Italy furious over CIA terror kidnap
By Craig Whitlock, Milan
December 7, 2005
IN MARCH 2003, the Italian national anti-terrorism police received an urgent message from the CIA about a radical Islamic cleric who had mysteriously vanished from Milan a few weeks before.
The CIA reported that it had reliable information that the cleric, the target of an Italian criminal investigation, had fled to the Balkans.
In fact, according to Italian court documents and interviews with investigators, the CIA's tip was a deliberate lie, part of a ruse designed to stymie efforts by the Italian anti-terrorism police to track down the cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, an Egyptian refugee known as Abu Omar.
The strategy worked for more than a year until Italian investigators learned that Nasr had not gone to the Balkans after all.
Instead, prosecutors say he was abducted in Milan by a team of CIA operatives who took him to two US military bases in succession and then flew him to Egypt, where he was interrogated and allegedly tortured by Egyptian security agents before being released to house arrest.
Italian judicial authorities publicly disclosed the CIA operation in the northern spring. But a review of recently filed court documents and interviews in Milan offers fresh details about how the CIA allegedly spread disinformation to cover its tracks and how its actions in Milan damaged an Italian investigation.
"The kidnapping of Abu Omar was not only a serious crime against Italian sovereignty and human rights, but it also seriously damaged counterterrorism efforts in Italy and Europe," said prosecutor Armando Spataro in Milan.
"In fact, if Abu Omar had not been kidnapped, he would now be in prison, subject to a regular trial, and we would have probably identified his other accomplices."
Mr Spataro declined to comment on any specifics of the investigation because the case is pending in the Italian courts.
The CIA declined to comment.
Since July, prosecutors and judges in Milan have issued arrest warrants charging 22 alleged CIA operatives, including the head of the CIA Milan substation, with kidnapping and other crimes.
Italian investigators said they now believe the abduction was overseen by the CIA's station chief in Rome and orchestrated by officials assigned to the US embassy in Italy.
The case marks the first time that a foreign government has filed criminal charges against US operatives for their role in a counter-terrorism mission.
In addition to jolting relations between the United States and Italy, normally a strong ally of Washington in the fight against terrorism, the case is fuelling a growing chorus of European complaints that the Bush Administration has crossed legal and ethical lines in dealing with Islamic extremists.
As investigators in Milan gradually unravel what happened to Nasr, 42, who remains in custody in Egypt, disclosures about the covert operation are causing political problems for both the US and Italian governments.
Italian officials have denied playing any role in the abduction or having any prior knowledge. But present and former US intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the operation, said the CIA briefed its Italian counterparts beforehand.
After the case became public, CIA officers involved in the decision to apprehend Nasr told their superiors the Italian intelligence agency cleared the operation with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. But there appears to be no documentation that would support the claim he was aware of the case, should a public dispute erupt between Italy and the US, US sources said.
Several former intelligence officials said such documentation, on such a sensitive subject, would probably not exist.
"The price of doing business is, if you get caught, you're on your own," said one former intelligence official.
There are signs Mr Berlusconi's Government has become increasingly uncomfortable with the criminal investigation, which is being carried out by independent judicial authorities in Milan.
Prosecutors and judges signed papers last month seeking to compel the US to extradite the alleged CIA operatives. But Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, a member of Mr Berlusconi's cabinet, so far has not given his approval — usually a formality.
RENDITION WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
¦ Rendition is bureaucratese for the CIA's practice of kidnapping terrorist suspects and sending them to secret detention centres out of the public eye and out of reach of the US justice system.
¦ It was authorised under President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s to counter the threat of Islamic terrorism and overcome CIA difficulties in obtaining a conviction against suspects.
¦ It was expanded hugely under President George Bush, who gave the CIA sweeping new powers after the September 11 attacks.
¦ Since then the staff of the Counter-Terrorist Centre, the CIA branch that oversees renditions, is reported to have quadrupled to more than 1000 people.
¦ More than 100 more people have disappeared or been "rendered" in the past few years, in addition to the detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay.
¦ The most common destinations are Egypt and Jordan, which are known to have tortured prisoners.
¦ The US insists that it does not send people to countries that employ torture.