Milan's Botched CIA Caper and the War on Terrorism

Author Steve Hendrick discusses how a 2003 rendition led to the conviction of 21 CIA agents.

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In 2003, CIA agents grabbed radical cleric Abu Omar off the streets of Milan and sent him to Egypt, where he says he was tortured. The government called such abductions "extraordinary renditions." In 2009, an Italian court convicted in absentia 21 CIA agents and a U.S. Air Force officer on kidnapping charges related to the incident. Freelance investigative reporter and author Steve Hendricks's A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial traces this chapter in the war on terrorism. Excerpts:

What happened in Milan?

In a nutshell, the Italian counterterrorism police had a radical imam, Abu Omar, under very tight surveillance and were about to arrest him. The CIA swooped in [and] grabbed Abu Omar off the streets, without telling the Italians. The CIA gagged and bound him, roughed him up, drove him across Italy to the Aviano Air Base and flew him to Cairo, where he was tortured savagely.

Why did they render him?

The CIA will tell you that he was a threat and that the Italians were not monitoring him closely enough. The CIA says it heard tips that he was going to carry out an attack. Those are all false reasons. The Italians had him under amazingly good surveillance, and he had no imminent plans to do anything.

So what was the real reason?

The CIA station chief, a fellow named Jeff Castelli, wanted a feather in his cap. Renditions were all the rage at that time and to have a rendition on your résumé was, if not a sure ticket to promotion, then at least a big boost.

How many people had to sign off?

It had to go through the Directorate of Operations, which was headed by Steve Kappes. Kappes was likely grooming Castelli to be the next chief of station in New York, a prestigious CIA post. From Kappes, it had to go to director George Tenet, then to Condoleezza Rice on the National Security Council. President Bush would have known about all or most [renditions].

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Have other renditions been exposed in court?

It was the first time the CIA agents were ever tried by a U.S. ally. Sure, it has been done by our enemies, but this was an unprecedented event.

How were the courts able to learn so much?

One of the reasons was that the CIA was so incredibly sloppy. Secondly, it was hubris: They thought that Italy would never dare charge them. For all the buffoonery that is so much of Italy's government, the magistrates and the counterterrorism police are extremely competent and extremely independent. The prosecutor in this case had a background prosecuting left-wing terrorists and later the Mafia. The fact that the CIA didn't understand this is a strong sign of hubris.

How were they sloppy?

One of the biggest mistakes was to use cellphones rather than satellite phones that the Italians probably couldn't have intercepted. They used them like teenagers. They called each other repeatedly, dozens of times in some cases. Because the calls were logged in phone company records, prosecutors could retrace who was calling, when, and from where they were calling. They also left a long trail of hotel records, paid with credit cards. They could have paid in cash. They paid for highway tolls with cards, instead of cash. They even gave frequent-flyer numbers when they checked in at hotels and rented cars. All this was able to be easily tracked by the Italian prosecutors.

Are their careers all over?

Castelli was eventually forced out of the CIA. Bob Lady, who worked out of the CIA station in Milan, retired shortly after the kidnapping.

What are the overall lessons?

The CIA has more people on its payroll who are contractors, and many of them were not properly supervised. We know that some cover stories for CIA officers abroad involve the use of these contracting companies that were extremely shoddy. For instance, the cover names were very frequently quite similar to their real names. With an Internet connection and a few bucks, I could unmask at least 12 of the 20-something people involved in this kidnapping.

What happened to Abu Omar?