Who doesn't love a good spy story? Shadowy operatives, evil terrorists, dangerous betrayals and the future of the free world hanging in the balance. Throw in the suggestion of sinister conspiracies at the very top of government--and some sex, of course--and you've got a pretty good book to take to the beach.
But when real U.S. officials start acting like they're living a Robert Ludlum saga, then you've got problems. And the more documentation that surfaces about the mysterious abduction of a suspected Al Qaeda figure from the streets of Italy in February 2003, the more it looks like whoever in the administration ordered the snatch got carried away with the dangerous glamour of the moment.
The arrest warrant issued by Italian judge Chiara Nobili charges 13 presumed CIA operatives--10 men and three women--allegedly involved in the kidnapping of Mostafa Hassan Nasr Osama, a.k.a. Abu Omar, on Feb. 17, 2003. At just about noon that day, he was bundled into a truck, driven to a U.S. airbase, and flown to Egypt for some tough questioning. Three other men and three other women are also named in the warrants, but because they were not at the scene of the kidnapping, have no arrest orders against them. The 230-page court document chronicles all of these characters' movements, some of their meals, their raids on hotel minibars, even, it would seem at first glance, their romances.
Some of the alleged agents started showing up in Milan at the end of 2002, but most converged on the city in late January 2003. They stayed at some of the finest hotels, including the elegant Principe di Savoia and the Westin Palace. Their king-size beds and their well-equipped gyms were close to the fashionable shopping streets, and far from the dreary industrial zone where Abu Omar lived, worked, prayed and allegedly recruited terrorists. But the mobile phones they used showed up many times in his neighborhood. Each "cell" in a network has a record of every call made through it, in case you didn't know. More importantly, if the agents knew, they didn't seem to care. It was those records that allowed their movements to be traced so closely.
On the weekend of Feb. 1-2, 2003, 10 members of the team took off for the city of La Spezia on the coast. The beach resort is pretty depressing that time of year, but Monica*, the youngest on the team, was marking her 30th birthday that weekend. Maybe that was the occasion. In any case, the court records say she shared a room that weekend with 50-year-old John D. (Eliana, 33, and Ben, 58, also bunked together.) Then five members of the team, including Monica and John D., went off to a sumptuous hotel in Florence for two more days. Another couple, 41-year-old Pilar and 63-year-old Ray H., went from La Spezia to the out-of-the-way Alpine village of Chiesa de Valmalenco near the Swiss border. Joseph S., who was born in Eastern Europe in 1953, and seems to have exquisite taste, blew off the beaches, the mountains and Monica's birthday. He went to the legendary Danieli Hotel in Venice.
It looks like they were all taking a break, and they probably needed it. By then, the pressure on CIA operatives doing this kind of fieldwork must have been enormous. They had taken the point in the Global War on Terror, pursuing Al Qaeda's key figures wherever they might be found. In coordination with many different intelligence services, they had tracked down most of those linked directly to 9/11. As Dana Priest reported last week in The Washington Post, an extraordinary top-secret counterterrorism center known as Alliance Base was set up in France soon after the attacks on Washington and New York, with French, British, German, Canadian, Australian and American case officers not only sharing information but planning operations against terrorist cells.
Now a new war, with Iraq, was only weeks away. The Bush administration obsessed with the notion that Saddam Hussein might strike back anywhere at any time with those weapons of mass destruction he was supposed to have. The administration was pushing hard to make the case to itself and to the world that the threat was imminent and immense. At Alliance Base, as Priest's article suggests, the world's best counterterrorist minds were less than convinced. (For a snapshot of the thinking at that time, see "Rumors of War," from March 2003.) But in Italy there were some tantalizing bits of information still to be mined. The Italian government of billionaire Silvio Berlusconi was backing the American rush to war, volunteering to send troops, showing itself a solid member of the "New Europe" on the Bush team. Unlike the British, who dreamed of moderating Bush's behavior, or the French who found W distasteful and dangerous, Berlusconi was an unapologetic cheerleader.
In 2002, Italians with spooky connections helpfully provided documents that seemed to show Saddam was trying to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger. President Bush famously referred to this ostensible danger in his State of the Union speech in January 2003. Then the documents turned out to be clumsy forgeries. In early February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations to make the American case for invasion. He'd dropped the Niger stuff, but picked up other Italian threads of information about terrorists with horrible weapons.
Powell fixed on the network of Abu Mussab Al-Zarqawi, a then-little-known terrorist wannabe who had been operating out of the Kurdish area in northern Iraq, but whose actual ties to Saddam were hard to substantiate. "Since last year, members of this network have been apprehended in France, Britain, Spain and Italy. By our last count, 116 operatives connected to this global web have been arrested," Powell told the world. He limned Zarqawi-linked conspiracies to use deadly poisons in Great Britain, Chechnya, even in the Pankisi Gorge in the Caucasus. But, still, no solid link to Saddam. Powell showed a slide that underscored what was supposed to be known, and implied what needed to be known. A large block on the diagram read: "Possible Italy Cell."
Powell's speech came the same day the alleged kidnapping team assembled again in Milan. Their target, Abu Omar, looked like he might be the missing link tying terror to Saddam and deadly toxins. Italian prosecutors and judicial police had been building a case against the Egyptian preacher for months, in consultation with the FBI, according to a senior Italian source involved with the investigation. But Washington intended to invade Iraq in March, no matter what, and Italian prosecutors were not ready to arrest him. The Italian plan, according to the same source, was to nail Abu Omar and other alleged members of the same network in early April 2003. But Monica and her friends snatched him off the street in the middle of February. A few days later, according to traces run by the Italian prosecutors, the telephone used by Bob L., the man identified in the court documents as head of the CIA in Milan, showed up in Egypt for a couple of weeks. That would have been the time when interrogators most needed the expertise of someone like Bob, who had been thoroughly briefed on the case by the Italian political police, known as DIGOS.
As happened so often when the Bush administration went looking for grand conspiracies in the free-wheeling spring of 2003, Abu Omar wasn't able to tell the Americans all they wanted or needed to hear. Fourteen months later, the Egyptians briefly let him out of prison, apparently thinking they had turned him into a collaborator. He phoned his wife and another imam in Milan and told his story. Italian police, who monitored those calls, set out to find whoever had stolen him. The cell phone records from the scene of the kidnapping, like crumbs in the forest, led the way to the CIA.
Most of the people on the team were in their 40s, 50s or 60s. Presumably they were old pros. Why didn't they do a better job of covering their tracks? Almost certainly because they believed the fix was in.
Both American and Italian press reports claim that the head of Italy's Intelligence and Military Security Service (SISMI), Nicolo Pollari, was informed about the kidnapping before it took place. The Berlusconi government has flatly denied this. It claims no one in the Italian government or its intelligence services had any prior knowledge of this crime, which the Italian judge calls an affront to national sovereignty. A source close to the prosecution tells me that the search goes on for direct links to whatever Italian officials may have approved it. They are the "real" targets of the investigation, according to this source, although no proof has surfaced. (Coincidentally, one of Pollari's top deputies, Maj. Gen. Nicola Calipari, was shot and killed accidentally by American troops in Iraq earlier this year.)
Like most good spy stories, this one has a quiet denouement. For the American officers in the field, the "rendition" of Abu Omar to Egypt must have seemed a cause to celebrate. Certainly they acted that way. Aviano airbase, where they'd put him on a plane, is near Venice. Four members of the team decided to chill there for a couple of days. Others drove back to Milan, then disappeared off the Italian map. The tasteful Joseph S. went with Cyntia, 42, to a spa at Montecatini Terme, then on to Bolzano, in the Tyrol. A few months later, the CIA man in Milan retired to a lovely farmhouse among pastures and vineyards near Asti, according to court documents. Italian reporters who've been to the village say he hasn't been seen by his neighbors for several months.