German Plaintiff Appeals Court Ruling in Torture Case

A German man who is suing the United States says he was detained in Afghanistan and tortured by the CIA, which mistakenly identified him as a terrorist. But the U.S. government says there is no way for a court to hear Khaled El-Masri's case without compromising national security. A federal district court has dismissed the case, but El-Masri is asking the appeals court in Richmond to overturn the ruling.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today, the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, heard arguments in the case of Khaled El-Masri. He's a German man who says the CIA tortured him at a secret prison in Afghanistan before they realized they had the wrong man. El-Masri has sued the CIA, but the government says there's no way for a court to hear this case without compromising national security.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Richmond.

ARI SHAPIRO: This is Khaled El-Masri's first visit to the United States. After the arguments in his case, he stood in front of the federal courthouse with construction equipment rumbling around him. Clean shaven with rimless glasses and a curly ponytail, he described through an interpreter the treatment he endured at the hands of the CIA.

Mr. KHALED EL-MASRI: (Through translator) I was humiliated, I was beaten, I was drugged, and I was taken to Afghanistan against my will. And there they made it clear right from the onset, they said you are in a country where there is no rule of law.

SHAPIRO: El-Masri said after five months, his captors left him in a forest in Albania, like a piece of luggage, he said. The ACLU lawyer representing El-Masri described him to the court as the public face of a publicly acknowledged program. Attorney Ben Wisner said there has been so much public discussion of overseas CIA prisons that it's no longer plausible to call them state secrets.

The most prominent public discussion of those prisons came from President Bush himself. He made this announcement at a press conference last September.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: In these cases, it has been necessary to move these individuals to an environment where they can be held secretly, questioned by experts and, when appropriate, prosecuted for terrorist acts.

SHAPIRO: El-Masri's attorney said the government cannot argue that it's okay to talk about the program in a political setting but dangerous to discuss it in a courtroom. But government attorney Gregory Katsis(ph) said there's much more to this program than the president has acknowledged. He repeatedly referred the judges to a classified affidavit that CIA Director George Tenet submitted to the court.

That document describes the state secrets that the government believes are central to this case. Katsis told the court that if the judges compare the facts disclosed by President Bush to the facts in the affidavit, quote, "there's essentially zero overlap." He says for national security reasons, the government cannot confirm or deny that it has ever held El-Masri, much less discuss the details of his treatment. Without that information, Katsis said, the case can't get off the ground. Last spring, a lower court judge agreed and threw the case out.

ACLU attorney Wisner said certain parts of El-Masri's claim may have to be omitted, like the identities of the specific agents who mistreated him, but he said the core of the case is already very public.

Standing in front of the courthouse, Wisner said there is one point on which he agrees with the government attorney.

Mr. BEN WISNER (American Civil Liberties Union): The world is watching this courtroom, but they're not watching to learn the secrets of our intelligence methods, they're watching to see if the United States of America can give justice to an innocent victim of its anti-terror policies.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, El-Masri goes to Capitol Hill to talk with incoming Democratic leaders there. He'll urge them to conduct oversight hearings of the government's use of the State Secrets Act.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Richmond, Virginia.

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