Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

  CIA agents to face kidnapping trial in Italy

On Tuesday Italian prosecutors asked a judge to indict 26 CIA agents, along with several top officials from the Italian spy agency, for the kidnapping and 'rendition' of Abu Omar off the streets of Milan in February 2003. It will be the first time that anybody involved in the 'extraordinary rendition' program has faced criminal prosecution.

Few experts believe that the U.S. will cooperate by extraditing the CIA agents to stand trial in Italy. Never the less, it's a major step in the campaign to stop this lawless program. The information exposed by the trial will get more embarrassing day by day.

The men-in-black can thank George Bush for blowing their last shred of cover, when he admitted to the existence of secret CIA prisons overseas.

Many specifics of this program...cannot be divulged. Doing so would provide our enemies with information they could use to take retribution against our allies and harm our country.


Bush might have added "or just prosecute our thugs".

Background

The Muslim cleric kidnapped in Milan, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, is now held virtually incommunicado at some unknown location. The Roman newspaper, Corriere della Sera, on Nov. 9 published an account of his abduction and interrogation that it says was written by Omar and smuggled out of prison. Arabic, Italian, and English versions of his statement are here. Omar states that he was grabbed by several men, including Americans and Italians, driven for more than 5 hours, and then flown by men dressed in "special forces" uniforms to Cairo. He also says that officials in Austria and Egypt knew details of his abduction that suggest they were kept apprised of the plan. After being tortured more than a year, he was released by order of an Egyptian judge and made some calls to his family. Almost immediately, he disappeared again.

In 2005 an Italian issued arrest warrants for 22 CIA agents involved in the kidnapping, based largely upon their cell-phone records (which included calls back to northern Virginia), as well as their lavish hotel bills. The operation evidently was led by CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, and the Rome CIA chief Jeffrey Castelli.

But the Berlusconi government refused to ask the U.S. to extradite the accused. After Berlusconi was ousted in 2006, two of the top officers of SISMI (the Italian military intelligence agency) were arrested for involvement in the kidnapping, Marco Mancini and Gustavo Pignero. Mancini is said to be cooperating with police, and has fingered his boss Nicolò Pollari, the former head of SISMI. Last month, after a long, absurd campaign to distance SISMI from the kidnapping, Pollari and two civilian secret service agency officials were sacked. From the WaPo:

Pollari has denied culpability and has said that Sismi was not involved in Nasr's disappearance. But at least two of his close aides have told prosecutors that Pollari was aware of the operation and that Sismi plotted closely with the CIA to abduct the cleric.

An Italian parliamentary committee is also investigating Pollari and has compiled a draft report concluding that he covered up the kidnapping and lied about his role, according to excerpts of the report published by Italian newspapers last week. The committee noted that Pollari suggested in closed-door testimony that Nasr had staged his own disappearance, even after an Italian police officer had confessed to helping Sismi and the CIA abduct him.


Pollari has also claimed that he cannot cooperate with the probe because the evidence he needs to clear his name is covered by the state-secret act. Yet, as Dana Priest reported last year...

Before a CIA paramilitary team was deployed to snatch a radical Islamic cleric off the streets of Milan in February 2003, the CIA station chief in Rome briefed and sought approval from his counterpart in Italy, according to three CIA veterans with knowledge of the operation and a fourth who reviewed the matter after it took place.

The previously undisclosed Italian involvement undercuts the accusation, which has fueled public resentment in Italy toward the United States, that the CIA brashly slipped into the country unannounced and uninvited to kidnap an Italian resident off the street.

In fact, former and current CIA officials said, both the CIA and the Italian service agreed beforehand that if the unusual operation was to become public, as it has, neither side would confirm its involvement, a standard agreement the CIA makes with foreign intelligence services over covert operations.


On this point, compare what Laura Rozen had to say last summer:

Berlusconi administration leaders are claiming that the CIA kept them in the dark about the Omar operation.

But former U.S. intelligence officials say the details of the operation, the history of U.S. intelligence operations in Italy and NATO countries, and the timing of the raid as the United States was trying to woo European support in advance of its invasion of Iraq all indicate that the snatch would have been reported to certain Italian authorities in advance.

“There’s no way you do something like this unilaterally in a friendly country without coordinating,” says a former U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be named. “It’s always coordinated.”

"The Italians were one of the few countries in Europe standing by us on Iraq," Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit, told the Prospect. "There is no way in the world that agency management would have authorized unilateral operation in Italy on the eve of the invasion of Iraq by ourselves." Scheuer indicated that he did not know about the Abu Omar operation in particular, but was speaking from his years of experience overseeing similar cases before his resignation last November.

"We don't do, for the most part, unilateral operations in NATO countries," Scheuer continued. "I wish we would but our management -- and the White House -- values and worries so much about European opinion that we were never allowed to take unilateral operations in Europe."


Dana Priest also added this information about the CIA's 'rendition' program in 2003:

The CIA has conducted more than 100 of these apprehensions, known as extraordinary rendition, since Sept. 11, according to knowledgeable intelligence officials....

Officials involved in the Milan operation at the time said it was conceived by the Rome CIA station chief, organized by the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, and approved by the CIA leadership and by at least one person at the National Security Council. The station chief has since retired but remains undercover....

In most, if not all, other post-Sept. 11 renditions, the security service of the foreign country has apprehended the suspect, then transferred him into CIA custody. In the Italian case, operatives from the CIA's paramilitary branch, the Special Activities Division, were dispatched, making the risk of disclosure much higher.

Two of the CIA veterans said the operatives became directly involved because, by 2003, counterterrorism operations had become the main thing the agency's leadership and the White House cared about. "Everyone wanted into the game," a CIA officer said. "The CIA chief in Italy wanted to have a notch in his belt."



Tuesday's developments

The best report in English is this excellent article by Colleen Barry:

An Italian prosecutor requested the indictment of 26 Americans and five Italian secret service officials on a charge of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric in Milan in 2003—a case that continues to be an irritant to U.S.-Italian relations.

Prosecutor Armando Spataro, who has been leading the investigation, said Tuesday that the indictment request is aimed at CIA agents and the former head of the Italian military intelligence Nicolo Pollari for alleged involvement in the kidnapping.


Prosecutors are also seeking an indictment of Pollari's former deputy, Mancini. Spataro has asked Romano Prodi's government to ask the U.S. to extradict the CIA officers, and he's awaiting a response from the Justice Minister.

All but one of the Americans have been identified by the prosecution as CIA agents, including former station chiefs in Rome and Milan, and the 26th as a U.S. Air Force officer stationed at the time at Aviano air base near Venice.


The colonel was in charge of the Aviano air base, through which Abu Omar was flown to Egypt.

A lawyer for Lady, the only American who was actually living in Italy when arrest warrants were issued, said she [sic] was surprised by the indictment request.

"Even the documents of the prosecution show that he was not an organizer. If anything, he was someone who obeyed orders," lawyer Daria Pesce said....

Prosecutors raided Lady's home in the wine country of Asti, near Turin, last year, collecting a central piece of evidence--a picture of Nasr taken in January 2003 on the Milan street where he was allegedly abducted a month later.


When the "just-following-orders" defense rears its head, you know that the defendants are afraid of being dragged under the bright lights.

The report from Reuters explains what is likely to happen with the request for indictments:

Italian prosecutors on Tuesday asked a judge to order CIA agents and Italian spies to stand trial on charges of kidnapping a terrorism suspect and flying him to Egypt, where he says he was tortured, a court source said....

An Italian judge must call a preliminary hearing to decide if there is enough evidence for a trial, but even defence lawyers say privately they expect the case to go to court.

If so, it would be the first criminal trial in the world over so-called renditions, one of the most controversial aspects of U.S. President George W. Bush's global war on terror.
...

For the American suspects, who already face European Union arrest warrants, a trial would almost certainly take place in absentia since Washington is not expected to hand them over. That would leave the Italians the only defendants attending the trial.

One suspect, an Italian police officer, has admitted he stopped Nasr and helped CIA agents grab him. But he says the CIA station chief in Milan told him the goal was to recruit -- not abduct -- the Muslim cleric. He also says he was told the U.S. and Italian governments sanctioned the operation. Italy has denied this.


Further details from Bloomberg:

Arianna Barbazza and Alessia Sorgato, public defenders for 15 of the suspects alleged to be CIA agents, maintained their clients' innocence in separate phone interviews. The court assigned the lawyers to the U.S. suspects, who will be tried in absentia if they are indicted and fail to return to Italy. European Union arrest warrants have been issued for them.

Daria Pesce, the lawyer for Robert Lady, alleged to be the head of the CIA ring that carried out the kidnapping, couldn't be reached for comment at her Milan office. Guido Meroni, a public defender for the remaining American suspects linked by prosecutors to the CIA, also couldn't be reached.

According to Italian court documents, Lady, the alleged head of the CIA's Milan office, recruited an Italian police officer of the paramilitary Carabinieri force to help the group of American agents abduct Hassan. Lady told the officer at a Milan pizzeria that his cooperation in the case might help him gain a job with the Italian secret services, according to the documents.


Pollari, meanwhile, is threatening to become more obstreperous.

The risk of political embarrassment inside Italy was underscored Tuesday after one of Pollari's lawyers said the defense would call to the stand both the current prime minister, Romano Prodi, and the prime minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi. The lawyer, Tittia Madia, said the two men would be able to testify about the existence of documents showing Pollari opposed the abduction.


Berlusconi is feeling the heat too. An ally in his C'mon Italy Party impugns the patriotism of the prosecutors:

Mr. Berlusconi’s allies have portrayed the indictments as politically motivated — and on Tuesday they strongly defended Mr. Pollari. “The attack against him risks discrediting not only him personally but also our services which, in these difficult years, have effectively protected our country against criminal assaults from international terrorism,” said Enrico La Loggia, a deputy with Mr. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.


The last, or first, defense of scoundrels?

The indictments in Italy are almost certainly coming, and that alone is cause for celebration. Everything else that comes out during trial will help to keep Bush and the men-in-black in the CIA on the defensive, even if it won't (immediately) put any of them in jail.

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