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Locked Up Abroad—for the FBI

Inside the feds' secret program to have American citizens detained and interrogated by foreign governments.

"America since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been eager to find proxies to do our dirty work," says Michael Scheuer, the ex-head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit and the author of a recent biography of the late Al Qaeda leader. "We've been lucky to find Jordans and Egypts that were willing to do that—not just to help us, but also because the people we were aiming at were the people they were also aiming at."

In theory, an FBI official says, foreign security forces are told that US citizens detained as part of this program are not to be harmed. But, the official acknowledges, foreign security forces are sometimes overzealous. Torture isn't the point, though, the source explains—fear is. Throwing a guy from suburban Virginia into a Middle Eastern jail cell might shake loose information that wouldn't come out in an FBI interrogation room in Washington, DC.

Whether the information is accurate is another matter. Weeks after being interviewed by FBI agents in the United Arab Emirates in 2008, Naji Hamdan, a naturalized US citizen who had run an auto-parts business in California, was abruptly arrested by the country's security forces. Over a period of three weeks, he was repeatedly beaten and questioned (PDF). "If you don't confess, I swear to God I'm going to bring your wife to this room, and you'll see what we do to her," the lead interrogator vowed at one point. During one interrogation, Hamdan says, an American was present. "I've lived enough in the US to recognize the accent of the person when he talks," he says. "I had no doubt that the person who was talking to me was a Caucasian American." Hamdan's interrogators kicked him in the side until he passed out. When he came to, the "American" spoke: "You better do what these people want, or they'll fuck you up."

"You better do what these people want, or they'll fuck you up."

Hamdan eventually confessed to being a member of a variety of terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, and spent another 11 months in prison before the UAE deported him to Lebanon. He later said his confession was fiction—after weeks of torture, he'd told his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear. The FBI, for its part, extensively investigated Hamdan's activities in the US. He was never charged with a crime.

"From some of the other proxy detentions, it's clear that the government has got it flat wrong about which individuals pose a threat," says the ACLU's Michael Kaufman, who's on Hamdan's legal team. "It wouldn't be surprising if Naji was one of those horrible, horrible mistakes."

Along with the cases of Hamdan, Mobley, and Mohamed, there are others that show indications of US involvement. Yusuf Wehelie, another 19-year-old Virginian, claims he was detained and beaten by Egyptian security forces in May 2010 after the FBI questioned him and his older brother Yahya at a hotel in Cairo. The Egyptians who beat and interrogated Wehelie "stated over and over that they worked for the United States government, and that they were questioning me at the request of the United States government," he later said. The Egyptian interrogators asked Wehelie "the same questions that the American FBI agents had been asking." Some focused on Mobley. After Wehelie was allowed to return home, his brother was forced to remain in Cairo for two more months. Yusuf later told a reporter he was interviewed by the FBI 10 times and submitted to a polygraph test before he was permitted to return home. (The Wehelies, through their lawyer, declined to comment.)

In 2007, Kenyan authorities arrested Amir Meshal, of New Jersey, and New Hampshire-raised Daniel Maldonado after they sought refuge in Kenya when Ethiopia invaded Somalia and displaced its Islamist government. (Both men claim they went to Somalia, which was comparatively stable before the Ethiopian invasion, only for the experience of living in an Islamic country.) Maldonado has since taken a plea deal and is serving a 10-year sentence for receiving training from Al Qaeda. But Meshal has not been charged with a crime. Backed by the ACLU, he is suing the government (PDF), claiming that FBI agents violated his rights by interrogating him in a series of African prisons without access to a lawyer.

"There are still probably other people out there that are being tortured like I was."

Human rights advocates believe many more Americans may have been subjected to proxy detention but have not come forward for fear of retaliation or prosecution; some may still be secretly imprisoned. As Gulet Mohamed declared when he arrived back in the US: "There are still probably other people out there that are being tortured like I was. My voice has been heard, but their voices are not being heard."

During his detention in Kuwait, one of Mohamed's fellow prisoners had given him access to a smuggled cell phone. He called his family, who contacted a lawyer; eventually Mohamed used the phone to describe his plight to the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti. The story made headlines, embarrassing the Obama administration and raising questions about its track record on civil liberties and human rights. An irate US Embassy official later visited Mohamed's cell with a highlighted copy of the Times story. "You didn't cooperate with the FBI," he said, according to Mohamed. "That is why you didn't leave. You went public. We need to calm this down."

At a press conference when Mohamed finally did return home, his lawyer, Gadeir Abbas, addressed the scrum of reporters. "What's great about being an American citizen traveling abroad is that you have the full power and privilege of the most powerful country in the world at your back," he said. "But in this situation, it doesn't look like Gulet had those powers and privileges that are routinely granted to other American citizens."

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