By Craig Whitlock and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 25, 2005
MILAN, June 24 -- Italian authorities said Friday they have issued arrest warrants against 13 American intelligence operatives, charging that they kidnapped a radical Islamic cleric as he walked to a mosque here two years ago, held him hostage at two U.S. military bases and then covertly flew him to Cairo. He later said he was tortured by Egyptian security police.
The case marks the first known instance of a foreign government filing criminal charges against U.S. operatives for their alleged role in an overseas counterterrorism mission. Coming from a longtime ally, Italy, which has worked closely with the U.S. government to fight terrorism and has sent troops to Iraq, the charges reflect growing unease in Europe about some U.S. tactics against suspected Islamic terrorists.
There was no sign that any of the Americans was currently in Italy; the identities that many of them used in Italy appear to be cover names. An Italian official said the government would ask the United States for "judicial assistance" but did not specify whether it would seek extradition of the 13.
The warrants, approved by an Italian judge Thursday, followed a two-year investigation by prosecutors and police in Milan into the Feb. 17, 2003, disappearance of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. A veteran of military training camps in Bosnia and Afghanistan, Nasr was a longtime surveillance target of Italian counterterrorism police, who have made no secret of their frustration over how he was forcibly taken out of the country without their knowledge.
Italian prosecutors have concluded that Nasr was the target of a top-secret operation that the CIA calls an "extraordinary rendition." It is the forcible and highly secretive transfer of terrorism suspects to their home countries or other nations where they can be interrogated without the same legal protections available to them in the United States or the places from which they were removed.
Michael Scheuer, a former senior counterterrorism official at the CIA, said details provided by the Italians suggest that the Nasr case was not a CIA operation. He also said the agency would never approve a kidnapping in Italy.
According to Italian court documents, investigators in Milan determined that Nasr was kidnapped just after noon by eight U.S. operatives as he was walking from his house to a nearby mosque to pray. He was bundled into a van and taken to Aviano Air Base, a joint Italian-U.S. military installation. Hours later, he was put on a Learjet to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he was transferred to another airplane, which took him to Cairo, the documents show.
The documents also show that the Americans spent more than $100,000 to stay in luxury hotels in Milan, Florence and Venice before and after Nasr's disappearance.
Italian investigators believe that Nasr was released from jail in Egypt, at least temporarily. A year after his disappearance, he called home to his wife and colleagues in Milan and said he had been kidnapped by Americans and tortured with electric shocks by Egyptian security police, according to wiretap transcripts of the calls, the documents said.
The CIA and the U.S. Embassy in Rome declined to comment Friday. State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli told reporters, "I don't have any facts or comments for you about those reports." The State Department also said any extradition requests from Italy would be handled by the Justice Department.
According to Italian court documents, police and prosecutors in Milan identified 19 Americans, four of them women, whom they suspected of playing a role in the kidnapping, although only 13 were charged with a crime. Investigators relied on cell phone records, hotel registries, car rental receipts, electronic highway toll passes and other documents to determine the identities of the Americans, according to the documents.
Milan prosecutors state in the documents that although they could independently confirm that only one of those named in the warrants was a CIA operative, the overall findings "allow us to attribute the kidnapping with certainty to the CIA."
A review of the names listed in the court documents suggests that most of the people were operating under cover names. Attempts by The Washington Post to locate individuals named in the warrants were unsuccessful. The majority of the people named have no listed residence, workplace, working telephone or corporate history, according to a review of public records.
Moreover, half of the U.S. phone numbers that the operatives listed when checking into Italian hotels had been disconnected when called on Friday. Two numbers were answered by recordings for companies with names that are unregistered. A third number was answered by an answering service for a company described as a foreign trade service. Phone messages left by The Post with all three companies were not returned.
Two of the individuals had listed their addresses as boxes at the same post office in Dunn Loring, Va., that is used by a man who is listed as an officer of Premier Executive Transport Services, a company that owns two planes used by the CIA for renditions. The man's name also appears to be a cover.
Three of the 19 people named in the court documents, however, appear to be legitimate identities. One is listed in public records as a longtime U.S. government employee who has been stationed abroad.
Scheuer, who supervised the CIA's special unit dedicated to tracking down Osama bin Laden and started the agency's rendition program, said he doubted that the CIA was involved in Nasr's disappearance. "The agency might be sloppy, but not that sloppy," he said. "There is no way they would sanction a kidnapping on Italian soil."
Details of the operation, as described in the court documents, bear little resemblance to the way the agency has handled previous renditions, Scheuer said. "Renditions have never worked this way," he said. "If I had taken a plan to my bosses to kidnap someone in Europe, it better have been Osama himself, and I doubt I would have gotten permission even then."
CIA officials have testified that they have relied on renditions for years to deal with suspected terrorists around the world, and security analysts say the practice has intensified greatly since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings. Only a few cases have come to light publicly.
German prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into the suspected kidnapping of a German citizen last year while he was on vacation in Macedonia. The victim, Khaled Masri, has told German investigators that he was detained by Macedonian officials, who thought he was a wanted terrorist, and then handed over to U.S. operatives, who flew him to Afghanistan. After spending three months in prison there, Masri has said, he was released when his captors realized his was a case of mistaken identity. German prosecutors say they believe his story.
In Stockholm, a parliamentary investigator concluded in March that CIA operatives violated Swedish law by subjecting two Egyptian nationals to "degrading and inhuman treatment" and by exercising police powers on Swedish soil during a rendition in December 2001. That rendition was carried out with the help of Swedish security police. Swedish prosecutors have not filed charges in the case.
If the Milan rendition was run by a U.S. intelligence agency, according to former U.S. intelligence officials, it would likely have been done with the knowledge of their counterparts in Italy.
In the past, Italian government officials have denied playing any role in Nasr's disappearance or having any knowledge of whether the CIA was involved. In the court documents, the Milan investigators state that they strongly suspect Egyptian officials assisted in the operation but that they have no proof.
"It is clear to us that there remain other accomplices to this kidnapping who remain unknown," the investigators stated. The documents make no mention of whether Italian intelligence officials knew or not.
Milan prosecutor Manlio Claudio Minale on Friday confirmed the issuance of the arrest warrants, first reported by the Italian dailies Corriere della Sera and Il Giorno.
Linzer reported from Washington. Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.