Renditions Case: Milan Trial Could Expose Italian Role in CIA Kidnapping

By John Goetz and Britta Sandberg in Milan, Italy

A public prosecutor in Milan has completed a five-year investigation into the CIA and their Italian counterparts. The case of the extraordinary renditions kidnapping of Egyptian suspected terrorist Abu Omar is also a test of judicial independence in Italy. Twenty-six Americans are being tried in absentia in the case.

Robert Lady's villa in Italy's Piedmont region is a key site in the investigation into a CIA rendition alleged to have taken place in the country. Zoom
John Goetz

Robert Lady's villa in Italy's Piedmont region is a key site in the investigation into a CIA rendition alleged to have taken place in the country.

There are three desks in Armando Spataro's spacious office. The Milan state prosecutor sits at one of them while he works his way through routine cases, the second one is used by his assistant, and for months now the third one has been reserved for Spataro's biggest case -- his legal battle against the CIA, the Italian military intelligence agency SISMI and the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

This desk is 7 meters (23 feet) long and piled high with stacks of paper. Each stack has a number, and the top sheets bear the names of defendants and witnesses, written in red block letters. There are names like Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA's former Milan bureau chief, and Nicolo Pollari, the former head of SISMI.

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Photo Gallery: The Italian Solution

These powerful adversaries have obviously taken a keen interest in Spataro's work. Over the past few years, his phone has been tapped, SISMI has placed him under surveillance and the agency has planted moles in his immediate surroundings. The Italian intelligence agency has even asked journalists to sound out the details of his inquiries -- and a number of them have unfortunately complied. He has even been investigated on suspicion of betraying state secrets.

Successive Italian governments have also done everything they could to restrain Spataro. At the instigation of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the Constitutional Court ruled in March of this year that portions of the comprehensive evidence gathered by Spataro are classified as state secrets, allegedly in the interest of national security. Much of Spataro's evidence is now no longer admissible in court.

Clearly, no one is to find out how Italian agents helped their American colleagues snatch suspected terrorist Abu Omar in broad daylight from a Milan street, haul him away to secret CIA prisons, and hold him there without charges or representation. Moreover, no one is to ask before an Italian court whether, in the name of combating terror, a European democracy has to allow its American allies to break every imaginable law with impunity.

A Marathon Runner

But all of his rivals have underestimated the state prosecutor. Spataro, 61, may be balding and have a gray mustache -- but he's a marathon runner. He ran the 42-kilometer (26-mile) course in Chicago in three hours and 13 minutes. A photo of him crossing the finish line hangs in his office.

For five long years, Spataro patiently pieced together, bit by bit, the case of the abduction of the Egyptian-born cleric. At the outset of the investigation, all he had was a list of over 10,000 different cell phone calls. Now 26 Americans have been indicted.

At first, Spataro believed that only the CIA was involved in the operation, but now seven Italian military intelligence officials are also facing charges in court. It has rarely been possible to reconstruct an undercover CIA operation in such minute detail. The state prosecutor required seven hours to conclude the first part of his closing arguments -- and nine hours for the second part.

This trial in Milan's historic Palace of Justice is about more than just the calculated abduction, without a judicial warrant, of a suspected terrorist. "This case will also show," says Spataro, standing among the stacks of files in his office, "whether political forces in Italy are now in a position to influence independent investigations -- and whether a state prosecutor can still prosecute a criminal offense as such." In early November, a ruling is expected in this landmark trial, the first in the world in which CIA operatives have been tried for their role in capturing prisoners abroad and illegally transferring them to other countries after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- a controversial practice called "extraordinary renditions."

At first, Spataro only wanted to know who was behind the abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, who had already been under observation for quite some time by the Italian police on suspicions of terrorism. He wanted to know who exactly had overpowered the Egyptian on the streets of Milan on Feb. 17 2003, pepper sprayed him, bundled him into a white van, and driven him off to Aviano Air Base. And he wanted to know who had transported him to the Ramstein US Air Force Base in Germany, and from there to Cairo. At the time, the state prosecutor had no idea of the ramifications that this case would have.

The First Lead

He had been briefed on the initial details by Inspector Bruno Megale, the chief of Milan's counterterrorism police unit. On April 20, 2004, 14 months after the abduction, Megale's staff intercepted a phone call that was traced back to Alexandria, Egypt. Abu Omar, who had been briefly released one day earlier, was calling his wife in Milan. It was the first time since his abduction that the couple had spoken to each other. Abu Omar told his wife how he had been kidnapped by men speaking English and Italian and flown to the Middle East. In Egypt, he had been repeatedly tortured and had almost died, he said.

Megale informed Spataro. The call from Egypt confirmed the suspicions of both men that the CIA was involved in Abu Omar's disappearance. Now Spataro was finally able to launch his inquiry.

He still had nothing concrete, no hard evidence. There was only Abu Omar's call and the statement of a witness, who said she saw how the Egyptian had been stopped by an Italian officer. After the officer had placed a phone call, Western-looking men in black had jumped out of a white van and forced Abu Omar inside, she said.

This phone call made by one of the abductors gave Spataro his first lead. He had all cell phone calls checked that were made between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. around the scene of the crime in the Via Guerzoni on the day of the kidnapping. There were a total of 10,718 calls made. In Megale's antiterror unit, the agents first filtered out all of the phone calls that were made in the immediate vicinity of the scene of the crime, narrowing it down to 300. A number of these 300 calls were made on particularly suspicious cell phones, which were used to make a large number of extremely short calls at the time of the kidnapping. All SIM cards in these phones had been purchased just a few weeks earlier, and last used only two or, at most, three days after the abduction.

Megale's team was able to present its first findings: 17 different mobile phone numbers. The investigators had no names and no clues as to the real identities of the users, but they had 17 numbers, which they presumed belonged to the CIA operatives.

Movement Profiles

Using special software, that had ironically been given to Megale's antiterror unit by the CIA, the police were able to create movement profiles for each mobile phone user. They discovered that four people had traveled to Aviano Air Base directly after the kidnapping, and another five had joined them later on. They also established that, while still driving there, the operatives had called the CIA bureau chief in Milan and the organization's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, not far from the US capital. More pieces of the puzzle emerged. Over the weekend, a number of operatives had celebrated the successful operation at Venice's luxurious Hotel Danieli where room prices start at a rate of €800 per night.

Thanks to the movement profiles, Megale's investigators were able to pinpoint additional hotels where the intelligence agents stayed. At the hotels, investigators retrieved passport photocopies, which allowed them to match names to the cell phone numbers. These names led to airline and rental car reservations that were traced to credit card bills and highway tolls connected with the CIA trips. During the summer of 2004, the puzzle was finally completed.

Megale said only two words when he entered the state prosecutor's office one morning in June of that year: "Che casino" -- what a mess. "Now we have them," Megale said to Spataro and showed him the names, or rather the aliases, of 17 CIA operatives. The police had documented enough suspicious telephone calls and dubious movements to make initial arrests.

'The Abduction Destroyed all Our Investigative Work'

One of the CIA agents, the highest-ranking one, was easily identified. He was a good friend of Inspector Megale: Robert Lady, who had been the CIA bureau chief in Milan for a number of years. He had coordinated and directed this covert operation on European soil, although he apparently disapproved of it from the start. A colonel in the Italian military intelligence agency SISMI later made a statement in which he said that Lady had told him, even before the operation, that he thought it was a dumb idea and that he opposed it because Abu Omar was already under observation.

At the time, CIA resident Lady's office was in the US Consulate in Milan, only 100 meters from Megale's police station on the Via Fatebenefratelli. When Lady came to Italy in early 2000, the Italian antiterror expert and his American colleague quickly became friends. The CIA agent had been in the FBI, and he was familiar with the world of police work. Megale and Lady started to meet a number of times a week over an espresso. They were on a first-name basis, and they exchanged information on the overall security situation following 9/11.

It was Lady who called Megale's attention to Abu Omar, to the Egyptian's close contacts to the terror organization al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and to militant groups in northern Iraq. From then on, Italian investigators had kept Abu Omar under surveillance, wire tapping his phone and monitoring his laptop. The results confirmed their worst fears.

"Another two, perhaps three months, and we would have had him," Megale says today. "The abduction destroyed all our investigative work. He could have been legally convicted here."

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