Khaled El-Masri says he is not after money but answers about why he spent five months in harsh captivity as a prisoner in the war on terrorism.
"It's a question of moral values, of principles. I want to find out why they did to me what they did," El-Masri told CBS News in an exclusive interview. "I want an explanation, and I want an apology."
El-Masri, 44, was born in Kuwait to Lebanese parents and lives in Germany, which has been his home for the past 20 years. El-Masri says that two years ago, he was a victim of mistaken identity in the CIA program called "rendition," which transports foreign suspects to countries whose interrogation techniques, critics say, are tantamount to torture, such as Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Morocco.
"It was difficult from day one on up to the last day. From the very beginning I was fearing for my life," El-Masri told us.
El-Masri came to the U.S. this week on a special visa to attend a court hearing about his lawsuit against the former director of the CIA, George Tenet, CIA agents whose identities are not known, and the companies that owned and operated the Boeing 737 believed to have transported him – Premier Executive Transport Services, of Massachusetts, and Aero Contractors Limited, of North Carolina, and Keeler and Tate Management, of Nevada.
In addition, CBS News has learned, El-Masri and his attorneys from the ACLU are contemplating suing another major American company, Boeing, because newly available travel records suggest a Boeing subsidiary called Jeppesen International Trip Planning may have arranged El-Masri's rendition flights and many others.
"I have confidence in the American justice systems and its courts," El-Masri said through his translator outside the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond Tuesday. "What I really want is that they admit to me that an injustice was done to me."
It was New Year's 2004, when El-Masri, a car salesman on a vacation without his wife and children, traveled by bus to Macedonia. At the border, Macedonian police arrested him and then detained him for three weeks in a hotel room in Skopje, allowing him out of the bed only to go to the bathroom.
After 23 days and many questions about his associations in Germany, the base of the main al Qaeda cell behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist hijackings, police took him the Skopje airport. There, El-Masri says, a group of men in black masks beat, blindfolded and drugged him before dragging him in chains onto a private jet bound for Kabul, Afghanistan.
"I was humiliated," El-Masri told us in the interview. "They took pictures of me without clothes on."
His home for the next four months was a small, squalid cell in an abandoned brick factory prisoners called the Salt Pit.
"I was deprived of sleep. I only had one blanket in my cell, and these were very cold days in Afghanistan at that time of year," El-Masri says. "The food and the water were awful. You wouldn't even give that to your pets."
After a total of 149 days in captivity, shedding 60 pounds, growing his hair and beard long, El-Masri was freed. This time, he was flown in a private jet to Tirana, Albania, and given a commercial airline ticket back to Germany.
"This mistake could have been resolved early on if these people had called a German authority to clarify that a mistake was made," El-Masri says.
After filing a complaint with German police, which launched a criminal probe, El-Masri, with the help of the ACLU, filed suit against the CIA and the aviation firms thought to be involved in his rendition.
In May, a federal judge in Alexandria, Virginia quashed the civil lawsuit seeking compensatory damages by accepting the U.S. government's argument that a public trial over El-Masri claims would expose "state secrets."
Among the secrets to be protected, government lawyers say, are the identities of operatives at home and abroad, cooperating foreign governments and companies, and intelligence gathering sources and methods.
"Even the unintended disclosure of a single piece of information can have a cascading effect, resulting in widespread harm to foreign intelligence capabilities, our nation's foreign relations, and our national defense," the government wrote in its briefs opposing reinstatement of El-Masri's lawsuit. "When the national security conflicts with an individual's interest in pursuing his civil claim, the interests of the individual must give way."
The ACLU counters that the government cannot legitimately keep secret what is already widely known.
"I think courts are beginning to recognize that this administration is using secrecy to avoid accountability," says ACLU attorney Ben Wizner, who argued El-Masri's appeal Tuesday in Richmond. "The government says that it can never even acknowledge what it did with Mr. El-Masri, and that is further abuse."