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21 CIA, 1 diplomat Arrest Warrents in Italy
Chicago Tribune/KRT Wire
New evidence strengthens link between CIA operative, kidnapping
September 29, 2005

ROME - (KRT) - Italian investigators have uncovered computer records, including photographs and an Internet map search, that appear to link a former U.S. diplomat and CIA operative to the controversial February 2003 abduction of an Egyptian imam in Milan, according to court documents.

The latest evidence implicating Robert Lady, who was serving as political officer at the U.S. consulate in Milan at the time of the abduction, is described in a request submitted to a Milan court for arrest warrants for three more Americans in connection with the abduction, including another U.S. diplomat then working at the U.S. embassy in Rome.

According to Italian prosecutors, cell phone records suggest that the second diplomat was present when Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, was snatched by a team of CIA operatives from Milan's Via Guerzoni. Records show that the phone allegedly used by the diplomat then moved along the 175-mile route to an airbase at Aviano, Italy, from where Abu Omar was flown to Egypt.

The diplomat left Italy shortly after an Italian judge approved arrest warrants for Lady and a dozen other presumed CIA personnel in June, when the abduction allegations were blazoned in the Italian press.

According to the State Department, the diplomat is now assigned to an embassy in a different country. A switchboard operator at that embassy said she didn't recognize the diplomat's name, and an embassy spokesman declined to answer questions about personnel.

An Italian court issued the latest arrest warrants Tuesday, bringing to 22 the number of Americans sought by Italian authorities in connection with the abduction. The case has provoked a furor in Italy and strained relations between Washington and Rome, regarded as one of America's closest allies in the war against terror.

Abu Omar, an imam at Milan's radical Viale Jenner mosque, was seen by a witness being bundled into a van as he walked along Via Guerzoni, a small side street near the mosque on Feb. 17, 2003.

Prosecutors say that after he was driven to the air base at Aviano, he was flown to the U.S. air base at Ramstein, Germany, and put aboard an executive jet for the flight to Egypt.

German prosecutors are investigating whether the transfer at Ramstein violated that country's laws, according to Italian sources who have been in contact with the Germans.

According to Italian prosecutors, Egyptian authorities offered Abu Omar a chance to return to Milan if he agreed to spy for the Egyptian intelligence service. He declined and was put in prison, where he has remained except for a brief release in April 2004.

Italian authorities reconstructed the abduction by mapping the locations, movements and contacts of thousands of cell phones used in the vicinity at the time. They eventually linked 17 cell phone numbers, all registered under false names, to the 22 Americans now being sought.

Of the 22, the Italian authorities have only been able to confirm the identities of Lady and the second diplomat, who operated under their real names. The others may or may not have been using cover names.

Prosecutors say they are proceeding with a formal extradition request for the 22 men and women and expect to present it within the coming weeks.

The evidence tying the second diplomat to the abduction appears circumstantial. She registered in her own name at hotels in the Milan area in the company of one of the other alleged kidnappers following the abduction, and investigators piecing together the phone records have concluded that she used one of the falsely registered phones on the journey. Calls were also placed from her personal cell phone, registered in her own name, from those hotels.

Though investigators have not placed Lady at the scene of the abduction, they suspect he coordinated the attacks from the Milan consulate, largely on the basis of cell phone records showing that all the other wanted Americans were in regular contact with him.

Though embassy records listed him as the consulate's political officer, he was widely known to law enforcement agents in Milan as the local CIA chief.

Some of those who knew him there describe him as one of the last of the CIA's old guard, an accomplished spy more in the mold of a character from John le Carre than a Harvard MBA.

Lady, 51, retired from the CIA in December 2003 and moved to a villa in the town of Penengo, southwest of Milan. After the arrest warrant for him was issued on June 23, police raided the villa. Lady's wife told them her husband was out of the country.

Italian police say he placed a cell phone call to his wife that day from Honduras, where he was born and where his family still owns a house near Tegucigalpa.

The two computers, nine hard drives and stash of CDs taken by police reinforce suspicions that Lady was deeply involved in the abduction, investigators say. Although the files in question had been deleted from the hard drives, forensic technicians were able to recover them.

Among the files retrieved from the computers were at least three photographs of Abu Omar, one of which was dated Jan. 14, 2003, a month before the abduction. It showed Abu Omar walking on Via Guerzoni at the exact spot where he was seized.

Lady's computer also yielded evidence that someone had used it to log onto the Italian version of the travel Web site Expedia.com, to calculate the fastest way to drive from the scene to the Aviano airbase, entering the words Via Guerzoni and Aviano into the search field of the Web site's mapping section and saving the result.

In addition, a computer booking found on one of the computer drives appears to show that Lady visited Cairo a week after the abduction took place, flying to Egypt from Zurich on February 24, and returning on March 7.

Phone records had already established that a phone call had been placed from Lady's cell phone in Cairo during that period, and the airline reservation puts Lady in Cairo at the time when Abu Omar claims he was being interrogated, investigators say.

Lady could not be reached for comment.

For more than a year, Italian police were baffled by the disappearance of Abu Omar, whom they had been monitoring as a suspected al-Qaida loyalist who appeared to be influential among Milan's radical Islamist community.

Then, in the spring of 2004, Abu Omar telephoned his wife and another Milan imam from Egypt, telling them that he had been abducted and flown to Cairo, where he claimed he was interrogated, tortured and imprisoned.

He was subsequently re-imprisoned, according to his Egyptian lawyer because he violated the conditions of his release by speaking about what had happened to him.

(Chicago Tribune correspondent Mario Gutierrez Jr. contributed to this report from Honduras.)

© 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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