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.”