CIA Ruse Is Said to Have Damaged Probe in Milan

This surveillance photo of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was found on a disk in the home of the CIA's ranking official in Milan, according to Italian police.
This surveillance photo of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was found on a disk in the home of the CIA's ranking official in Milan, according to Italian police. (Courtesy Corriere Della Sera)

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

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 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.


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