Monday, January 17, 2005


If a tree falls in the forest and only one person is there.... (updated)

Last week the NY Times' Don van Natta, Jr. and Souad Mekhennet reported on the case of Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen, who was kidnapped by the Macedonians at the border with Serbia and turned over to the Americans.

He said they flew him to a prison in Afghanistan, where he said he was shackled, beaten repeatedly, photographed nude, injected with drugs and questioned by interrogators about what they insisted were his ties to al-Qaeda.

Masri was released without ever being charged with a crime. The German police and prosecutors have been investigating Masri's allegations since he reported the matter to them last June, two weeks after his return to Germany. Martin Hofmann, the lead German prosecutor in Munich, who is in charge of the case, said they believe Masri's story.

Police and prosecutors said investigators interviewed him for 17 hours over two days, that his story was very detailed and that he recounted it consistently. In addition, the officials said they have verified specific elements of the case, including that Masri was forced off the bus at the border.

Nothing extraordinary here—criminal behavior by the American government that has been previously and repeatedly reported in one guise or another.

What is extraordinary is the next paragraph—

Still, much of Mr. Masri's story has not been corroborated. His assertion that he was held by Americans in Afghanistan, for example, is solely based on what he said he observed or was told after he was taken off the bus in Macedonia.

You know, there are enough Americans of foreign origin that it would be easy not to recognize an American. On the other hand, native-born Anglo Americans are pretty identifiable. You might confuse one with a Canadian, but so far there haven't been any reports of Canadians kidnapping foreign citizens. So absent any contrary evidence, I'm somewhat predisposed to believe that Mr. Masri's "Americans" were in fact Americans.

But the Times has conflated the question of whether Masri was in Afghanistan with the question of the nationality of his captors. This is convenient, because by conflating the two, the veracity of Mr. Masri can be thrown in doubt. It would, after all, be relatively easy to deceive him as to which country he was in.

So the NY Times finds the story "uncorroborated," which leads me to wonder just what are the standards for corroborating a crime of this magnitude. Of course, the Times reporters tried—

In a series of interviews, neither the CIA nor the FBI would deny or confirm Masri's allegations. A CIA spokeswoman said the agency would not comment at all.

So there. It's uncorroborated. Maybe just gossip. As George H.W. Bush would say, "Didn't happen!" No witnesses, no confirmation, just one man's account.

I don't mean to invade the hallowed halls of epistemology by asking anything so grand as "What is truth?" Nor to inquire what would be the requisite evidence in a court of law. But I would like to ask of the media just what are their standards for reporting an event as a fact—an event such as "The United States government has kidnapped a German citizen, held him incommunicado and tortured him."

This is an important question. If the government kidnaps you and you're finally released, what will you do? Tell it to the media? And will it matter whether you were in Oklahoma or Brooklyn?


According to International Relations and Security Network, "US officials had admitted, off the record, that an error had been made and had expressed regret at the case of mistaken identity." They also note that "Al-Masri’s attorney, Manfred Gnjidic, said his client was considering suing for damages in the US."

Related post
Infinite jeopardy


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