MILAN, Italy — Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a Muslim cleric from Egypt also known as Abu Omar, had just stepped out of his home on via Conte Verde in Milan around noon on February 17, 2003, and was heading for prayers at the mosque when a military policeman confronted him. “Mi mostri il passaporto!” came the order. “I don’t speak Italian,” the cleric responded, so the officer, Luciano Pironi, repeated the question in English. “Show me your passport!”
Omar handed over his passport, and suddenly someone inside a parked white van flung open the side door. According to the account of a witness later interviewed by the police, two men grabbed the cleric and shoved him inside. The van roared away, and thus began a tangled spy story that has resulted in a major political and diplomatic embarrassment for the United States and its close ally in the war on terror, Italy.
The CIA will neither confirm nor deny allegations about this or any other rendition. But investigative records filed with the Italian court that issued the indictments present a vivid picture of Omar being kidnapped and taken to his native Egypt, where he claims he underwent lengthy detention, questioning and torture. These records say the rendition was engineered by U.S. diplomats suspected of being CIA agents. By the time the indictments were issued, all of the officials in question had been transferred to other countries. The State Department also declined to comment, and the Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not return calls seeking comment.Four years later, on February 16, 2007, Italy indicted 25 Americans it said were CIA agents, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, and five high-ranking members of Sismi, the Italian military secret service, on charges of kidnapping Omar, then 40 years old, and performing an “extraordinary rendition” — seizing a terrorist suspect without a warrant and transferring the person to another country, often one known to employ torture.
Just who is Abu Omar? A veteran of military training camps in Bosnia and Afghanistan, Omar allegedly was a member of the Egyptian radical movement Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which has been designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization supported by Osama bin Laden.
In the 1990s he left Egypt for Albania, residing in the capital city of Tirana and quickly attracting suspicion as a terrorist. According to Italian intelligence sources, Albania expelled him for helping to plot an attack on a visiting Egyptian minister. In 1997 Omar moved first to Germany and then to Italy, where in 2001 he was granted political asylum. He first served as an imam at a mosque in Latina, close to Rome. He went to Milan, where he was an imam in a radical mosque, and then worked in an Islamic cultural center attended by Islamic fundamentalists who were later arrested and convicted of recruiting jihadists for Iraq.
The Italian court documents include evidence that by 2002 Abu Omar was under investigation by Digos, the Italian special police branch that investigates terrorism. But in February 2003 he disappeared. The documents also allege that on March 3, two weeks after the abduction, a first secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Rome sent Italian authorities the following message: “Abu Omar disappeared in the Balkans, where he could have been relocated.” That diplomat is among the Americans who have been identified as CIA agents by the Italian authorities and who have been indicted in Milan for Abu Omar’s kidnapping.
Detention in Egypt
In April 2004, Armando Spataro, the deputy chief prosecutor in Milan for investigations of the Mafia and terrorism, began probing Abu Omar’s disappearance. Spataro’s task was tough. He knew that Digos had tailed Abu Omar as a terrorist suspect and for good reason. How could he have disappeared without a trace?
The same month, court records show, Abu Omar was released from detention in Egypt and Digos, which was still investigating Omar’s disappearance from Italy, intercepted phone conversations between him, another imam, Elbadry Mohammed Reda, and his wife, Nabila Ghali.
“He told me that he had been kidnapped in Milan,” she said in excerpts from an interview with the Milan prosecutor made public in the court documents, “and that some people had captured him violently and taken him away in a white van. … My husband … told me he hadn’t been kidnapped by Egyptians. … He had always been kept blindfolded during the kidnapping. … He was certainly flown to Egypt with a military aircraft, surely not a civilian plane. … He told me that he had always been detained and subject to awful torture … all kinds of torture … because the Egyptians wanted information from him that he was unable to give. … He added that he was made to sign a statement after the torture where he declared that he had turned himself in to Egyptian authorities on his own free will.”
More details came from Reda, the other imam, who in an interview with the Milan prosecutor said Omar told him this story: “Speaking perfect Italian, the two men told Abu Omar to be quiet and remain still, otherwise he would be dead. … Thanks to his watch, he was able to ascertain that he had traveled by car with the two men for about five hours. … The two abductors handed Abu Omar to other people inside a military base that he believed to be an American base … with the U.S. flag. … He didn’t say whether the captors were Italians … just that they spoke Italian. The two men departed and left him with a group of English- and Italian-speaking people … who availed themselves of an Arab interpreter. [They] asked him questions repeatedly, accompanied by outbursts of violence, about three specific issues: … on his dealings with al Qaeda … on his activities related to the war in Iraq, asking him if he was sending volunteers to fight the U.S. in those areas … and on his relationship with Albanian Islamic groups.”
Reda’s transcript continued: “He told me that he had been beaten … tortured … questioned. At dawn he was loaded onto a U.S. military aircraft and traveled for just under one hour … he thought he had been taken to a Rome airport. The aircraft was stationed in a restricted area inside a huge airport, probably military. … Abu Omar was taken off the plane … got on another U.S. military plane … and took off again immediately. … The second plane landed at a U.S. base in the Red Sea in Egypt. … From this base he was flown to a Cairo airport, this time [aboard] Egyptian and military [aircraft] … he was blindfolded and taken by car, with Egyptians on board, to a Secret Service building in Cairo. … He had to meet an important personality … the Egyptian Home Secretary, Habib Al Adly. … [Al Adly] told him that if he agreed to work as an infiltrator for the Egyptian secret service he would be home in 48 hours, otherwise he would have to bear full responsibility for his refusal. … Abu Omar refused.
“He was subject to serious torture. … The first measure was to leave him in a room where incredibly loud and unbearable noise was made. … He has experienced damage to his hearing. … The second kind of torture was to place him in a sauna at tremendous temperature and straight after to put him in a cold storeroom … causing terrible pains to his bones … as if they were cracking. The third was to hang him upside down … and apply live wires to the sensitive parts of the body including his genitals … and producing electrical shocks. … He has suffered damage to his motor and urinary systems … he became incontinent. … They tortured him and accused him of being an al Qaeda terrorist and a militant against the Egyptian regime.”
There was seemingly no legal basis for Abu Omar’s arrest and transfer to Egypt — he had long been under investigation, but no arrest warrant had ever been issued. Omar was initially released by Egyptian authorities on April 20, 2004. But on May 12, 2004 — 22 days after he was freed — press reports indicated that the Egyptian police arrested him again. Almost three years later, in February 2007, he was finally released to his family in Alexandria, Egypt — and promptly announced through his attorney that he planned to sue the U.S. and Italian governments for damages. In late March 2007, Montasser Al Zayat, Abu Omar’s attorney, stated that his client was seeking “a compromise solution with the Italian government, asking for compensation of 20 million euro (approximately $26 million).”
The kidnapping investigation
In the first months of 2005, Milan prosecutor Spataro began to make some progress on recreating what had happened that February day in 2003. One helpful bit of evidence was provided by Bruno Megale, the Milan anti-terrorism chief at Digos, who gave Spataro an analysis of local mobile phone records on the day of the abduction. According to court records, the analysis found that 17 cellular phones had been used during the kidnapping. Some were registered to people unconnected to the abduction; others were registered under fake names, and investigators were able to eventually link those phones to credit card, hotel and car rental records. They began to compile a list of people they believed were present when Abu Omar was abducted.
At different points in 2005 and 2006 before two different judges, Spataro requested arrest warrants charging 26 Americans and two Sismi agents with Abu Omar’s kidnapping. They included Jeff Castelli, officially a diplomatic counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Rome but identified in the most recent arrest warrant as the Rome CIA station chief and the top CIA official in Italy. Others named included Robert Seldon Lady, identified in the warrant as the Milan CIA station chief; a first secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Rome; and a second secretary at the embassy who was assigned to the American consulate in Milan, both of whom were identified in the warrant as CIA agents. Also indicted was a U.S. military officer: Lt. Col. Joseph Romano III, in charge of security at the Aviano airport, an air base in northern Italy used by the U.S. Air Force. It is where Abu Omar was transferred after being abducted off the street in Milan.
The judges granted Spataro’s requests. He was unable to take the Americans into custody, because they were outside of Italy by then. But on July 5, 2006, two high-ranking Sismi officials were arrested: Marco Mancini, head of military counterespionage, and Gen. Gustavo Pignero (who died of cancer in September 2006 while under house arrest), director of Sismi’s Operational Division. Both were charged with supporting the CIA’s kidnapping.
Spataro investigated Sismi’s chief, Gen. Nicolò Pollari, on the same charges, but he was not arrested. His predecessor as Sismi chief, Adm. Gianfranco Battelli, was also questioned, and a transcript filed in court records shows that Castelli had broached with Batelli the notion of kidnapping terrorism suspects in Italy.
In the transcript of Spataro’s questioning, Battelli said that Jeff Castelli of the U.S. Embassy had contacted him, requesting a conversation. “During the meeting he wanted to know my opinion about the possibility of performing the strategy of the so-called ‘renditions’ in Italy. He referred to the possibility of carrying out an abduction of a suspect terrorist in Italy, bringing him to an airport and sending him to a foreign country. … He didn’t mention Abu Omar or any other names of people to kidnap. … I told Castelli that if he requested formal assistance, I would be forced to inform the prime minister or the political authorities. I thought that due to the delicacy of the request, before informing the political authorities, I would have directly made inquiries to the CIA chief, at that time George Tenet, to check if Castelli’s request was really coming from CIA bosses [at the Langley headquarters] or if it was an autonomous initiative by Castelli. … I referred my conversation with Castelli to my successor, General Pollari.”
Identifying CIA agents
A few months after Abu Omar was abducted, Spataro’s investigators were digging to find out if the names of the people they had gleaned from the phone, hotel, car rental and credit card records were real. The investigative report says that Castelli, Lady, two other American diplomats, and Lt. Col. Romano were all positively identified due to their official jobs; what of the other names?
Dozens of reporters who have covered the Abu Omar rendition have tried to find out whether any of the remaining names of those indicted were real; almost all have come up empty-handed, believing most of the names to be fakes or aliases. Two notable exceptions are the Chicago Tribune’s John Crewdson, who reported that he confirmed two agents through the use of frequent flier records, and an Italian reporter who spoke with an American agent on background, publishing the conversation without identifying the agent by name in December 2006 but writing that the agent confirmed that the CIA was involved in the operation.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) was also able to confirm a name as real. A public records search carried out in the United States showed that the mortgage on the individual’s home is held by a small federal credit union that caters exclusively to CIA agents, their families and CIA contractors. An ICIJ reporter visited the home. There is no publicly listed phone number, and none of the neighbors have a phone number for their neighbor, about whom they know little. In a brief interview, all the person would say was, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Based on a bilateral treaty between Italy and the United States, an Italian prosecutor such as Spataro is entitled to seek the arrest and extradition to Italy of U.S. citizens provided that the request is approved by the Italian minister of justice. In April 2006 Roberto Castelli, who was then the justice minister and who represented the Northern Alliance Party, a nationalistic center-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister at the time, refused to sign the extradition request. “It is known that Mr. Spataro is an activist magistrate,” Castelli said. “I think that towards America he is not so unbiased.”
Key Italian players
That same month Spataro summoned Luciano Pironi, the officer who asked to see Abu Omar’s passport as he was being abducted, to testify in the Milan court about his role in the cleric’s disappearance. Pironi, a lower-level warrant officer in the Italian Carabinieri, the country’s constabulary, decided to cooperate with prosecutors from the outset and thus was spared arrest.
According to a deposition transcript on file with the court, Pironi began by telling Spataro that he “met with Robert Lady, the Milan CIA station chief, at the end of 2000 or at the beginning of 2001. He came frequently to our offices to exchange information. … Lady and I became friends, and I called him Bob. Once I told him that I’d like to join the Sismi. He promised to talk to the man who ran the Sismi office in Milan, a lieutenant colonel of the Carabinieri, Stefano D’Ambrosio. … In August 2002 during a dinner at the Tosca restaurant, in Piazza Risorgimento, Bob Lady mentioned the name of Abu Omar for the first time. Bob said that Abu Omar is important and dangerous, a leader of an Islamic terrorist organization in Europe. … Bob told me that he got news that the Egyptian was planning to seize a bus of an American school in the Milan suburbs. … In September Bob Lady said to me that, together with Sismi, they were planning a great operation where I could play a useful role. But he didn’t elaborate any further.”
D’Ambrosio, who ran Sismi’s Milan office from December 2001 until being dismissed in November 2002, was questioned by Spataro in April and May of 2006. According to a transcript, he told prosecutors: “At the end of October 2002, Bob Lady informed me confidentially of a plan worked out jointly by the CIA and Sismi on a ‘rendition’ of Abu Omar, where he would be transferred to a place unknown to me. [Lady] wanted to see if I was aware of the plan. He went on to say that the plan had been worked out by Jeff Castelli, in charge of the CIA office in Rome as well as the rest of Italy, under precise orders coming from the United States, from Langley.
“According to Lady, a unit of the CIA which was part of a structure called the Special Operation Groups (SOG) had already been in Italy, and specifically in Milan, where they had made a pre-action inspection. SOG staff is made up of CIA agents with a military background. Lady said they were tough, not assigned to gathering intelligence or conducting investigations but to special intelligence operations. As a member of Sismi, the existence of SOG was known to me. Under the plan, Abu Omar was to have been taken in Milan and brought to Ghedi, in the province of Brescia, where the Americans use part of an air base there. On this point Bob specified that Sismi personnel were busy in that area looking for the right place where Abu Omar could be held in custody while waiting for a CIA plane from Ramstein, Germany, to transfer him abroad to a place unknown to me and never mentioned.
“Lady was critical of the plan,” the transcript continued. “He said that it was foolish to take a person being investigated by Digos agents who were doing a very good job. They [Digos] could keep on investigating and monitoring the situation in order to identify other associates of Omar’s. He couldn’t understand why that investigation had to be broken off, spoiling a profitable collaboration with Digos. Bob felt sorry for having to betray Digos’ trust since they were not aware of the plan. He was also worried because Abu Omar was being tailed and was nervous that some sort of incident could occur, even a gunfight.
“Bob asked me if I was aware of the planned operation. I was astounded. I didn’t know anything. I, too, was critical of the plan. … [W]e were both convinced that Abu Omar, once captured, would be immediately replaced by another man more difficult to spot and keep under control. Lady added that Jeff Castelli and [another agent] were very keen on the plan.”
D’Ambrosio was officially dismissed from Sismi for “poor performance.” In his interview with prosecutors, he implied that the real reason was for being critical of the rendition plan.
In his testimony to prosecutors, Pironi, the Carabinieri officer, who is known as “Ludwig,” told this story of what led up to the kidnapping in February 2003:
“Between December 2002 and January 2003 Bob Lady explained to me what my role would be in a joint intelligence operation with Sismi. A group of people would take Abu Omar to an unknown place in order to get information from him on his illegal activity and to convince him to cooperate. …
“My role was to stop him on the street very close to his home pretending to ask about police identification so as to allow other people to approach him and take him away. … I pointed out that as far as I knew Digos agents were working on Abu Omar, but Bob Lady answered that the Interior Ministry assured CIA that in that period [of the planned kidnapping] Abu Omar would not be tailed. …
“On Monday, February 17, 2003, I left my office at 11:30. I reached Piazza Maciachini on board my scooter, which I parked there. In that precise moment a Volkswagen, dark blue or black, approached me, and the driver, short, black haired, in his forties, who I’d never seen before, lowered the window of his car and called to me, ‘Ludwig, sono l’amico di Bob, sali!’ [Ludwig, I’m Bob’s friend, get in!]. … He explained to me that I should go to a white van parked on via Guerzoni where I could identify Abu Omar. … When we got there, the Volkswagen driver stopped his car in the middle of the roadway on via Guerzoni; Abu Omar was walking fast and moving towards me on the left side of the sidewalk, on the opposite side from where the van was parked. I called to him [Omar] and showed him my Carabinieri card” — then came the passport request, and the door of the white van flew open.
Once Abu Omar was inside the van, according to court documents, cell phone records gave Italian investigators what they needed to trace what happened next. Two sets of telephone subscribers were active that day, as described in detail in the arrest warrants. According to court documents, one set of subscribers was present where Omar was taken, then headed to Cormano, a few kilometers from Milan. There, the documents say, the first set of subscribers met up with the second group. Nine people in the second group drove toward the air base at Aviano, some placing calls to mobile phones used by officers, including Lt. Col. Romano, who were stationed there. After about five hours, the court documents continue, all of the subscribers were at or near the air base.
When the CIA team arrived in Aviano, plans were ready for the second leg of Abu Omar’s journey, according to the same court documents. A Learjet LJ35 flew Abu Omar to the American base in Ramstein, Germany, where a Gulfstream executive jet (tail number N85VM), leased by the CIA from a private American company, brought him to the headquarters building of an Egyptian state intelligence agency; he was later transferred to the Tora Prison in Cairo, Egypt, according to the Italian court’s arrest warrant.
Italian court records indicate that Bob Lady, the U.S. Embassy employee identified as the Milan CIA station chief, traveled to Egypt shortly after the kidnapping took place. These records show that “from February 19, 2003, to February 22, 2003, [Lady’s] number…maintained its location in the city of Milan. But on February 23, 2003, the user of this device moves to the province of Gorizia [near Aviano] and from that day no calls are made or received by that number until March 3, 2003, when it received two calls from an unidentified number while using a mobile phone ‘cell’ in Egypt. Days later, on March 15, 2003, the number picks up Italian cells again, confirming it has [re-]entered Italian territory. … One can comfortably assume that the user of the said Vodafone card stayed in Egypt from February 22 to March 15,. 2003, during the first days of Abu Omar’s unlawful detention in Egypt, and when he was most likely being subject to the first spate of ‘treatment.’”
Mystery within a mystery
No one has been able to explain how, if CIA agents were on such a secret mission, they could have been so careless as to leave such an obvious paper trail. Records show that those linked to the abduction stayed in luxury hotel rooms that cost up to $500 per night, always paid with credit cards and sometimes made telephone calls from their hotel phones (ICIJ, for instance, was able to match certain calls made from those hotels to the home of the person listed in the Italian arrest warrants that we attempted to interview for this story).
Further, the evidence gathered from public records matches the identity of the person ICIJ identified with the paper trail left in Milan. Court records describe how Italian investigators reported finding compromising material on Lady’s home personal computer, including surveillance photos of Abu Omar and files describing the best way to reach the Aviano air base by highway.
Crewdson reported in his July 2006 Tribune story that the CIA director at the time, Porter Goss, was reported to be so disgusted with the sloppiness of the Milan rendition that he ordered a full review of the agency’s field operations.
According to Italian court records, CIA agents spent tens of thousands of U.S. taxpayer dollars during their stay in Italy. In addition, Luciano Pironi, the Italian officer who asked to see Abu Omar’s passport, received a gift from U.S. taxpayers — reimbursement for a week of vacation in the U.S. In September 2003, seven months after Abu Omar was abducted, Pironi traveled to CIA headquarters and met with two high-ranking CIA officers who had jurisdiction over Europe. They toasted their success over a bottle of Bordeaux, according to Pironi’s transcript. “For me to get to Langley,” he said, “was like for a little priest to get to the Vatican.”
Prosecutor Spataro, beneficiary of a paper trail spies aren’t supposed to leave behind, continues his battle today. In July 2006, with a new minister of justice in office, he lodged a new request for permission to seek extradition of the Americans he has charged. But the newly appointed minister, Clemente Mastella, a member of the new left-leaning government of Romano Prodi, has not answered Spataro’s request.
On December 5, 2006, Spataro officially wrapped up the investigation by asking a court to put all 26 Americans plus Pollari, Mancini, Pironi and other Sismi officials on trial, charging them with complicity in a kidnapping. He also asked that three people charged with lesser crimes, including aiding and abetting a kidnapping, be tried.
The first hearing was January 9, 2007. Pollari’s attorney, Titta Madia, announced his intention to ask the judge to summon former Prime Minister Berlusconi and current Prime Minister Prodi as witnesses as well as to stop the proceedings on the grounds that issues pertaining to the case are restricted by state secrecy. On February 6, Judge Caterina Interlandi denied Pollari’s request to compel testimony from Berlusconi and Prodi. Eight days later, Deputy Prime Minister Francesco Rutelli said that the Milan prosecutors had breached state secrecy by ordering wiretaps of Sismi agents’ telephones. Now, the Italian Constitutional Court must rule on the state secrecy issue.
Despite the constitutional tussle, on February 16, Judge Interlandi indicted all 26 Americans as well as five Sismi agents, including former chief spy Pollari and his right-hand man Mancini. She also set June 8, 2007, for the trial to begin, presuming that the Constitutional Court allows the case to move forward against the Americans, who would be tried in absentia.
In late February 2007, the State Department’s legal adviser, John Bellinger, told a news briefing in Brussels, Belgium, that the indicted Americans deserve special treatment despite the bilateral extradition treaty that exists between Italy and the U.S. “We’ve not got an extradition request from Italy. … If we got an extradition request, we would not extradite U.S. officials to Italy,” Bellinger said.
At the same time the indictments against the American agents were coming down in Milan, the U.S. and Italian governments declined to join 57 other governments in signing a new United Nations treaty prohibiting governments from holding terrorism suspects in secret detention and from kidnapping terrorism suspects outside of the rule of law. The American Civil Liberties Union characterized the kidnappings outlawed by the treaty as “forced disappearances [that are] used by dictatorships to secretly detain, arrest or kidnap individuals and then deny it occurred.” A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the treaty, which the U.S. had originally helped to draft beginning in 2001, saying only that it “did not meet [U.S.] expectations.”
Your support is crucial!
Our newsroom needs to raise $121,000 by end of the year so we can hold the power accountable and strengthen our democracy in 2024. Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising. We depend on individuals like you to sustain quality journalism.