Washington The CIA's independent watchdog is investigating fewer than 10 cases where terror suspects may have been mistakenly swept away to foreign countries by the spy agency, a figure lower than published reports but enough to raise some concerns.
After the 9-11 terrorism attacks, President Bush gave the CIA authority to conduct the now-controversial operations, called "renditions," and permitted the agency to act without case-by-case approval from the White House or other administration offices.
The highly classified practice involves grabbing terror suspects off the street of one country and flying them to their home country or another where they are wanted for a crime or questioning.
Some 100 to 150 people have been snatched up since 9-11. Government officials say the action is reserved for those considered by the CIA to be the most serious terror suspects.
Bush has said that these transfers to other countries - with assurances the terror suspects won't be tortured - are a way to protect the United States and its allies from attack. "That was the charge we have been given," he said in March.
But some operations are being questioned.
The CIA's inspector general, John Helgerson, is looking into fewer than 10 cases of potentially "erroneous renditions," according to a current intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigations are classified. Others in the agency believe it to be much fewer, the official added.
For instance, someone may be grabbed wrongly or, after further investigation, may not be as directly linked to terrorism as initially believed.
Human rights groups consider the practice of rendition a runaround to avoid the judicial processes that the United States has long championed. Experts with those groups and congressional committees familiar with intelligence programs say errors should be extremely rare because one vivid anecdote can do significant damage.
Said Tom Malinowski, Washington office director of Human Rights Watch: "I am glad the CIA is investigating the cases that they are aware of, but by definition you are not going to be aware of all such cases, when you have a process designed to avoid judicial safeguards."
He said there is no guarantee that Egypt, Uzbekistan or Syria will release people handed over to them if they turn out to be innocent, and he distrusts promises the U.S. receives that the individuals will not be tortured.
Bush and his aides have said the United States seeks those assurances - and follows up on them. "We do believe in protecting ourselves. We don't believe in torture," he said.
In the last 18 months, his administration has come under fire for its policies and regulations governing detentions and interrogations in the war on terror. At facilities run by the CIA and the U.S. military, graphic images of abuse and at least 26 deaths investigated as criminal homicides have raised questions about how authorities handle foreign fighters and terror suspects in U.S. custody.
Senior administration officials have tried to stress that the cases are isolated instances among the more than 80,000 detainees held since 9-11. Yet much remains unknown about the CIA's highly classified detention and interrogation practices, particularly when it grabs foreigners and spirits them away to other countries.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Khaled al-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, has sued the CIA for arbitrarily detaining him and other alleged violations after he was captured in Macedonia in December 2003 and taken to Afghanistan by a team of covert operatives in an apparent case of mistaken identity.