As the New Year approached, Khaled el-Masri was coming close to the end of his tether. Soon it would be 2004: another year of financial problems for his family and arguments with his wife. A German born in Kuwait to Lebanese parents, the independent car dealer was living in Neu-Ulm, a suburb of Ulm on the Danube River between Stuttgart and Munich, and business wasn’t going well. Needing to clear his head, el-Masri walked into a travel agency and booked the cheapest vacation he could. For 120 euros, or 155 bucks, he got a bus ticket to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. It wasn’t exactly Disney World, but it would do. “I knew that Macedonia is half Oriental, half Western,” says el-Masri, 43, wearing a pair of glasses that helps soften his formidable appearance. “So I thought I’d give it a try.”

On New Year’s Eve, he’d been riding for about 20 hours when he awoke from a nap with a jolt. The bus had arrived at the Serbian-Macedonian border, and the driver was collecting passports for Customs. When he returned from meeting with the police, the driver told el-Masri that the officials wanted a word with him. After answering a few standard questions—provoked, he guessed, by his novelty as a Muslim tourist—he climbed back on board, and the bus crossed the border. Ten minutes into Macedonia, el-Masri asked the bus driver to return his passport. The driver said he didn’t have it, so he had to swing the bus back to the border and drop el-Masri off. That moment marked the beginning of the nightmare that has ruined el-Masri’s life. It also set in motion a process that could dismantle a once-secret program that has been a cornerstone of the CIA’s prosecution of America’s war on terror—and bring its architects before a U.S. judge.

With his passport still missing and his bus now gone, el-Masri sat for three hours in a border station, ignored by officers who muttered hesitantly into telephones. And then, abruptly, he says, they transported him to a hotel in a city he assumed was Skopje. “We went straight up to a room, pulled the curtains—and that was me for three weeks,” el-Masri says.

He was already scared, but the true horror was just beginning. Because a border official believed he had a false passport and violent intentions, el-Masri had become a terror suspect. He would be whisked first to Baghdad and then, unimaginably, to a secret CIA-controlled prison in Afghanistan, where, he says, he was to endure months of abuse and isolation.

El-Masri had fallen prey to extraordinary rendition, the shadowy U.S. program that involves seizing and detaining any person it considers to be of interest, anywhere in the world, sometimes without the explicit permission of the host nation. Once snatched, the suspect is often “rendered” to a third nation—such as Egypt, Syria, Jordan, or Afghanistan—and held indefinitely for questioning, torture, or worse.