Fallout From a Libyan Terrorist's Death

The Obama Administration is pressing the Libyan government to explain the reported prison death of a former CIA detainee—an incident that U.S. officials fear could reopen questions about the agency's "extraordinary rendition" program and further complicate the president's plans to shut down the Guantánamo Bay detention center. According to human-rights groups, the body of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi—once one of the U.S. government's prize captives—was turned over to family members last week after they were told he had committed suicide at Tripoli's Abu Salim prison by hanging himself with a bedsheet. But U.S. officials are skeptical about the supposed suicide, which was first reported in a newspaper owned by Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi's son. Two weeks earlier, al-Libi was visited for the first time by human-rights workers investigating allegations that he had been tortured into making false claims connecting Saddam Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda. (Those claims, which al-Libi later retracted, were used by the Bush administration to bolster its case for the Iraq War.) Al-Libi also had been identified recently by U.S. defense lawyers as a possible key witness in upcoming trials of top terror suspects. "We want answers," said an administration official familiar with the case, who asked not to be identified discussing a sensitive matter. "We want to know what really happened here."

Al-Libi's death highlights a predicament facing Obama officials: returning detainees to countries that practice torture. Seven Libyans remain at Guantánamo, and U.S. officials are loath to send home any more. Last year, President Bush resumed diplomatic relations with Libya and removed it from a list of "state sponsors" of terror. But a State Department human-rights report recently concluded that Libyan security forces "routinely tortured" prisoners by applying electric shocks, breaking fingers, pouring lemon juice on open wounds and burning them with cigarettes. The U.S. official said, "It's not in the U.S. interest to send people back to countries where they're going to be abused or end up dead."

Although al-Libi was never held at Guantánamo, it is believed he was held at overseas CIA "black sites" before being returned to Libya in 2006. A CIA spokesman said "it is American policy to seek assurances" from foreign governments that suspects will be well treated. But current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials say such assurances are often perfunctory and rarely put in writing. The CIA has tightened its procedures, directing stations to visit rendered prisoners and personally verify that they have not been mistreated. But it's unknown how many such visits have been made. A spokesman at Libya's U.S. embassy said he had "no information."