Judgment Day for the CIA?
Christopher Dickey
October 26, 2007

In a real-life version of 'Rendition,' a determined Italian prosecutor is hunting down those charged as the Bush administration's contract kidnappers.

The de jure trial has now been postponed until next week. It may be postponed again, or it might never happen, but for 25 alleged CIA officers and paramilitaries charged in an Italian court with kidnapping an imam from a Milan street in 2003, the de facto trial is pretty much over. Their identities have been exposed in hundreds of pages of warrants and indictments and then picked up by the Italian press and various bloggers worldwide. A couple of them have even made it into Wikipedia. Not only has the court revealed sacrosanct "sources and methods," it offers full names, passport details, home addresses, credit card numbers—even the frequent flier numbers they are said to have used while they traveled on missions to abduct suspected terrorists and deliver them in secret to interrogation centers beyond the reach of the U.S. Constitution or, for that matter, common humanity.

In the past the American Congress, American prosecutors and an aggressive American press carried out these kinds of investigations. Now it seems we're so intimidated by the words "national security" that we have to count on foreign cops and courts to tell us when our own spies run amok.

Or maybe that's Hollywood's job these days. The new movie "Rendition," with Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal and Meryl Streep as its big-name draws, pulls together its fiction from several known cases in the Bush administration's kidnap-and-torture campaign and presents a pretty fair picture of what's gone on.

The victim in the movie is an Egyptian chemist with a green card played by Egyptian-American actor Omar Metwally. On his way back from a conference in South Africa to his home in the States and his pregnant wife (Witherspoon), he's picked up at the airport by the CIA before passing through immigration, brutalized, intimidated, humiliated and shipped off to an unnamed North African country. (Why? Remember this for later: because of some suspicious calls made to his cell phone.) There he's held naked in a rat hole, deprived of sleep, made to think he's drowning and generally has his psyche rearranged with the help of high-voltage cables. You know, the usual stuff. In real life some of these techniques were declared legal, secretly, by the Bush administration's in-house lawyers, and some of them, well, the administration just doesn't want to know about.

Among the known cases evidently inspiring the "Rendition" script is that of Maher Arar, a Syrian-Canadian software engineer who was on his way back from a vacation in Tunisia to his home in Ottawa in 2002 by way of Zurich and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Arar had been observed in Canada supposedly meeting with someone who knew someone who might really be connected to Al Qaeda, and the Canadian cops, having taken note, passed the word to U.S. officials. So Arar was stopped in the apparently lawless limbo of JFK transit, then taken via New Jersey and Washington, D.C. (secretly, of course), to be flown to Jordan and driven across the border to Syria. In those days the loathsome thugs of Damascus were considered members in good standing of the Bush administration's rendition club, willing and ready to extract information from any of their former nationals the Americans wanted to send their way.

Arar was finally released by the Syrians about a year later, completely cleared by the Canadian authorities and awarded millions of dollars in damages by the Canadian government. But he's reportedly still on U.S. watch lists as a suspected bad guy, and just this week, given a chance to apologize, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined to do so. As she spoke before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee her main regret seemed to be the hard-to-explain partnership with the Syrians, who are now also supposed to be bad guys. "We do not think that this case was handled as it should have been," said Rice. "We do absolutely not wish to transfer anyone to any place in which they might be tortured." Sure.

Khaled al-Masri, a naturalized German from a Lebanese background, claims he got picked up at the border of Macedonia in 2003, held incommunicado, then shipped off to do some very hard time at the hands of American interrogators in an infamous prison at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base. After several months he was released too. Earlier this year German prosecutors issued warrants for the arrest of 13 alleged CIA agents. In 2005, al-Masri filed suit against the Central Intelligence Agency, its then-director George Tenet and others. But the Bush administration claimed the case would impinge on state secrecy, and a federal appeals court dismissed it before al-Masri's lawyers could pry any facts out of the CIA. Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear al-Masri's appeal.

In "Rendition," the movie, a CIA officer with a conscience (Gyllenhaal) finally decides to do something about the torture of an innocent he's witnessing and calls up a journalist to tell the whole sordid tale. But as far as we know, that sort of character is pure fiction.

In "rendition," real life, we have to rely on European investigators and prosecutors to tell us what goes on.

Most of our knowledge of operational details in a CIA kidnapping case comes from Milan prosecutor Armando Spataro, a 30-year veteran of wars against terrorists and organized criminals dating back to the Red Brigades of the 1970s. Since late 2004 Spataro has focused on the case of the radical Muslim preacher Mostafa Hassan Nasr Osama, or "Abu Omar," an Egyptian who was granted political asylum in Italy in the 1990s—then snatched off a quiet street in Milan on February 17, 2003. More than a year later Abu Omar called his wife from Egypt with a detailed story of the way he was kidnapped, brutalized, transported, turned over to Egyptian authorities and tortured. (For more background details see my Shadowland columns from 2005, "The Road to Rendition"  and "Bourne Again?.") Abu Omar was reimprisoned after he first blurted out his story, then rereleased earlier this year, but he remains in Egypt.

The complaints of one more jihadist worked over by Arab secret police wouldn't have attracted much attention. But as Spataro followed up on the abduction he used investigative techniques that are often employed against terrorists to track down, in this case, law-breaking counterterrorists. He sifted through thousands of cell phone records with the help of a computer program that the U.S. government supplies to some foreign security services to determine connections among callers. (You'll remember that incriminating phone message in the movie "Rendition." It's not just what's said on cell phones, it's often the relationships they reveal that investigators look at.)

In this instance, of more than 10,000 calls picked up by nearby antennas, about 17 cell phones were linked to the time and place of Abu Omar's abduction, and to each other. At first, only one could be tied to a clearly identifiable person: a pretty (judging from her passport photo) 34-year-old American woman originally from Seattle. The movements of the other phones before and after the kidnapping could be traced to the U.S. air base at Aviano, to the U.S. consulate in Milan and the U.S. embassy in Rome, as well as to luxury hotels where the guests had left copies of their documents. And so, slowly, the pieces began to fit together.

Retired CIA veteran Tyler Drumheller, who was chief of the agency's European division from 2001 to 2005, when a lot of renditions took place, including this one, wrote a book last year called "On the Brink." It makes fascinating reading despite massive expurgations by CIA censors. Drumheller tells us that "the rendition teams are drawn from paramilitary officers, who are brave and colorful. They are the men who went into Baghdad before the bombs and into Afghanistan before the army. If they didn't do paramilitary actions for a living, they'd probably be robbing banks." In the movie "Rendition" they're called "knuckle draggers."

In the Abu Omar affair they look like Keystone Kovert Operatives. According to one well-placed U.S. source familiar with the operation, they were told by senior CIA officers not to use cell phones at all, but ignored that advice. After all, they had every reason to think the fix was in with the sympathetic government of right-wing then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. And it was, sort of. But Italian prosecutors are independent players. Not all of them are as supine as their American counterparts when it comes to taking on a government that ignores its own laws. And kidnapping is still a crime in Italy.

"I can imagine how surprised the Americans were to find out that the Italian government couldn't do anything to stop the Italian judiciary," says Carlo Bonini, the reporter for the daily La Repubblica who first broke the Abu Omar story.

Eventually Spataro's investigators traced another phone at the scene of the abduction to a member of the counterterrorism branch of the Italian intelligence organization SISMI. Spataro ordered the phones of SISMI's top officials tapped (imagine that, tapping the tappers) and put the officials under video surveillance. The court dossier shows that the CIA station chief in Rome and one of his colleagues there had plotted the whole thing and that, yes, they'd had the active cooperation of SISMI at the highest levels.

In all, 31 people are named as defendants in the trial, which was supposed to start last Wednesday: five of them officials for SISMI, 25 of them identified as American CIA officers or operatives and one as a U.S. Air Force officer who was stationed at Aviano. So Spataro, at least, has done his job. The problem is that, while the facts and the law may be on his side, almost nobody else is.

None of the accused Americans is in custody, nor is Washington likely to give them up. The left-wing Italian government of Romano Prodi has not even bothered to address Spataro's long-standing request for their extradition. At the same time, Prodi's government has lodged a suit against Spataro for breaching "national security"—those two words officials everywhere love to hide behind, if they're allowed. Further delays and appeals could go on for years.

Was Abu Omar just an innocent caught up in the Bush administration's sinister kidnap-and-torture campaign? No, his record suggests he was a potentially dangerous jihadist caught up in the kidnap-and-torture campaign. But another branch of the Italian police was planning to arrest him the legal way before he was disappeared. Ironically, he might still be in jail if that had happened.

And, oh yes, what were the names of all those CIA personnel involved with the snatch? You'll notice we haven't published them. Unlike the members of the Bush administration who floated the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson when it suited their offensive (in every sense) political tactics, we don't release the identities of America's spooks in the field. The law, after all, is the law.

So the Abu Omar investigation as it stands now leaves us with a murky conclusion: a kind of justice done, while the cause of justice is poorly served. I guess if you want a neat ending that ties everything together, you've got to go to the movies.

© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

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