Italy Charges CIA Agents
By John Crewdson, Tom Hundley and Liz Sly, Tribune correspondents
Tom Hundley reported from Milan and Liz Sly from Rome
Published in the Chicago Tribune, June 25, 2005

In rare act by ally, officials seek arrests of U.S. agents
in kidnapping of imam who allegedly was tortured in Egypt

WASHINGTON — Four days before Osama Nasr Mostafa Hassan vanished into the thin Italian air, three middle-aged American visitors checked into the $300-a-night Milan Hilton on Via Luigi Galvani.

The Americans, a man and two women, might have been tourists or fashion buyers, the hotel's usual foreign clientele. The U.S. passports and visa cards, the driver's licenses, even the frequent-flyer IDs they presented to the desk clerk were genuine enough.

Only the names on those documents were bogus. So was their shared corporate address, a non-existent company with a post office box in Washington.

According to Italian authorities, there was a reason for all the cloak-and-dagger business: The three Americans really were spies, the last-arriving members of a covert action team assigned to snatch Hassan off the street and ship him back to Egypt, where he would later say he was brutally tortured.

On Thursday an Italian judge issued arrest warrants charging two of the three Americans and 11 of their colleagues with illegally detaining Hassan, a fundamentalist Muslim preacher better known in Milan's Islamic community as Abu Omar.

The move was no less extraordinary for coming from a country whose prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is one of the few European leaders who support the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq and which has contributed 3,000 troops to that effort.

Current and retired CIA officers, none of whom agreed to be quoted by name, said they could not remember one of their own having been charged abroad with a crime other than espionage, and certainly not in a country friendly to the U.S.

Although the CIA refuses to talk about the Milan abduction or even acknowledge that it occurred, documents obtained by the Tribune clearly link the intelligence agency with the identities, addresses and cell phones used by several of the American operatives.

The existence of the CIA's supersecret abduction squads has come to light since the events of Sept. 11, 2001, although the agency's practice of snatching suspected criminals abroad goes back at least to the Reagan administration.

Congressional Democrats have called for a public inquiry into the practice of covert abductions, which the CIA euphemistically terms "extraordinary rendition," and have introduced legislation that would ban what they term the "outsourcing of torture" to other countries such as Egypt.

News reports and human-rights organizations have identified at least 33 suspected terrorists who have been "rendered" by the U.S. since Sept. 11. Unnamed intelligence officials have been quoted as putting the number over the past two decades at closer to 100.

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazief, whose country has received more renditions than any other, recently told a group of Tribune reporters and editors that he was aware of "60 or 70" cases in which U.S. agents have seized Egyptian nationals abroad and flown them to Egypt.

In most of the known renditions, suspects have been arrested by local authorities in such countries as Indonesia, Sweden and Macedonia before being handed over to the CIA.

Even when such arrests are made purely at the behest of the U.S. — "there are arrests, and then there are arrests," a senior American intelligence official said with a laugh — they technically absolve the CIA of responsibility for unlawful seizure.

In the case of Abu Omar, the absence of any prior arrest has left the CIA open to kidnapping charges. Indeed, the police in Milan, who had been tapping Abu Omar's telephone, were as surprised as his wife and friends by his sudden disappearance.

When they learned he was gone, the puzzled police opened a missing-person investigation.

The Key Sleuth

Armando Spataro, the Milan prosecutor who requested the warrants, said the names of those accused, which have not been made public, were taken from the passports and other documents used at hotels and car rental agencies in Milan.

None of the databases accessible by the Tribune contains any indication that individuals with those names have ever had a spouse, a residence, an employer, a driver's license, a telephone, a mortgage, a credit history or a family — in short, none of the things typically associated with real people.

Spataro, who gained his reputation by prosecuting the Mafia in Italy, said in a telephone interview Friday that he believed most of the names were probably not the true identities of the accused kidnappers.

Spataro's investigators, however, have pictures of the suspects taken from photocopies of their passports made by hotels. He intends to ask the U.S. government to help him identify the suspects, none of whom is believed to still be in Italy.

"We have a convention for mutual cooperation with the U.S. in criminal matters," Spataro said in a recent interview. "I will ask them to identify some people, and I will ask them to interrogate [the suspects], because I don't believe they will surrender them to Italy voluntarily."

Italy is part of an agreement under which any member of the European Union can arrest and extradite someone wanted by another member country, and Spataro expressed some optimism the suspects would be found if they are in Europe and are still using the same names.

"They will become fugitives in Italy but also in all the other countries" of the European Union, he said.

On Monday, Italy will issue the arrest warrants through the European police agency, Europol, and the international police agency, Interpol.

While Italy also has extradition treaties with the U.S., Spataro did not directly address the question of whether he planned to ask the U.S. Justice Department to act on any of the suspects who might be in the U.S.

In at least one instance, the U.S. has extradited an American citizen to a European country — Germany — to stand trial in a criminal case.

Spataro dismissed suggestions that Abu Omar's abductors, who like many CIA officers working abroad may have been posing as American diplomats, might enjoy diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution.

"If we have evidence of their involvement in kidnapping, there is no immunity for that," he said.

Posing as Diplomat

A senior official with the prosecutor's office, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that one of those accused was a CIA officer posing as a U.S. diplomat in Milan at the time of Abu Omar's abduction.

The official said that the diplomat was well known as the CIA's representative in Milan and that the dozen other suspects charged had been in cell phone contact with him during their stay in Milan.

The diplomat is believed to have left Italy, and his whereabouts are unknown. Several U.S. telephone numbers listed in his name were unanswered or disconnected on Friday.

In all, Spataro asked the court for warrants on 19 people. But the Italian judge, Chiara Nobili, refused his requests for warrants on three men and three women on the basis that they had been brought to Milan only to help monitor Abu Omar's movements before the abduction and might not have known the reason for the surveillance.

A prosecution official said Spataro plans to appeal the judge's decision and hopes to obtain the six arrest warrants next week.

The Italian court also issued a warrant for the arrest of Abu Omar. The 103-page document consists mostly of transcripts of conversations picked up by police wiretaps and microphones before his abduction. Prosecution sources said the warrant was sought principally in hope of forcing Egypt to return Abu Omar to Milan.

The Egyptian government has ignored two formal diplomatic requests, sent last year through the Italian Justice Ministry, asking for confirmation that Abu Omar is in Egypt and an explanation of how and why he entered Egypt.

Spataro also is seeking permission to interview Abu Omar's mother, his two brothers, his sister and a prominent lawyer, all of whom are believed to be living in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.

"We asked the Egyptian authorities for their cooperation, but they haven't responded," Spataro said.

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington has declined to respond to repeated requests from the Tribune for similar information.

Costly Web of Intrigue

Judging from the information gleaned by Spataro's investigators, the abduction of Abu Omar on the afternoon of Feb. 17, 2003, was an elaborate and expensive operation.

The 18 people brought into the city for the operation spent at least $150,000 at the Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton and Westin hotels, according to documents obtained by the Tribune.

According to their U.S. passports, several of the first CIA operatives to arrive, and who apparently were used to track Abu Omar's comings and goings, were of late middle age, suggesting they might have been posing as retired Americans on holiday.

Nearly all gave post office boxes as their home or business addresses.

Those names and addresses are linked to what appears to be a CIA network of dozens of post office boxes in the Washington area with hundreds of names attached.

Hotel records show that several of the 13 suspects visited Milan in early January and then left, suggesting that the abduction operation was put on hold at the beginning of 2003.

The first to return, on Feb. 1, 2003, was a 33-year-old woman with a Hispanic-sounding name whose passport said she was a native of Florida. She was joined two days later by six other alleged team members and five more the day after that.

They included a 64-year-old man whose passport said he had been born in Alaska, a 57-year-old woman whose passport said she had been born in Florida and a 50-year-old man whose U.S. passport said he had been born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

The Moldovan-born man listed his U.S. employer's address as a post office box in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington.

His name is linked, via a half-dozen post office boxes in the Washington and Boston areas, to a Massachusetts company, Premier Executive Transport Services, that until last year was the nominal owner of a Gulfstream executive jet spotted at the scene of post-Sept. 11 "renditions" in Pakistan and Sweden.

Before checking into the Sheraton's Room 814, the man also left the hotel's front desk a Virginia telephone number. When the Tribune first began making inquiries, the number was answered "Coughlin Enterprises" by an operator who described the company as a "management consulting" firm.

According to the operator, the company's owner, a man she identified as Robert Coughlin, was unavailable.

"He's in and out a lot, but he always checks his messages," she said.

The next day, a different operator who answered the same number identified the company's owner as "Rosemarie Coughlin," who she said was similarly unavailable.

Neither Coughlin ever returned a reporter's telephone calls. The operators have since been replaced by an anonymous answering machine.

Most of the aircraft known to have been used in CIA renditions are executive jets, such as Gulfstreams or Learjets, that are either owned by the agency through front companies like Premier Executive Transport or chartered for upward of $5,000 an hour.

Several planes shown by FAA records to have visited Afghanistan or the CIA's training facility at Camp Peary, Va. — destinations not normally accessible by private corporate aircraft — are registered to companies with names like Rapid Air Transport, the Path Corp. and Braxton Management Services, with mailing addresses in Nevada, Montana and Delaware.

The plane that carried Abu Omar to Cairo was not a CIA aircraft but a chartered Gulfstream owned by Phillip H. Morse, a multimillionaire Florida businessman and a co-owner of the world champion Boston Red Sox.

Morse confirmed to the Boston Globe in March that he charters his plane to the CIA and other clients when it is not being used for Red Sox business. But Morse said he knew nothing about the uses to which the intelligence agency had put the plane.

The Globe quoted Morse saying he was "stunned" by an earlier Tribune report that the Gulfstream, with the usual Red Sox decals missing from its fuselage and tail, had been present at the Cairo airport at the time Abu Omar arrived in the early hours of Feb. 18, 2003.

Moving on their Prey

Abu Omar's abduction began on a busy street in broad daylight, as he was walking to a mosque that has been identified as a center of radical fundamentalist activity.

The startled imam was hustled inside a parked white van that, according to a passerby, drove away at high speed, followed closely by another vehicle.

The baffled police, who had been keeping tabs on Abu Omar, had no idea where he had gone, although it seemed unlikely that he would have run away from his wife and friends in a country where he had been living lawfully.

Abu Omar was granted political asylum by the Italian government after arriving in Milan in 1997, apparently on the grounds that his membership in a radical Egyptian Islamic organization, Jamaat al Islamiya, which he had joined as a university student, left him at risk for political persecution if he returned home.

Inspector Bruno Megale, the chief of Milan's police anti-terrorism unit that learned a great deal about the structure and functioning of radical Islamic cells in Italy from the wiretap on Abu Omar's phone, began the investigation into his disappearance by collecting the numbers of all the cell phones in use in the area where he disappeared.

Megale and his investigators looked first for phones that had moved across the Italian cellular network in the direction of Aviano, the site of a large joint U.S.-Italian air base some 175 miles from Milan, where Abu Omar's abductors had put him aboard a Learjet Model LJ-35 that was using the call sign "SPAR 92."

SPAR is short for Special Air Resources, a military airlift service that uses Learjets and other executive-style jets to transport senior military officers and civilian VIPs.

Abu Omar was a VIP of sorts, and at 6:20 p.m. on Feb. 17, SPAR 92, with Abu Omar aboard, departed from Aviano and headed to an air base at Ramstein, Germany, where Abu Omar was moved to the Red Sox Gulfstream.

At 8:31 P.M. the Gulfstream took off and turned southeast, headed for Cairo, where it arrived in the early hours of Feb. 18.

Records showed that the phones singled out had also been in use at a number of Milan hotels in the weeks preceding the abduction. When the hotel registers were scoured, police learned that a few of the operatives, including the Moldovan-born man, had given the hotels their cell phone numbers

In all, 17 cell phones were identified as belonging to members of the abduction team. Records showed numerous calls among the team members and several others that proved interesting: to a U.S. Air Force colonel at Aviano, to the American Consulate in Milan and to four numbers in northern Virginia, where the CIA headquarters is.

One of those numbers is listed to a man in Ashburn, Va., who has the same name as one of the names used by the CIA operatives in Milan and who apparently registered at a Milan hotel using his real name. A message left on the man's answering machine was not returned Friday.

After 14 Months, a Call

Fourteen months after Abu Omar disappeared without a trace, the telephone rang in his Milan apartment. His wife, whom Abu Omar married after moving to Italy, still had no clue what had become of her husband.

Now she was astounded to hear him explaining that he had just been released from an Egyptian prison, reportedly after a ruling by an Egyptian judge that he was not a terrorist threat.

The police in Milan had continued tapping his telephone in his absence. While their tape recorders turned, Abu Omar told his wife he had been held incommunicado in Egypt since being grabbed off the street in Milan.

During that call and in a later conversation with another Egyptian imam in Milan, Mohammed Reda, whose cell phone was also tapped, Abu Omar said he had been tortured by the Egyptian security service.

According to Reda's account of that conversation, published in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Abu Omar "underwent terrible tortures" after arriving in Cairo.

"He told me that the initial seven months were very tough," Reda said. "They hit him day and night. They made him listen to sounds at full blast, which was the reason why his hearing was impaired.

"They closed him in a sort of sauna and then in a refrigerator cell, causing him dire pain, as if his bones were shattered. They hung him head downward, applying electrodes onto his most sensitive parts, including his genitals. The electric shocks made him become incontinent. He could not walk."

The Milan police concluded that Abu Omar's account hadn't been invented for their benefit, because it evidently hadn't occurred to him that his telephone was still being tapped. Among his requests to his wife was that she erase the hard drive on his computer before it fell into the hands of the police.

Shortly after his telephone conversations with his wife and Mohammed Reda, Abu Omar was rearrested by Egyptian authorities. He has not been heard from since.


Copyright © 2005 Chicago Tribune

This article originally appeared on the Tribune's website here.

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