The spies who came into the gold

By Tom Engelhardt

Los Angeles Times

July 22, 2005

Like so much else in our moment, it contravened laws the U.S. had once signed on to, pretzeled the English language, and took the American taxpayer to the cleaners.

I'm talking about the now-notorious "extraordinary rendition" undertaken by the Bush administration in Italy: the secret kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan in early 2003 and his transfer — with Italy's CIA station chief evidently riding shotgun — to Egypt.

This was but one of an unknown number of extraordinary-rendition operations — the estimate is more than 100 since Sept. 11, 2001, but no one really knows — that have been conducted all over the world, delivering terrorist suspects into the custody of Uzbekistanis, Syrians, Egyptians and others notorious for their use of torture. But it just so happens that this operation took place on the democratic soil of an ally, and that the team of 19 or more participants passed through that country not like the undercover agents of our imagination, but, as former clandestine CIA officer Melissa Boyle Mahle told Reuters, "like elephants stampeding through Milan. They left huge footprints."

Those gargantuan footprints give us a glimpse of the unexpectedly extravagant "shadow war" being conducted on our behalf by the Bush administration. So let me skip the normal discussions of kidnappings, torture or whether we violated Italian sovereignty, and just concentrate on what those footprints revealed. If President Bush's "global war on terror" has been saddled with the inelegant acronym GWOT, the Italian rendition operation should perhaps be given the acronym LDVWOT, or "la dolce vita war on terror."

Of course, if House Majority Leader Tom DeLay could charge his airfare to Britain on an American Express card issued to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and food and phone calls at a Scottish golf course hotel on a credit card issued to his former aide and Washington lobbyist Edwin A. Buckham; if Halliburton could slip a reputed $813 million extra in "costs" into a contract providing logistical support for U.S. troops (including $152,000 in "movie library costs" and a $1.5-million tailoring bill), then why shouldn't the Spartan warriors of the CIA capture a few taxpayer bucks while preparing a kidnapping?

Here's what the newspapers have reported about this particular version of la dolce vita. The CIA participants took rooms in Milan's five-star hotels, including the Principe di Savoia, one of the world's most luxuriously appointed hotels, where they rang up $42,000 in expenses. The total cost of their stays: $144,984. The gourmet spies preferred to eat in the fanciest restaurants in Milan and elsewhere.

After the successful kidnapping and the cleric dispatched to sunny Egypt, several of the Americans left for a vacation in Venice, while four others headed for the Mediterranean coast north of Tuscany, all on the taxpayers' dime. They charged up to $500 a day apiece, the Washington Post reported, to Diners Club accounts under their false names, and made sure they got frequent flier miles.

You would think that our representatives in Congress, reading about this in their newspapers, might raise the odd question about the rich-and-famous lifestyles of our secret agents. So far, however, despite the well-reported use of taxpayer dollars to fund vacations and the good life, nary a peep on the subject has come from Congress; nor has anyone called for the money to be returned to the American people.

Now, because a Milan prosecutor had the temerity to issue arrest warrants for 13 of our high-flying spies and to seek warrants for another six of them, the great majority are officially "on the run" and, it is assumed, have been pulled out of Europe by the agency.

A small tip for Interpol investigators: If any of these agents are still at large in Europe, I wouldn't be checking out obscure safe houses. The places to search are top-of-the-line hotels, Michelin-recommended restaurants and elite vacation spots across the continent.

When evaluating the CIA's actions, you might consider the agency's mission statement as laid out on its website: "Our success depends on our ability to act with total discretion…. Our mission requires complete personal integrity…. We accomplish things others cannot, often at great risk…."

Or you might simply adapt an ad line from one of the few credit cards the team in Milan seems not to have used: The nightly cost of a room at Principe di Savoia Hotel, $450; the cost of a Coke from a mini-bar in one of its rooms, $10, the cost of leasing a Gulfstream V for a month, $229,639; that feeling of taking the American taxpayer for a ride, priceless.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the website, where a longer version of this piece appears, is the author of "The End of Victory Culture" (U. Mass Press, 1998).