This would make a great comedy film script...www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0512250380dec25,1,7824008.story?page=1&coll=chi-news-hed
CIA's bungled Italy job
Sloppy use of cell phones, other missteps help police unravel cleric's 2003 abduction
By John Crewdson
Tribune senior correspondent
Published December 25, 2005
MILAN, Italy -- The trick is known to just about every two-bit crook in the cellular age: If you don't want the cops to know where you are, take the battery out of your cell phone when it's not in use.
Had that trick been taught at the CIA's rural Virginia training school for covert operatives, the Bush administration might have avoided much of the current crisis in Europe over the practice the CIA calls "rendition," and CIA Director Porter Goss might not have ordered a sweeping review of the agency's field operations.
But when CIA operatives assembled here nearly three years ago to abduct an Egyptian-born Muslim preacher named Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, more familiarly known as Abu Omar, and "render" him to Cairo, they left their cell phone batteries in.
Even when not in use, a cell phone sends a periodic signal indicating its location, enabling the worldwide cellular network to know where to look for it in case of an incoming call.
Those signals allowed police investigating Abu Omar's mysterious disappearance to ultimately construct an almost minute-by-minute record of his abduction, and to identify nearly two dozen people as his abductors.
Aides use words such as "horrified" to describe Goss' reaction to the sloppiness of the Milan rendition, and the relative ease with which its details have been unearthed by the Italian police and the news media.
In response, Goss has ordered a "top-down" review of the agency's "tradecraft," as the nuts and bolts of the spy business is known.
So amateurish was the Milan rendition that the Italian lawyer for Robert Seldon Lady, whom prosecutors identify as the former CIA chief in Milan, says Lady's primary defense will be that he was too good a spy to have been involved with something so badly planned and carried out.
"I think Bob is too intelligent," the lawyer, Daria Pesce, said in an interview earlier this month.
Lady, 51, who retired from the CIA two years ago, is believed to be living in Florida. If he or any of the 21 other CIA operatives charged with Abu Omar's abduction were to set foot in the 25-nation European Union, they would be subject to arrest and extradition to Italy to stand trial.
Prosecutors say the hundreds of pages of documents they have filed with the court here leave little doubt that Lady was a key player in the February 2003 kidnapping of Abu Omar and his rendition to Egypt, where he claims to have been tortured.
Incriminating photo seized
The evidence seized by police last summer from Lady's Italian villa includes a surveillance photograph of Abu Omar walking from his apartment to a nearby mosque, at the precise spot where he later was seized and thrown into a waiting van.
Although Abu Omar is not an Italian citizen, in 2001 he was granted political asylum in Italy, entitling him to the full protection of the nation's laws.
In ordering further investigations, Milan Judge Chiara Nobili decreed that it was necessary "to identify which agency is responsible for such a severe violation of international law as kidnapping a person legitimately living in Italy."
Should the CIA decide to teach its trainees how not to conduct a covert operation, it could find few better examples than the Milan rendition.
The list of mistakes made here is long, but it begins with the operatives' indiscriminate use of their cell phones, not only to communicate with one another but with colleagues in the U.S. Consulate in Milan, in northern Virginia where the CIA has its headquarters, and in some cases even with the folks back home.
One of the CIA's paramilitary operators made at least four calls to what appear to be friends and family in Texas, court records show. Another made a personal call to Greece. A man whose passport claims he was born in Tennessee made nine apparently personal calls, including one to a stockbroker in Kentucky.
The Tennessee man also registered in two Milan hotels under his real name, prosecutors say. So did another operative, who also used his real home address and his wife's e-mail address. A few hours after the abduction, he used his cell phone to call home.
Although the Milan operatives frequently changed hotels, perhaps to keep from attracting the attention of the police, the changes only made it easier for the police to identify them later.
How the probe unfolded
According to officials involved with the case, the investigation unfolded like this:
Using data-mining techniques, police searched for cell phones that had been close to the scene of the abduction at the moment it occurred. They found 19 of them. Then they discovered that many of those phones had been in communication with one another, in most cases for calls that lasted only a short time.
The phones had shown up in Milan in the weeks before the abduction but stopped transmitting shortly after it was over, making it a good bet that they belonged to the kidnappers.
The police also noticed that, each night, based on their positioning signals, the suspect phones had come to rest in particular Milan hotels. Dozens of Americans had been registered at those hotels, but after a few days or weeks at one hotel many of the phones had moved to another hotel.
Checking registration records for guests who had changed hotels on the same days produced the names of Americans who had listed U.S. post office boxes as their home addresses and non-existent companies as their employers.
A few of the operatives actually put their cell phone numbers on their hotel registration cards. When one operative purchased a cell phone from a store in Milan, she registered it in what police believe is her real name. At least three other operatives used their own names when registering at hotels and renting cars, investigators say.
One operative made sure when checking into hotels to hand over her frequent flyer number, so as to receive extra credit for her hotel stay. Her frequent flyer account, obtained by police, shows a record of her travel after leaving Milan, which may include subsequent renditions in Norway, Austria and Belgium.
Two operatives, who spent several days together at the Milan Hilton, paid their bills with Visa cards that differed only in the last two numbers. Those Visa cards, like the ones used by seven other operatives, are traceable to the same Delaware bank.
It appears that the CIA operatives were detected by their target as well. Friends of Abu Omar told police after his disappearance that he had mentioned several times that he was being followed by a white Fiat when returning home from the local mosque.
Allowed to keep wristwatch
Of all the errors made by Abu Omar's abductors, one stands out. Although they put duct tape over his mouth and, by his later account to friends, warned him to "keep quiet and remain still" if he wanted to stay alive, they let him keep his wristwatch.
That enabled Abu Omar to calculate that the drive from the abduction scene to a military airport where he was put aboard a Learjet lasted five hours, an observation he passed on to friends in a telephone conversation from Egypt that was recorded by the Milan police.
The only military air base five hours from Milan by road is the NATO base near Aviano, Italy, home to about 3,500 U.S. military personnel.
As police later discovered, nine of the cell phones identified as probably belonging to the CIA operatives had moved from cell to cell along the highway from Milan to Aviano at the same time Abu Omar would have been making that journey.
If the electronic footprints left by the cell phones weren't enough, the CIA operatives purchased "fast pass" cards for entering and exiting the autostrada en route to Aviano, providing police with a virtual timetable of the rendition as it unfolded.
Then, as the abductors approached the Aviano base, one of them called the base's chief of military police and its chief of security, an Air Force colonel who has since been reassigned to the Pentagon.
"It is obvious," the prosecutors wrote in papers filed with the Italian court, that the calls were intended to inform the colonel "of the imminent arrival of the hostage."
Prosecutors know the colonel's name, but they say they are more interested in interviewing him than charging him as an accessory to kidnapping.
There appears to have been little effort to maintain a "wall" between the abductors and the CIA's facilities in Milan and Rome--a violation of the primary principle that "deep cover" operatives should never have contact with CIA officers posing as diplomats in U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.
Lady, the Milan CIA chief, used a cell phone purchased by a U.S. Embassy employee in Rome--evidently under her real name--to communicate with the abduction team.
An abductor who called several of the other team members also called a phone purchased by a CIA officer posing as a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
An American intelligence officer posing as a diplomat called five of the covert operatives in addition to the U.S. Consulate where she works.
Calls to northern Virginia
Of particular interest to the prosecutors are two numbers in northern Virginia--the location of CIA headquarters--that were each called four times in the hours after the abductions.
So far Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro's police investigators have been unable to learn to whom the Virginia numbers belonged. But that question is included in Spataro's formal request, completed last week, for information from the U.S. government under the mutual legal assistance treaty between Italy and the U.S.
Even though none of the 22 defendants in the case is known to be in Italy, Spataro says he has enough evidence to prosecute them "in absentia." He expects to begin the trial early next year.