Italy Knew About Plan To Grab Suspect
Thursday, June 30, 2005
Before a CIA paramilitary team was deployed to snatch a radical Islamic cleric off the streets of Milan in February 2003, the CIA station chief in Rome briefed and sought approval from his counterpart in Italy, according to three CIA veterans with knowledge of the operation and a fourth who reviewed the matter after it took place.
The previously undisclosed Italian involvement undercuts the accusation, which has fueled public resentment in Italy toward the United States, that the CIA brashly slipped into the country unannounced and uninvited to kidnap an Italian resident off the street.
In fact, former and current CIA officials said, both the CIA and the Italian service agreed beforehand that if the unusual operation was to become public, as it has, neither side would confirm its involvement, a standard agreement the CIA makes with foreign intelligence services over covert operations.
Last Thursday, an Italian magistrate issued arrest warrants for 13 U.S. intelligence operatives. The warrants charged that they kidnapped a suspected terrorist, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr -- also known as Abu Omar -- held him hostage at two U.S. military bases and then flew him to Cairo, where he alleged to his wife in a phone call that he was tortured under interrogation.
The CIA "told a tiny number of people" about the action, said one intelligence veteran in the management chain of the operation when it took place. "Certainly not the magistrate, not the Milan police."
It is unclear how high in the Italian intelligence service the information was shared or whether the office of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was aware. It was not shared with the magistrate issuing the warrants, who works independently from the national government.
The Italian court case offers an accidental glimpse into how U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies coordinate and communicate on sensitive counterterrorism matters in ways that are expressly kept secret, even from other parts of their governments. This bifurcation between stated policies and secret practices has become more common since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as the CIA has sought cooperation from other governments to covertly apprehend and transport suspected terrorists to undisclosed locations without legal hearings.
The CIA has conducted more than 100 of these apprehensions, known as extraordinary rendition, since Sept. 11, according to knowledgeable intelligence officials.
In Italy, the justice department and public have been demanding answers from the United States and their own government since Nasr disappeared as he was walking to a mosque on Feb. 17, 2003. And justice departments and government investigators in other countries have begun to unearth information about their governments' roles in apprehensions once thought to be the work of the CIA alone.
In Sweden, an inquiry discovered that Swedish ministers had agreed to apprehend and expel two Egyptian terrorism suspects in 2002 but called the CIA for help in flying them out of the country when they could not charter a flight quickly to take the suspects to Egypt.
A former CIA official said the covert operation was exposed after the CIA paramilitaries drew attention to it by arriving commando-style, in semi-opaque masks, and "went through the standard drill as if they were arresting Khalid Sheik Mohammed," the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In Canada, a government inquiry has revealed a greater role by Canadian intelligence in the Justice Department's secret 2002 "expedited removal" of a Syrian-born Canadian citizen to Syria after he was detained as he changed flights at a New York airport.