center signed off, former officials said.
The CIA's inspector general determined that there had been no legal justification for Masri's rendition. Although 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 the analyst and faulted the lawyer's legal analysis. Nobody in management was singled out.
Hayden decided that the lawyer should be reprimanded, current and former officials said. The analyst 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," he said.
The analyst now runs the CIA's Global Jihad unit dedicated to hunting down al-Qaeda. The lawyer is now a 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," he wrote.