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CIA Ruse Is Said to Have Damaged Probe in Milan

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/04/AR2005120400885.html?referrer=email&referrer=email CIA Ruse Is Said to Have Damaged Probe in
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 6, 2005
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      http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/04/AR2005120400885.html?referrer=email&referrer=email

      CIA Ruse Is Said to Have Damaged Probe in Milan
      Italy Allegedly Misled on Cleric's Abduction

      By Craig Whitlock
      Washington Post Foreign Service
      Tuesday, December 6, 2005; Page A01

      MILAN -- 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 an unknown location in 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 first portion of the official warrants detail the
      investigation into the alleged abduction of Hassan
      Mustafa Osama Nasr. The names and other identifiers
      for 21 alleged CIA operatives have been removed. The
      Post generally does not identify or reveal undercover
      CIA officers. The CIA and lawyer for one of the
      defendants in the case, retired CIA officer Robert
      Seldon Lady, did not object to his being named.

      The strategy worked for more than a year until Italian
      investigators learned that Nasr had not gone to the
      Balkans after all. Instead, prosecutors here have
      charged, he was abducted off a street in Milan by a
      team of CIA operatives who took him to two U.S.
      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 spring. But a review of recently
      filed court documents and interviews in Milan offer
      fresh details about how the CIA allegedly spread
      disinformation to cover its tracks and how its actions
      in Milan disrupted and damaged a major 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 Armando Spataro, the lead
      prosecutor 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."

      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. In
      interviews and court documents, 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 U.S. Embassy there.

      The case marks the first time that a foreign
      government has filed criminal charges against U.S.
      operatives for their role in a counterterrorism
      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
      fueling 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 U.S. and Italian
      governments.

      Italian officials have firmly denied playing any role
      in the abduction or knowing about it beforehand. But
      current and former U.S. intelligence officials,
      speaking on condition of anonymity because they were
      not authorized to discuss the operation, said the CIA
      briefed its counterparts at the Italian military
      intelligence agency ahead of time.

      After the case became public, CIA officers involved in
      the decision to apprehend Nasr told their superiors
      that 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 that he was aware of the
      case should a public dispute erupt between Italy and
      the United States, according to two U.S. sources.

      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 that 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 United States to extradite the alleged CIA
      operatives, but Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, a
      member of Berlusconi's cabinet, so far has not given
      his approval -- a step that is usually a formality.

      After meeting with U.S. Attorney General Alberto R.
      Gonzales in Washington in early November, Castelli
      questioned whether the prosecution was politically
      motivated, calling the lead prosecutor a leftist
      "militant" whose work needed to be reviewed carefully.
      Prosecutors have denied any political bias and said
      they continue to work closely with the FBI on
      terrorism investigations.

      Warnings Are Delivered

      The first portion of the official warrants detail the
      investigation into the alleged abduction of Hassan
      Mustafa Osama Nasr. The names and other identifiers
      for 21 alleged CIA operatives have been removed. The
      Post generally does not identify or reveal undercover
      CIA officers. The CIA and lawyer for one of the
      defendants in the case, retired CIA officer Robert
      Seldon Lady, did not object to his being named.

      One enduring mystery surrounding the case is why the
      CIA would want to abduct Nasr in the first place.

      Italian anti-terrorism police said they were close to
      arresting Nasr at the time he disappeared. They had
      him under regular surveillance, with wiretaps on his
      home telephone, as part of an investigation into a
      network of Islamic extremists in northern Italy. His
      disappearance meant that Italian authorities lost a
      valuable window into the Islamic underground,
      prosecutors say.

      Moreover, Nasr's actions in Egypt complicated their
      investigations, they say. In April and May 2004, the
      cleric was heard from briefly when he made a series of
      telephone calls to family members and acquaintances in
      Milan. He told them that he had been kidnapped by
      foreign agents and taken to Cairo, but that he had
      been released under house arrest after spending more
      than a year in prison, according to wiretaps of the
      calls recorded by Italian investigators.

      During the telephone conversations, Nasr also warned
      religious colleagues at a Milan mosque that his
      Egyptian interrogators wanted to abduct three other
      people as well, transcripts of the wiretaps show. He
      was taken back to prison shortly thereafter when
      Egyptian security officials discovered that he had
      been in contact with the people in Italy, according to
      court records.

      Mohammed Reda, an Egyptian exile who lives in Milan,
      told Italian investigators that Nasr warned him on the
      phone that he was next on the Egyptian government's
      list of kidnapping targets.

      "They told him that sooner or later the same fate
      would befall the three of us, that they would catch us
      as soon as possible," Reda told investigators,
      according to court documents. "They said they had
      agreements with the Italian authorities that could
      easily ensure our capture. If we didn't turn ourselves
      in voluntarily they would kidnap us."

      Court records and interviews with Nasr's acquaintances
      and investigators in Milan suggest that the Egyptian
      government had wanted for years to capture Nasr, who
      had been part of an Islamic opposition group. Egyptian
      authorities had been prevented from capturing him
      because he had been granted asylum in Italy.

      Nasr was wanted by the Egyptian authorities for his
      involvement in Jemaah Islamiah, a network of Islamic
      extremists that had sought the overthrow of the
      government. The network was dispersed during a
      government crackdown in the early 1990s, and many
      leaders escaped abroad to avoid arrest. Nasr fled to
      Albania but also sought refuge in Germany and Bosnia
      before settling in Italy in 1997.

      Arman Ahmed Hissini, the director and imam of the
      Viale Jenner mosque and cultural center in Milan, was
      also sought by the Egyptians, court records show.
      Hissini said Nasr had been afraid for years that the
      Egyptian security services would come after him even
      though he was living in Europe.

      "He was even afraid to go to Mecca after he got asylum
      in Italy," Hissini, who is known locally as Abu Imad,
      said in an interview at the mosque. "He couldn't go
      out because he was afraid they would catch him."

      Scattered Clues

      The CIA has an especially close relationship with the
      Egyptian security and intelligence services.

      In May, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch
      estimated that since 2001, Egypt had worked with other
      countries to apprehend more than 60 Islamic militants
      living abroad and return them to Egypt. Soon after,
      Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told the Chicago
      Tribune that the CIA alone had handed over to Egypt
      between 60 and 70 terrorism suspects captured from
      around the world.

      The first portion of the official warrants detail the
      investigation into the alleged abduction of Hassan
      Mustafa Osama Nasr. The names and other identifiers
      for 21 alleged CIA operatives have been removed. The
      Post generally does not identify or reveal undercover
      CIA officers. The CIA and lawyer for one of the
      defendants in the case, retired CIA officer Robert
      Seldon Lady, did not object to his being named.

      This relationship has led some European
      counterterrorism officials and outside experts to
      speculate that Nasr was abducted as a favor to the
      Egyptian government. But former U.S. intelligence
      officials said in interviews that the operation was
      carried out at the behest of the CIA, not Egypt.

      They said the kidnapping was the inspiration of the
      CIA station chief in Rome, who wanted to play a more
      active role in taking suspected terrorists off the
      street. CIA officials in Italy came up with a list of
      three people "they wanted to look at to grab," said
      one agency official. It is not clear whether Nasr was
      on the list.

      "It was definitely not a favor to the Egyptians," said
      another intelligence official. CIA officials "had
      their eye on him."

      The Egyptian government has declined to comment on the
      case. Italian prosecutors said in court documents that
      they have repeatedly requested information from
      Egyptian officials but have received no reply.

      Investigators said they had uncovered no hard evidence
      that Egyptian or Italian agents were involved in the
      abduction, although Nasr later told his family that
      the two men who seized him spoke "perfect Italian."
      According to the wiretapped telephone conversations,
      Nasr claimed that he was tortured by his captors in
      Egypt -- subjected to freezing temperatures and
      electric shocks, among other forms of abuse.

      Italian police said there were signs that the CIA's
      substation chief in Milan, identified in court records
      as Robert Seldon Lady, flew to Cairo shortly after
      Nasr's disappearance, a trip that many
      counterterrorism analysts take to mean he took part in
      the initial interrogation. He spent three weeks there.
      Lady's attorney has acknowledged in court papers that
      he is a former CIA officer who worked in Italy for
      four years while posted at the U.S. Consulate in
      Milan.

      Investigators have seized computer disks from Lady's
      home outside Milan that show he made travel
      reservations on a Web site to fly from Zurich to Cairo
      five days after Nasr disappeared, with a return flight
      scheduled for three weeks later. Cell phone records
      also show that calls were placed from Cairo on a
      telephone believed to be used by Lady during that
      period, court documents show.

      During their search of Lady's home, police found a
      disk with a digital photograph of Nasr, showing him
      walking along the same block in Milan where he was
      abducted a month after the picture was taken.

      Lady, who retired from the CIA a year later, is one of
      the 22 alleged CIA operatives who have been charged
      with kidnapping in the case. He has hired an Italian
      defense attorney, who recently filed a motion to have
      the charges against him thrown out.

      The attorney, Daria Pesce, argued that the evidence
      seized at Lady's home was obtained illegally. She said
      he has not admitted or denied playing any role in the
      case but is actively contesting the charges. She said
      in a telephone interview that naming him publicly
      would not jeopardize his former status as an
      undercover officer or pose security concerns.

      "We're just telling the judge that they don't have any
      evidence that he could have kidnapped" Nasr, Pesce
      said. "There could never be a trial against him in the
      United States with such lousy evidence."

      Last week, Italian Judge Enrico Manzi disagreed with
      Pesce. In a written opinion upholding the arrest
      warrant, the judge wrote that the evidence taken from
      Lady's home "removes any doubt about his participation
      in the preparatory phase of the abduction."

      Staff writer Dana Priest in Washington and special
      correspondent William Magnuson in Milan contributed to
      this report.
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