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Supreme Court refuses to hear CIA kidnapping allegation

  • Story Highlights
  • Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen, alleges CIA kidnapped, beat and drugged him
  • El-Masri sued U.S. government, saying he was mistakenly abducted
  • Bush administration says case can't be discussed on national security grounds
  • U.S. Supreme Court denies el-Masri's appeal without giving a reason
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A German citizen who alleges the CIA mistakenly kidnapped, detained and interrogated him was denied a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court when the justices rejected his appeal for review Tuesday.

German citizen Khaled el-Masri, pictured in 2006, says the CIA abducted him in a case of mistaken identity.

At issue was whether Khaled el-Masri's lawsuit against the U.S. government could proceed, or whether the Bush administration could block it under the "state secrets" privilege in the name of preserving national security.

The court gave no reason for its move.

El-Masri alleged he was abducted in Macedonia on New Year's Eve 2003 and taken to a U.S.-run detention facility in Afghanistan as part of a secret program aimed at suspected terrorists.

"I was humiliated, I was beaten, I was drugged," the Lebanese-born man told CNN last year. "After five months, they simply took me back and dropped me like a piece of luggage in the woods of Albania."

U.S. officials told CNN the Bush administration privately has confirmed to Germany the man was captured by mistake, but it has not made a public admission.

Tuesday's announcement means el-Masri's lawsuit is moot, but the issue of the state secrets privilege is still percolating in the courts, with a number of pending lawsuits.

The justices are considering a related case dealing with the administration's warrantless wiretap program, where international calls into the United States can be secretly monitored. The government has refused to reveal details of the program to a broad range of journalists, academics and advocacy groups that claimed U.S. officials illegally tapped their calls.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, el-Masri sued the CIA and private air charter companies that operated the overseas flights. He sought monetary damages, a public apology and an explanation for why he was detained.

Lower federal courts all rejected el-Masri's legal claims.

The U.S. government said acknowledging el-Masri's detention or even discussing details of the program would compromise national security. In a legal brief filed with the high court, Justice Department lawyers wrote, "The United States can neither confirm nor deny petitioner's allegations."

The ACLU had called the government state secrets privilege in this case a hollow argument because President Bush publicly discussed that the United States was holding some terrorism suspects overseas in secret locations.

El-Masri's German attorney called the U.S. high court's refusal to get involved a "judicial disaster."

Speaking from his office in Ulm, Germany, Martin Gnjidic said, "The verdict highlights that the American executive branch can commit the most severe in human rights violations with no judicial oversight."

Gnjidic said the decision creates a "lawless environment" in which intelligence groups such as the CIA can operate.

"The world is watching," another el-Masri attorney, Ben Wizner, said last November, when the case was argued in a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia. "But they are not watching to learn the secrets of our intelligence methods. They are watching to see if the United States of America can give justice to an innocent victim of its anti-terror policies."

The Alien Tort Statute allows noncitizens to bring claims in federal court for "violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." The law has been used in recent years to bring lawsuits about alleged human rights abuses against the government, the military or private companies.

It is not known how many terror suspects have been detained under the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program in which they are moved to other countries. Also unclear is whether the detainees were interrogated primarily by American agents or by agents of another country's intelligence apparatus.

"I think it's hard to argue that this is within the bounds of international law; after all, it's a kind of kidnapping," said Arthur Hulnick, a former CIA officer and a professor at Boston University. "On the other hand, it's one of the few good weapons that the intelligence community has for pre-empting some of the terrorists."

Although el-Masri lost his bid before the Supreme Court, he has the option of raising his claims before the International Court of Justice, which handles cases over governments' treatment of foreigners as well as treaty obligations. He also has gone before the German courts for relief, Gnjidic said.

The administration has made a strong legal claim of broad executive authority to fight global terrorism. Federal courts have issued mixed rulings on the extent of that authority in cases dealing with domestic electronic surveillance and with the rights of terror suspects held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Supreme Court has twice ruled in favor of the rights of Guantanamo detainees to protest in federal court their imprisonment and the rules for trying them before military commissions. Oral arguments in a third such case will be held later this year. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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