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CIA Ruse Is Said to Have Damaged Probe in Milan

Scattered Clues

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)

The CIA has an especially close relationship with the Egyptian security and intelligence services.

In May, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch estimated that since 2001, Egypt had worked with other countries to apprehend more than 60 Islamic militants living abroad and return them to Egypt. Soon after, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told the Chicago Tribune that the CIA alone had handed over to Egypt between 60 and 70 terrorism suspects captured from around the world.

This relationship has led some European counterterrorism officials and outside experts to speculate that Nasr was abducted as a favor to the Egyptian government. But former U.S. intelligence officials said in interviews that the operation was carried out at the behest of the CIA, not Egypt.

They said the kidnapping was the inspiration of the CIA station chief in Rome, who wanted to play a more active role in taking suspected terrorists off the street. CIA officials in Italy came up with a list of three people "they wanted to look at to grab," said one agency official. It is not clear whether Nasr was on the list.

"It was definitely not a favor to the Egyptians," said another intelligence official. CIA officials "had their eye on him."

The Egyptian government has declined to comment on the case. Italian prosecutors said in court documents that they have repeatedly requested information from Egyptian officials but have received no reply.

Investigators said they had uncovered no hard evidence that Egyptian or Italian agents were involved in the abduction, although Nasr later told his family that the two men who seized him spoke "perfect Italian." According to the wiretapped telephone conversations, Nasr claimed that he was tortured by his captors in Egypt -- subjected to freezing temperatures and electric shocks, among other forms of abuse.

Italian police said there were signs that the CIA's substation chief in Milan, identified in court records as Robert Seldon Lady, flew to Cairo shortly after Nasr's disappearance, a trip that many counterterrorism analysts take to mean he took part in the initial interrogation. He spent three weeks there. Lady's attorney has acknowledged in court papers that he is a former CIA officer who worked in Italy for four years while posted at the U.S. Consulate in Milan.

Investigators have seized computer disks from Lady's home outside Milan that show he made travel reservations on a Web site to fly from Zurich to Cairo five days after Nasr disappeared, with a return flight scheduled for three weeks later. Cell phone records also show that calls were placed from Cairo on a telephone believed to be used by Lady during that period, court documents show.

During their search of Lady's home, police found a disk with a digital photograph of Nasr, showing him walking along the same block in Milan where he was abducted a month after the picture was taken.

Lady, who retired from the CIA a year later, is one of the 22 alleged CIA operatives who have been charged with kidnapping in the case. He has hired an Italian defense attorney, who recently filed a motion to have the charges against him thrown out.

The attorney, Daria Pesce, argued that the evidence seized at Lady's home was obtained illegally. She said he has not admitted or denied playing any role in the case but is actively contesting the charges. She said in a telephone interview that naming him publicly would not jeopardize his former status as an undercover officer or pose security concerns.

"We're just telling the judge that they don't have any evidence that he could have kidnapped" Nasr, Pesce said. "There could never be a trial against him in the United States with such lousy evidence."

Last week, Italian Judge Enrico Manzi disagreed with Pesce. In a written opinion upholding the arrest warrant, the judge wrote that the evidence taken from Lady's home "removes any doubt about his participation in the preparatory phase of the abduction."

Staff writer Dana Priest in Washington and special correspondent William Magnuson in Milan contributed to this report.

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