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CIA chiefs reportedly split over cleric plot
The CIA chief in this northern Italian city opposed the intelligence agency's planned abduction of a radical Muslim cleric as ill-conceived and counterproductive, according to evidence gathered by prosecutors here.
Had the abduction of Abu Omar been stopped, the CIA would have been spared what has become one of the most embarrassing episodes in its post-Sept. 11 war on terror.
And Robert Seldon Lady, the now-retired Milan CIA chief, would likely still be living with his wife in the Italian villa they bought with their life savings, high on a hillside overlooking a lush green valley with long, straight rows of vines that provide the grapes for Asti's famous sparkling wines.
Instead, Lady is a fugitive from Italian justice, one of 25 past and present CIA operatives charged with the kidnapping of Abu Omar, whose given name is Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr.
A preliminary hearing in the case begins here Tuesday. Lady and the other Americans are not expected to attend. All would be subject to arrest the moment they set foot in Italy, or any of the other 26 member countries of the European Union.
But Lady, who is believed to be living somewhere in the United States, is the only defendant who had to leave a picture-book retirement villa behind. Says a former CIA colleague: "Everybody feels bad that Bob has been left holding the bag."
After simmering for nearly three years, the unparalleled investigation is about to come to a rolling boil here in the massive Tribunale di Milano, the first case in anyone's memory in which CIA operatives have been charged with non-espionage-related crimes.
The evidence that will be laid out in the preliminary hearing is more than the story of the CIA's lax "tradecraft" in abducting Abu Omar in February 2003, including a remarkable degree of sloppiness that allowed the Milan police to unravel an operation costing hundreds of thousands of U.S. taxpayer dollars.
For the future of American intelligence and the war on terrorism, the most consequential revelations may concern schisms within the CIA over the value and risks of "rendition," the agency's euphemism for its once-secret practice of snatching suspected terrorists abroad and transporting them to countries where they are likely to be interrogated under torture.
An Italian intelligence official's recollection that the CIA's Lady opposed the abduction from the start is perhaps the most startling disclosure buried in the mountains of evidence gathered by Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor Armando Spataro and his investigators.
Spataro's evidence indicates that Lady was overruled by his immediate boss, the chief of the CIA's station in Rome. The evidence also suggests that the Rome chief, then considered a rising star within the agency, overstated the threat posed by Abu Omar in obtaining approval for the abduction from CIA higher-ups in Washington.
A veteran senior CIA official who has been interviewed about the Abu Omar rendition by the CIA's independent Office of Inspector General said an internal review of what went wrong in Milan had generated tension within the agency.
"All of a sudden people are having trouble remembering meetings they were in," he said.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the White House and the highest levels of the CIA have signaled strong support for a new genre of "paramilitary" intelligence-gathering operations, of which rendition is only one.
But not everyone at CIA headquarters shares that enthusiasm, and there are signs that the pendulum is swinging back.
Last week, Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director, told CIA employees they had been given a "mandate" on the collection of human intelligence through the cultivation of informers and sources--a practice at which the agency traditionally has excelled.
The veteran senior CIA officer quoted earlier in this report, who like others of his generation spent much of his career recruiting human spies abroad, expressed skepticism about "all this paramilitary stuff," declaring that, "We never got any good [intelligence] product from a rendition."
Lady, the former Milan CIA chief who fled Italy after discovering he was a target of the kidnapping investigation, has been offered an opportunity to testify for the prosecution in return for a promise that, under a new Italian law, he will not have to serve time in prison even if convicted.
Lady's Italian lawyer, Daria Pesce, declined to make her client available for an interview with the Tribune but said she had advised him to accept the prosecution's offer. He has until the conclusion of the preliminary hearing at the end of February to make his intentions known to the prosecutors.
At the moment, none of the two dozen other CIA defendants--all except Lady represented by court-appointed lawyers who say they have had no contact with their clients--is expected to return voluntarily to Milan to stand trial.
No extradition request
The Italian Justice Ministry has not yet forwarded to Washington a request from the court in Milan that the American defendants be formally extradited. But the presence of the American defendants is not crucial to the prosecution's case.
Investigators here have compiled thousands of pages of documents and testimony from past and present officials of SISMI, the CIA's Italian counterpart. Several of them have acknowledged collaborating with the Americans in planning Abu Omar's rendition.
If the court agrees, Spataro can try the CIA operatives in absentia. Even so, there will be live defendants in the dock: Italy's former top spymaster, Nicolo Pollari, removed in November from his post as chief of SISMI, and four of Pollari's former aides, all charged with having known about and supported the CIA's kidnapping plot.
Like all CIA employees, Lady signed a secrecy agreement upon joining the CIA, and he is said to be concerned that by testifying he might violate the agreement and become liable for criminal prosecution in the U.S.
However, Jeffrey Smith, a former CIA general counsel who sometimes advises the Tribune on legal matters, said in an interview that the agreement is aimed at limiting what CIA employees can publish while in government or after retirement, and that it provides for civil, rather than criminal, penalties.
The most the CIA can do under the agreement, Smith said, is sue a CIA author to recover the profits from a book or other publication that has not been vetted by the agency in advance. Veteran CIA officers said they could remember only one case in the agency's nearly 60-year history in which the agreement had been invoked in court.
Thus far the prosecutors have received no indication of what Lady has in mind.
Among Lady's responsibilities in Milan was maintaining contact with the local police and their anti-terrorist unit, known as DIGOS, which had Abu Omar under close surveillance because of his suspected role in helping young European Muslims make their way to Iraq to take up arms against the expected allied invasion.
According to a DIGOS commander, the Italians were sharing the "take" from that surveillance with Lady. Then, in the fall of 2002, Lady was told that the CIA wanted to take Abu Omar out of circulation.
Luciano Pironi, an officer in the Carabinieri, Italy's military police, who served as an informal liaison with the CIA in Milan, told prosecutors that, as explained to him by Lady, Abu Omar was to be temporarily "relocated" while efforts were made to recruit him as an informer.
The idea, according to Pironi, was that Abu Omar's collaborators would believe he had been abducted and then returned home a few days later--never suspecting that he had agreed to work for the CIA. Pironi is also charged in the abduction.
In a separate conversation with Stefano D'Ambrosio, then Lady's counterpart as the SISMI chief in Milan, Lady identified the CIA's Rome station chief as the person who devised the Abu Omar rendition scheme, D'Ambrosio told prosecutors.
D'Ambrosio's SISMI superiors later confirmed to prosecutors that the initiative to "render" Abu Omar had come from the Rome station chief.
In his closed-door testimony to investigators, D'Ambrosio quoted Lady as saying that CIA operatives already were in Milan, posing as tourists and staying at some of Europe's most expensive hotels while monitoring Abu Omar's movements in preparation for the snatch.
The actual abduction, Lady reportedly said, would be carried out by "the heavies," one of the CIA's elite Special Operations Groups composed mostly of former Army Green Berets, Delta Force operators and Navy SEALs.
According to D'Ambrosio, Lady made no secret of his opinion that the rendition of Abu Omar was a bad idea. Among his other concerns, D'Ambrosio said, Lady worried that the CIA would anger DIGOS by abducting the target of one of its major investigations without its knowledge, damaging both a productive surveillance and an excellent working relationship.
Removing Abu Omar from the picture, moreover, meant DIGOS would have to redouble its efforts to figure out who had taken his place as one of the main Italian contacts recruiting "foreign fighters" for Iraq.
D'Ambrosio told the prosecutors that when he agreed with Lady that the Abu Omar rendition made no sense, Lady spread his arms in despair, explaining that the operation had support at the highest CIA levels.
Under guidelines established after Sept. 11, each proposed rendition must be approved at several levels within the CIA, but not by the White House itself. The veteran senior CIA official said one of those who signed off on the Abu Omar abduction was Stephen Kappes, at the time the agency's associate deputy director for operations and currently its No. 2 official.
Through a CIA spokesman, Kappes declined to be interviewed for this article. The CIA has refused to comment on any aspect of the Abu Omar case or to acknowledge that it played a role in the Milan rendition.
Had he known that Lady objected to the Abu Omar kidnapping, the veteran CIA officer said, "I'd have stopped it."
But he said neither he nor anyone else whom he was aware of at CIA headquarters had been told that Lady harbored reservations. He said that it would have been unlike Lady to have gone directly to headquarters behind the Rome chief's back.
D'Ambrosio recalled thinking that Lady had told him about the planned Abu Omar rendition in hopes that once SISMI became aware of what the CIA had in mind, it would object and stop the operation.
As he believed Italian law required him to do, D'Ambrosio informed his SISMI superiors that the CIA was planning a kidnapping on Italian soil.
But D'Ambrosio was unaware of what would be alleged later by the prosecutors: that SISMI officials--allegedly including the SISMI official to whom D'Ambrosio made his report and SISMI director Pollari--were not only aware of the impending abduction but had pledged to help the CIA.
Within a few weeks, D'Ambrosio was abruptly replaced as the SISMI chief in Milan.
The Rome station chief had compiled an excellent record as an agent-handler in Pakistan and India, the veteran CIA official said. But D'Ambrosio said Lady made clear that his opinion of his boss as a terrorism fighter was not high.
"What do you expect someone who is a Buddhist, burns incense in his office, and listens to the music of Bob Marley, to know about terrorism?" D'Ambrosio quoted Lady as saying.
Jimi Hendrix shrine
Other CIA sources described Lady's former boss as something of an eccentric who maintained a shrine to the late rock musician Jimi Hendrix in his office at the intelligence agency's headquarters.
By late summer of 2003, his four-year tour as Rome station chief at an end, Lady's boss was promoted to a senior position at CIA headquarters.
CIA personnel working under diplomatic cover who played a part in the Milan rendition were reassigned to other U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.
The deep-cover surveillance teams that had patiently shadowed Abu Omar through the neighborhoods of Milan also disappeared from Italy, driving their rented cars across the Alps and fading back into the twilight world of phony passports and fabricated identities whence they had emerged.
The only one left in Italy was Robert Lady, who retired from the CIA at the end of 2003 and took up full-time residence with his wife in their villa.
Eighteen months later, the Milan police, headed by Spataro's lead investigator, Inspector Bruno Megale, appeared at the villa to seize the hard drives from Lady's personal computers and boxes of documents stacked in his garage.
Lady's wife was there but Lady was gone, having retreated to Honduras, where he had grown up as the son of a mining engineer.
As soon as the police left, Martha Lady called her husband to report what had happened. The police were tapping their phone.
"Hear me out and don't say anything," she began, according to a transcript of the call. "They came to the house today, the Milan police, and they seized stuff. They looked everywhere, outside, inside, and they took off with everything they found, your PC and the hard drives in your office.
"They took all your documents and floppy disks. They showed me the judge's warrant. Megale was also there and others whom I'd never seen, but they knew you. It's bound to become public news tomorrow in the press."
"And they found nothing?" Lady asked.
"What are they supposed to find if there's nothing to find?" his wife shot back.
But there were things to find. One hard drive contained a surveillance photograph of Abu Omar walking at almost the precise spot where he would be abducted a few days later.
Another contained travel reservations for a visit by Lady to Cairo four days after Abu Omar's arrival there.
Also on one of the hard drives was an e-mail from a former CIA colleague. The woman had just received an e-mail warning "Italy, don't go there," and was worried about Lady.
"I was truly concerned," the woman wrote, "that you were sitting in some Italian holding cell."