Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine
Subscribe NOW to WLM


On the Trail of a CIA "Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" From Milan to Washington


The situation, she says, is "delicate."
She lifts her espresso and smiles. Here, in the sleek, Italian chancery on Embassy Row, with soft autumn sunlight pouring into the palazzo-like atrium, it seems all wrong to talk about terrorism, kidnapping and torture.
And, as it turns out, she won't. The Italian press attaché has agreed to see me only because it is her job to show Italy's best face to American reporters and she does it well with a brilliant smile.

She will concede only that it is a "difficult" period for Italy and the United States.
The embassy staff cannot publicly discuss the subject that has been roiling the waters between Rome and Washington for the past four years: The CIA's abduction of a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist off a narrow street in Milan in 2003.
Not that Rome's diplomats here know much, she and other Italian diplomats insist. The chancery, a rose-hued, splintered cube designed by world-class architect Piero Sartogo, houses an embassy of foreign ministry career professionals.

The staff is, in the words of another Italian official who must remain anonymous, a mere "observer" in the spy scandal, which has been a sensation back home but slow to garner major coverage here. The real action, they say, is unfolding inside the top floors of their respective justice ministries and intelligence services.
In late November, Italian Minister of Justice Clemente Mastella was expected to decide whether to accept a relentless Milan prosecutor's request that Italy formally ask the United States to hand over 26 Americans, most believed to be CIA operatives, for arrest and trial for kidnapping.

Mastella visited Washington in October for a hush-hush meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Close observers here and in Italy say it's highly unlikely that Mastella will be moved by the pleas of the prosecutor, Armando Spataro, a legend for his fearless pursuit of the Sicilian mafia and terrorists alike for over three decades.
And in the slight chance that Mastella does forward Spataro's request, say legal and intelligence specialists, it is unimaginable that the Bush administration-or any U.S. administration- would try to force the CIA to turn over its operatives for carrying out the orders in the Bush administration's clandestine program of "extraordinary renditions."
On the other hand, Spataro's legion of admirers say it would be unwise to underestimate the persistence of the motorcycle-riding, mustached prosecutor, whose love of American jazz, and long distance running-he competed in the 1999 Chicago marathon, finishing high in the throng-are well known.

"He's one of the most experienced prosecutors in Italy. He's completely honest," Stefano Dambruoso, who handled anti-terrorism cases as a Milan magistrate until 2005, told the Chicago Tribune last year.

"We're not political," Dambruoso explained. "When we have a case, we have to investigate. "We go against left and right in the same way." Leo Sisti, one of Italy's top investigative reporters for many years, met Spataro in the 1970s. Both were young crusaders taking on the Mafia and the Red Brigades, the Marxist terror group. It was a line of work that could get them both killed. "Spataro is relentless," Sisti told me. And clever.

"At the same time the Red Brigades and their offshoots were murdering hundreds of people for political reasons," Sisti said, "he was one of the magistrates who promoted a bill to reduce the prison terms of its members' prison terms in exchange for distancing themselves from the idea of armed struggle and renouncing their former comrades-in-arms."
Spataro's steady progress against the CIA has generated headlines in Europe, inflamed Italian public opinion, and already claimed its first highprofile victims: Nicoló Pollari, Italy's top spy, his deputy and one other official from SISMI, the military intelligence service. Pollari was sacked on Nov. 20 over allegations that he secretly helped the CIA abduct the al-Qaeda suspect and paid journalists to spy on Spataro. Two of his underlings have already been arrested, raising the specter that Pollari, too, may soon be as well.

The prosecutor has been helped in no small measure by the CIA operatives' now infamous screw-ups, which have made them a global laughingstock, not to mention fugitives from justice. Despite the absence of an extradition demand, warrants for their arrests have been issued throughout Europe, spoiling any thoughts they may have had of shopping trips to London or summers in the south of France.

Three years later, the Italian job can still make intelligence professionals slap their foreheads. "I've never seen anything like that," a CIA man with nearly 30 years in clandestine operations told me over the phone one recent night. "Is this the gang that couldn't shoot straight?"

In late November Romés Minister of Justice, Clemente Mastella, was expected to decide whether to accept a relentless Milan prosecutor's request that Italy formally ask the United States to hand over 26 Americans, most believed to be CIA operatives, for arrest and trial for kidnapping.

Their undoing began almost right from the get-go. A CIA surveillance team had been secretly following Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, an Egyptian also known as Abu Omar, around the streets of Milan since late 2002. Omar, a member of the radical group al-Jama'a al- Islamiya, frequented a Milan mosque that was a hotbed of pro-al-Qaeda sentiment. Because he was associated with a terrorist organization, the counterterrorism police already had a wiretap on his home telephone.
On February 17, 2003, the CIA pounced. Two men in police uniforms stopped Omar on a back street near the Center for Islamic Culture, which he visited daily, and demanded to see his papers. Then a white van pulled alongside. Omar vanished.
Problem: a passerby witnessed the snatch, and described it to police. Summoned by police, Omar's wife also said that her husband had gone missing on Feb. 17.
Spataro's office got new warrants for wiretaps on the phone in Omar's house, and waited.

Fourteen months later, the phone rang. It was Omar, calling home from Egypt. He told his wife he had been shoved into a van, blindfolded, taken to an air base a couple of hours away and bundled into a jet, which flew him to Egypt. Omar said he had been turned over to interrogators who brutally tortured him for over a year.
The police were eavesdropping on the conversation. Spataro was able to jump-start his investigation.

In October 2005 he laid out his case for subpoenas in more than 200 pages of documentation. They described how investigators analyzed logs of cell phone traffic from broadcasting towers on the day of the abduction, which allowed them to trace the snatch team's movements from Milan to the U.S. air base at Aviano. By questioning authorities there, police were able to identify the chartered jet that ferried Omar to Egypt, including its tail number. As it turned out, the same jet was used in other CIA "rendition" operations from Europe.

Spataro's investigators had vacuumed Milan. They obtained the operatives' hotel, credit card and rental car records, passport numbers and, in many cases, photographs. Some of them had used their real names, as well as their cover ones, for transactions during the operation-an inexplicable violation of a cardinal rule of espionage.

Adding to the CIA-s embarrassment, the records revealed that the snatch team arrived three months before grabbing Omar, staying in luxury hotels and running up tabs in top restaurants, evidently giving themselves generous breaks from their stressful mission.

The alleged mastermind of the operation, Robert Seldon Lady, was officially a U.S. diplomat in Milan at the time of the abduction. Police investigating Omar's disappearance intercepted Lady's cell phone calls to his wife in Milan, which had originated in Egypt.

When the initial police investigation surfaced, he left for Honduras, which the police also discovered by intercepting calls to his wife. They raided their home north of Milan. In the garage, they found a trash can with and unexpected mother lode: operational papers and partially erased computer hard disks. Among other clues, they contained Lady's investigation of escape routes and a surveillance photograph of Omar on the street where he was kidnapped, taken 33 days before he disappeared.

Lady's problems have entered a new phase. Unlike most members of his erstwhile team, he no longer has diplomatic immunity, because he retired in 2004. Now, in an irony the former spy must bitterly appreciate, it is he who may be snatched if he leaves U.S. soil. This time, of course, it will be legal.

On February 17, 2003, the CIA pounced. Two men in police uniforms stopped Omar on a back street near the Center for Islamic Culture, which he visited daily, and demanded to see his papers. Then a white van pulled alongside. Omar vanished.

Some officials in Washington may be watching Nicolo Pollari's downfall with more than the usual discomfort of seeing a friend in trouble.

An intense, hawk-faced bureaucrat with a Nixon-like propensity for out-of-channel skullduggery, Pollari was present at a secret, December 2001 meeting in Rome with a shadowy group of Americans who wanted to discuss plans to overthrow the Iranian government.

The meeting was called by Michael Ledeen, the American Enterprise Institute scholar often found at the center of international intrigue, most famously in the so-called Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan years. With him came Manucher Ghorbanifar, the notorious Iranian arms dealer and intelligence fabricator, also at the heart of Iran-Contra. From Washington came Larry Franklin, a Defense Department Iran specialist (later convicted of leaking classified information to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee); and Harold Rhode, part of secret Pentagon project to prove that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
At that same meeting, according to reports that surfaced much later, Pollari pulled aside Ledeen to complain that the CIA station in Rome had rejected sensational intelligence gathered by SISMI: documents showing Niger was selling tons of uranium to Saddam Hussein.

Despite being obvious forgeries, the documents were embraced by the White House as its prime causus bellum for the invasion of Iraq. Pollari ostensibly would have much to tell Spataro's investigators about the fabricated Niger documents. Another interested party is the incoming Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, who has vowed to get to the bottom of the pre-war intelligence on Iraq.
Pollari's name crops up again, this time at the White House on September. 9, 2002, according to later reports suggesting that he discussed Niger's alleged sale of uranium to Iraq with then-White House national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley. It was also a time when the administration's clandestine abductions of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists was in full swing. (Abu Omar would be whisked away about six months later.)

The legislation revised the War Crimes Act of 1996, narrowing what constitutes a war crime - effectively removing water-boarding and other interrogation techniques from the category. It also made the revision retroactive to November. 26, 1997, meaning that perpetrators who might have once been prosecuted as war criminals are now exempt.

The White House issued a semi-denial. "No one present at that meeting has any recollection of yellowcake [uranium oxide] being discussed or documents being provided," Rice's NSC spokesman Fred Jones told the New York Times. Italy responded that Pollari met mainly-and only briefly-with Rice, without divulging further details.

Four years later, multiple investigations are underway in Europe into secret arrangements government officials may have made with the CIA for airfields, hidden detention centers and, of course, torture. At the same time, innocent individuals snatched by the CIA, interrogated in secret prisons and then unceremoniously released are filing suits in the U.S. to hold someone responsible.
According to a potentially explosive story by freelance investigative reporter Matthew Cole in a forthcoming issue of Gentlemen's Quarterly, Rice herself green-lighted the "black op" to snatch Abu Omar. It was the only such one in Europe not conducted jointly with a host country's counterterrorism police, Cole says.
The State Department did not respond to a query on the matter.
Meanwhile, an Italian official close to the Abu Omar investigation says that no official should take solace from a little noticed provision slipped into the Military Commissions Act that Congress passed in October. The legislation revised the War Crimes Act of 1996, narrowing what constitutes an atrocity against prisoners - effectively removing water-boarding and other interrogation techniques from the category, say analysts. The bill also made the revision retroactive to Nov. 26, 1997, meaning that perpetrators who might have once been prosecuted as war criminals are now exempt.

The theory that the new ...law will exempt the CIA defendants from prosecution here is incorrect," a source close to the Italian investigation said. "Our prosecutions are not subordinate to other [nations'] laws.
"The crimes were committed on Italian territory," agrees legal scholar Joanne Mariner, director of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program at Human Rights Watch in New York, which is pressing for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the culpability of U.S. officials, in particular former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in torture. (Retired Gen. Mike Dunlavey, who headed Guantanamo's Task Force 170, gave a sworn statement to the Army Inspector General last March saying Rumsfeld was "personally involved" in the abuse of a particular detainee.) "Italian courts aren't going to be moved by this law" (the Military Commissions Act), Mariner said in a telephone interview. "But nobody thinks [the U.S.] will extradite the CIA people ... So that kind of moots that question."
Instead, perhaps as early as this spring, Italian sources say, Armando Spataro will try the Abu Omar case in absentia. With charts, telephone records, hotel receipts and the passport pictures of the CIA agents, he will lay out a lock-tight case that will almost certainly lead to guilty verdicts. Unfortunately for Spataro, however, the defendants' table will be empty.

Nicolo Pollari Montasser al-Zayat
With his ouster, SISMI intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari became the highest-level Italian offi cial to lose his job over the abduction case, widening suspicions that the previous Italian government collaborated with the CIA more closely than has been acknowledged. Egyptian defense attorney Montasser al-Zayat, the lawyer for Muslim preacher Osama Hassan Mustafa Nasr also known as Abu Omar, in his Cairo offi ce, Nov. 1, 2006. The abduction of Abu Omar is one of the few known cases of supposed "extraordinary rendition"- the secret CIA program of apprehending terror suspects and sending them to other countries where some are allegedly tortured. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)


Italian Minister of Justice Clemente Mastella
Italian Minister of Justice Clemente Mastella met with Condoleezza Rice in late October. Both State Department and Italian sources were tight-lipped on discussions, if any, they had regarding Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr's extradition case.


Armando Spataro
Judge Armando Spataro, one of the magistrates investigating the alleged CIA kidnapping of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar, arrives at the San Vittore prison in Milan, Italy, July 7, 2006. Spataro questioned Marco Mancini, head of the counterespionage at Italy’s SISMI agency, who had been detained in the prison since his arrest over the case. (AP Photo/Tonino Sgro')


Home  |   Where To Find Us  |   Advertising  |   Privacy Policy  |   Site Map  |   Purchase Photos  |   About Us

Click here to go to the NEW Washington Life Magazine