They ran up tabs of thousands of dollars at some of Milan’s best hotels and restaurants. They chatted easily on their cellular telephones and gave out passport, frequent-flier and driver’s license numbers when booking flights or renting cars.
And now they are fugitives.
If Italian authorities are right, they have exposed a CIA operation here that on some levels was brazen and perhaps reckless, even as it successfully spirited away a notorious Egyptian imam.
An Italian judge has issued arrest orders for 13 CIA operatives, and additional warrants are possible, in what may be the first time an ally of Washington has attempted to prosecute U.S. spies. The suspects face kidnapping charges, which carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Judicial authorities said Saturday that they may also seek the arrest of a senior U.S. Air Force commander who they say allowed the joint U.S.-Italian Aviano Air Base in northern Italy to be used in the abduction of Hassan Osama Nasr, a radical cleric better known as Abu Omar.
Italian authorities contend that Abu Omar was kidnapped by the American agents nearly 2 1/2 years ago and taken to Egypt, where he was tortured. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Abu Omar had been long suspected of terrorist activities by Italian authorities, who had him under surveillance as part of an investigation into a Muslim extremist cell accused of recruiting and sending suicide bombers and fighters to Iraq.
The alleged former CIA station chief in Milan, a 51-year-old Honduran-born American, is among those named in the arrest warrants. He is believed to have accompanied or followed Abu Omar to Egypt and been present for some of the interrogations, a senior Italian judicial official said Saturday.
That raises the possibility that the American agent was aware of the alleged torture, the Italian official said. The man’s movements were tracked by his use of a cellphone to make calls from Egypt in the two weeks after the disappearance of Abu Omar, the official said.
“He was the one who knew everything about Abu Omar,” the official said, referring to the ex-station chief, “so he would have been very useful in the interrogation.”
Abu Omar, during a brief period of freedom in 2004, told associates that he was abducted by U.S. agents and taken to Egypt, where he was tortured with electric shocks to his genitals and beatings during the interrogations.
The alleged former station chief apparently planned to retire in Italy and had bought a home near Turin. Although he has been absent from Italy for several months, officials say, his wife remained in the home, which Italian police raided Thursday night, confiscating a computer, computer disks and papers.
That he thought he could live out his golden years in Italy is another indication that he and the other alleged agents believed they could operate with impunity, Italian prosecutors say.
It remains unclear whether the pro-U.S., right-wing government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi approved the apparent abduction. Several former U.S. intelligence officials said it was virtually impossible that such an operation would have been launched without Italian permission at some level.
All told, 19 American operatives -- 13 men and six women -- mounted the mission to capture Abu Omar, according to the warrants and other court documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, as well as interviews with several Italian officials involved in the case.
The case appears to be an example of the U.S. policy of “extraordinary rendition,” a highly controversial tactic used with increasing frequency to pursue suspected terrorists since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Dozens of people have been seized by CIA operatives in foreign lands and sent to third countries, according to intelligence officials and human rights organizations.
The Milan crew seemed to have made little effort to keep a low profile. Although much of the information they provided may have been false, they seemed to have left a trail worthy of Hansel and Gretel.
Arriving individually or in pairs during the weeks leading up to Abu Omar’s disappearance in February 2003, they checked into some of the city’s finest hotels: the $450-a-night Prince of Savoy on Milan’s grand Piazza della Repubblica, the Westin Palace, the Milan Hilton. They ate at good restaurants and rented cellphones and cars. They offered up their frequent-flier account numbers as well as their passports, Visa and Diner’s Club credit cards and driver’s licenses.
Many of the names, home U.S. addresses and telephone numbers contained in the indictment, including those of two California residents, appear to be false or have been changed.
In hotel bills alone, the group ran up a tab of $150,000, the court papers indicate.
According to the documents, the team divided up, with six agents conducting reconnaissance and others intercepting Abu Omar as he walked from his Milan home to a mosque. They loaded him into a white truck and sped off to the Aviano base, about four hours away, Italian prosecutors allege.
As they traveled, an agent used a cellphone to call a commander at the base every half-hour or so, as though to alert him of their progress, Italian prosecutors said. That senior officer, Lt. Col. Joseph Romano, has since left Italy, but prosecutors said Saturday that they want to question him and are considering seeking his arrest as well.
“We suspect he knew what the CIA agents were doing and who they had” in the car, a senior Italian official said.
Once the rendition was completed, several of the agents traveled to Venice for a celebration, also at a luxurious five-star hotel, the court papers say. Four others took a vacation along the picturesque Mediterranean coast north of Tuscany.
Italian judicial officials say they are perhaps most angry with the American operation because it ruined their own efforts to crack the cell and arrest numerous terrorism suspects in Italy.
“Not only was Abu Omar’s kidnapping illegal in having seriously violated Italian sovereignty, but it was also an inauspicious act that has contaminated the overall fight against terrorism,” Judge Guido Salvini said in issuing a separate indictment on the Egyptian-born cleric.
The case has been a bombshell in the Italian political scene. Opposition political parties especially are demanding that the Berlusconi administration explain any role it played in the disappearance and whether it approved the operation.
“Either our authorities knew,” said Green Party official Paolo Cento, “or the American [agents] had full freedom of action on our territory” without having to ask permission. “If this second hypothesis is true,” he continued, “then the government needs to tell us how they intend to protect our rights and sovereignty.”
Armando Spataro, the lead prosecutor on the case, has said he would like to seek the extradition of the suspects, and the warrants have been forwarded to European police agencies, so the named men and women could be arrested anywhere in Europe.
But Italian judicial officials acknowledge that it is unlikely that any CIA agent will be brought to trial. The U.S. government has refused to even acknowledge the warrants publicly.
Still, the Italians said the case highlighted the importance of the rule of law and due process in the fight against terrorism. And human rights organizations welcomed the investigation.
“This is a real breakthrough,” said Reed Brody, an expert on renditions with New York-based Human Rights Watch. “Finally someone, somewhere may be held accountable for this shadowy program of ‘renditions.’ ... At long last, this warrant shows that no one is above the law, not even CIA agents.”