WASHINGTON The Supreme Court rejected an appeal Tuesday from a German man of Lebanese descent who says the CIA abducted him and tortured him in Afghanistan. The court's order means it will not soon rule on the government's latitude to protect "state secrets" in the post-Sept. 11 era.
The federal government had urged the justices not to take Khaled El-Masri's case, contending that any airing of his allegations would have jeopardized state secrets. The state secrets privilege, as the high court explained in a dispute in 1953, allows the government to refuse to provide information in a judicial hearing if "there is a reasonable danger" disclosure would threaten national security.
In the years following that major ruling which involved the deaths of three civilians during a test of secret Air Force equipment the doctrine was rarely invoked. Since 2001, the U.S. government has relied on it in numerous cases, including in litigation over the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program. The Supreme Court has not decided whether to take that case.
El-Masri's suit against George Tenet, the CIA's director during the alleged abduction in 2003, had been dismissed by a federal appeals court in March, based on the Bush administration's state secrets claim.
El-Masri appealed, saying U.S. officials should be held accountable in court. His lawyers argued that the government's increased reliance on the state secrets claim prevents court review of numerous allegations and raises an issue of national significance.
El-Masri said he was kidnapped in December 2003 as he boarded a bus in Germany for a vacation in Macedonia. He said he was handcuffed, blindfolded and beaten as he was transferred to a prison in Afghanistan. There, he said, he was tortured and interrogated about possible connections to Sept. 11 conspirators and other terrorism.
He was released after five months, apparently the victim of mistaken identity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in 2005 that U.S. officials had acknowledged that his capture had been a mistake.
The U.S. Justice Department's filing in his case noted that the CIA could "neither confirm nor deny" his allegations. The filing cited a need to "protect classified intelligence sources and methods from unauthorized disclosure."
El-Masri insisted that the numerous news reports about his situation and the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program, in which suspects are taken to foreign countries for interrogation, should have exempted his case from the state secrets privilege.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Va., dismissed the case. It said the public information "does not include the facts that are central to litigating his action. Rather, those central facts - the CIA means and methods that form the subject matter of El-Masri's claim - remain state secrets."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented El-Masri, said the government has asserted the state secrets doctrine in disputes over the use of torture, illegal wiretapping and other breaches of domestic and international law.
"By denying justice to an innocent victim of this country's anti-terror policies, the court has provided the government with complete immunity for its shameful human rights and due process violations," ACLU staff lawyer Ben Wizner said.
Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said the department is pleased that the justices declined to take the case.