Signs of the times

A German citizen detained for five months in an Afghan prison was released in May 2004 on direct orders from Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, after she learned the man had been mistakenly identified as a terror suspect, government officials said Friday.

The officials, who confirmed an account of Ms. Rice’s decision that was first reported by NBC News, said that when Khaled el-Masri was taken from a bus on the Serbian-Macedonian border on Dec. 31, 2003, the Macedonian and the American authorities believed he was a member of Al Qaeda who had trained at one of Osama bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan.

But within several months they concluded he was the victim of mistaken identity, the officials said. His name was similar to a Qaeda suspect on an international watch list of possible terrorist operatives, they said.

By then, Mr. Masri, 41, a car salesman who lives in Ulm, Germany, had been flown on a C.I.A.-chartered plane to the prison under a secret American program of transferring terror suspects from country to country for interrogation, officials said. At the prison in Kabul, Mr. Masri said, he was shackled, beaten, photographed nude and injected with drugs by interrogators who pressed him to reveal ties to Al Qaeda.

For reasons that are unclear, he remained for months at a prison known locally as the “Salt Pit.” The case reached Ms. Rice in May 2004, officials said, and twice, over several weeks, she ordered him immediately freed. He was released in Albania on May 29, 2004.

The American officials acknowledged Friday that the detention had been a serious mistake and that he had been held too long after American officials realized their error.