Italian prime minister dismisses chief of intelligence

Removal is tied to cleric's alleged abduction by CIA

November 21, 2006|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME -- Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi dismissed yesterday the government's top intelligence chief, a veteran spymaster under investigation for his role in the alleged CIA abduction of a radical Egyptian cleric from Milan three years ago.

With his removal, intelligence chief Nicolo Pollari became the highest level Italian official to lose his job over the case, widening suspicions that the previous Italian government more closely collaborated with the CIA than has been acknowledged.

Pollari's No. 2 was arrested over the summer, and Italian prosecutors are seeking the arrest of 26 Americans, mostly CIA operatives. The Americans are accused of hunting down and seizing the cleric and then transporting him secretly to Egypt, where he has claimed he was tortured.

Pollari repeatedly denied having had advance knowledge of the cleric's abduction. But testimony from colleagues and evidence gleaned from police wiretaps suggests otherwise.

Pollari, who led the military intelligence agency known as SISMI, may face indictment. A closed-door session of the parliament's intelligence committee begins debating his fate later today. Portions of the committee's draft report, released last week, accused Pollari of lying to authorities and covering up SISMI's involvement in the abduction case.

Cleric Hassan Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, was seized in February 2000 as he walked to a mosque in Milan. His was one of dozens of so-called extraordinary renditions that the U.S. government executed as part of its controversial attempt to pursue terrorist suspects.

Many of the suspects ended up in third countries known to practice torture, or in clandestine prisons run by the CIA.

The CIA trail in the Abu Omar case has long been established: Italian prosecutors say the CIA operatives left behind credit card receipts and passport photocopies, and chatted openly on their cellular telephones, all of which became evidence in dossiers compiled by the prosecutors.

But the exact involvement of Italian authorities remained less clear. The then-government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a right-wing ally of the Bush administration, denied knowledge of the abduction, but intelligence experts and much of the Italian public believed it unlikely Berlusconi's administration was unaware of such an action on the eve of the war in Iraq.

Foremost, it seemed unimaginable that CIA operatives would have acted with such apparent disregard for secrecy if they hadn't been assured of official permission.

All of the Americans named by Italian prosecutors, including the former CIA station chiefs in Rome and Milan, are no longer in Italy and their arrests seem unlikely.

Prodi, the center-left prime minister elected in April, replaced Pollari with a senior naval commander and also named new chiefs for two other key intelligence agencies, essentially a clean sweep of the leadership of a scandal-plagued spy network.

"We have selected people who are unconnected to political power play, who have great experience in the sector and great professional success," Prodi said, according to the Italian Ansa news agency.

In addition to the Abu Omar case, Pollari's name was linked to a plot to produce, and leak to U.S. agents, documents purporting to show that Iraq was attempting to buy weapons-grade uranium from Niger. The claim, which proved false, was used by the Bush administration to help justify launching the war against Iraq.

Pollari and SISMI also were suspected of running an illicit wiretapping program and of compiling and planting false information on politicians, journalists and prosecutors considered unfriendly to Berlusconi's government.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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