Litany of mistakes points Italian police to CIA


MILAN, ITALY -- The trick is known to just about every two-bit crook: 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 crisis in Europe over the practice the CIA calls "rendition," and CIA Director Porter J. 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 disappearance to 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 at 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.

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 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 subsequent rendition to Egypt, where he claims to have been tortured.

The evidence seized by police last summer from Lady's Italian villa includes a surveillance photo of Abu Omar walking from his apartment to a mosque, at the precise spot where he was later seized.

Although Abu Omar is not an Italian citizen, in 2001 he was granted political asylum in Italy.

In ordering further inquiries, Judge Chiara Nobili in Milan 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 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. 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.

According to officials involved with the case, the investigation unfolded like this:

Using data-mining techniques, the police searched for cell phones that had been close to the scene of the abduction at the moment it occurred. They found 19. Then they discovered that many of those phones had been in communication with one another.

The phones had shown up in Milan in the weeks before the abduction but stopped transmitting shortly after it was over.

The police also noticed that, each night, the suspect phones had come to rest in particular Milan hotels. Dozens of Americans had been registered at the hotels, but after a few days or weeks at one hotel many of the phones had moved to another hotel.

Checking registration records produced the names of Americans who had listed U.S. post office boxes as their home addresses and nonexistent companies as their employers.

It appears that the CIA operatives were detected by their target as well. Friends of Abu Omar told police that he had mentioned several times that he was being followed by a white Fiat.

Of all the errors made by Abu Omar's abductors, one stands out: They let him keep his wristwatch.

That enabled Abu Omar to calculate that the drive from the abduction scene to a military airport lasted five hours, an observation he passed onto friends in a phone conversation from Egypt that was recorded by police.

The only military air base five hours from Milan by road is the NATO base near Aviano, Italy.

As police discovered, nine of the cell phones identified as probably belonging to the CIA operatives had moved from Milan to Aviano at the time Abu Omar would have been making that journey.

Also, the CIA operatives purchased "fast pass" cards for entering and exiting the autostrada, providing police with a virtual timetable of the rendition.

As the abductors approached the Aviano base, one of them called the base's chief of military police and its chief of security.

John Crewdson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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