More than a Million Names

Mattathias Schwartz

  • BuyPlaying to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror by Michael Hayden
    Penguin, 464 pp, £21.99, February 2016, ISBN 978 1 59420 656 6

On the last day of 2003, Macedonian border guards arrested Khaled el-Masri at the Serbian border. He had a suspicious name, and the Macedonians didn’t like the look of his passport. After beating el-Masri, stripping him and searching him with painful and highly invasive thoroughness, the Macedonians turned him over to the CIA, which flew him to the ‘Salt Pit’, a black site in Afghanistan. He told his American captors the same thing he’d told the Macedonians: he was an innocent man, a German citizen on vacation. He made a living selling cars. He had no connections to al-Qaida or any other jihadis. After el-Masri had spent 149 days in captivity, the CIA realised he was telling the truth. The man they had arrested was not Khaled el-Masri the jihadist, he was Khaled el-Masri the used car salesman. The CIA dropped el-Masri in Albania, from where he had to make his own way home to Germany. He was three stone lighter. His apartment was empty. In his absence, his wife and four children had moved back to Lebanon. He was given €14,500 and no apology. One of those who argued in favour of the kidnapping and imprisonment of el-Masri was Alfreda Frances Bikowsky, one of the leaders of ALEC Station, the special CIA unit tasked with hunting Osama bin Laden. ‘She just looked in her crystal ball and it said that he was bad,’ one of her co-workers told Jane Mayer of the New Yorker.

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[*] Hayden’s book mentions ‘an aspect [of Stellarwind] … the details of which remain classified … that swept up US personal data.’ The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency created at the suggestion of the 9/11 Commission and tasked with evaluating the legality of certain NSA programmes, has held two closed meetings to discuss ‘counterterrorism-related activities governed by Executive Order 12333’. After the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Tim Clemente, a former FBI agent, suggested that the NSA could access the archived content of suspects’ phone calls in the aftermath of an emergency. ‘We certainly have ways … to find out exactly what was said in that conversation’ between one of the bombers and his wife, Clemente said. According to documents obtained by Edward Snowden and reporting by the Intercept, an NSA programme called Mystic used a similar archiving system in the Bahamas. Hayden writes that such a programme would contradict ‘the laws of physics’. In any event, the full scope of Stellarwind remains unknown.

[†] See the July 2009 Joint Inspector Generals’ Report on the President’s Surveillance Programme, pp. 62 and 629. Not all these terrorists were connected to al-Qaida, and not all were violent. The Patriot Act of 2002 lowered the statutory definition of terrorism to include providing medical treatment or ‘expert advice’ to groups designated as terrorists by the State Department.