New York Times
June 25, 3005
MILAN, June 24 - An Italian judge has ordered the arrest of 13 officers and operatives of the Central Intelligence Agency on charges that they seized an Egyptian cleric on a Milan street two years ago and flew him to Egypt for questioning, Italian prosecutors and investigators said Friday.
The judge, Chiara Nobili of Milan, signed the arrest warrants on Wednesday for 13 C.I.A. operatives who are suspected of seizing an imam named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, as he walked to his mosque here for noon prayers on Feb. 17, 2003.
It is unclear what prompted the issuance of the warrants, but Judge Guido Salvini said in May that it was "certain" that Mr. Nasr had been seized by "people belonging to foreign intelligence networks interested in interrogating him and neutralizing him, to then hand him over to Egyptian authorities."
Mr. Nasr, who was under investigation before his disappearance for possible links to Al Qaeda, is still missing, and his family and friends say he was tortured repeatedly by Egyptian jailers.
The detailed warrants remained sealed in a Milan courthouse on Friday. But copies obtained by The New York Times show that 13 American citizens, all identified in the documents as either C.I.A. employees or as having links to the agency, are wanted to stand trial on kidnapping charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years and 8 months in prison. The Americans' whereabouts are unknown.
One of those wanted, identified in the court papers as the agency's top officer in Milan, is described as "having coordinated the mission and also guaranteeing connections and assistance to others involved in the crime." He left Milan and flew to Egypt five days after the abduction, the warrant says.
In the papers, Judge Nobili wrote that she was persuaded of the Americans' involvement in part because of evidence that their cellphones were "all interacting with one another" at the time and scene of the abduction.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been an ally of the Bush administration in the fight against terrorism and the war in Iraq, had no comment on the warrants. Such judicial documents are issued independently of the government.
The chief C.I.A. spokeswoman, Jennifer Millerwise, declined to comment on the charges, as did the American Embassy in Rome and the Consulate in Milan.
This is the first time a foreign country has tried to prosecute American agents for the process of rendition, in which terrorism suspects captured abroad are sent by the United States to their home countries or to third countries, some of which have records of torturing prisoners.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been no exchanges between Italy and the United States about the investigationbefore the judge acted.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 100 terrorism suspects have been transferred by the United States to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and other countries where, some former captives have said, they were tortured. Agency officials defend the practice, which began a decade ago, as a legal and effective way to thwart terrorists.
The agency usually carries out the transfers with the permission of foreign governments, but Italian investigators said they were unaware of any agreement between Italy and the United States about Mr. Nasr.
It was not known Friday whether the Italian government had approved the rendition here. In interviews in recent months, several former American intelligence officials have said they would be surprised if C.I.A. operations here had not been approved by Italy.
Several senior Italian investigators said they believed the 13 operatives had left Italy. A raid carried out Thursday at a villa owned by one of the operatives in the Piedmont hills produced a computer disk drive and documents, investigators said.
Italian investigators had assumed the operation was conducted jointly by Italian and American officials because witnesses said the kidnappers spoke fluent Italian. But on Friday, they said they had found evidence only of American involvement.
"There is no shadow of proof of any Italian involvement," one senior investigator said. "If someone came to tell us that the Italians were involved, we'd open up the investigation again."
But a second senior Italian investigator said it was possible that the government had approved the operation because the C.I.A. operatives had operated openly and without apparent concern about being detected. For instance, the official said, the American agents used their Italian cellphones at the precise moment Mr. Nasr was abducted; they kept the phones switched on for hours at a time, making it easier to track their movements; and they dialed many phone numbers in the United States, most of them in northern Virginia, including at least one number at agency headquarters.
The police said they were able to retrace nearly every step the American operatives made during the nine days they were in Milan for the operation. They identified the suspects by examining all cellphones in use near the abduction, and then tracing the web of calls placed. Investigators said they were able to trace several calls by Americans on the road from Milan to Aviano, the joint American-Italian air base north of Venice.
The suspects stayed in five-star Milan hotels, including the Hilton, the Sheraton, the Galia and Principe di Savoia, in the week before the operation, at a cost of $144,984, the warrant says, adding that after Mr. Nasr was flown to Egypt, two of the officers took a few days' holiday at five-star hotels in Venice, Tuscany and South Tyrol.
The Italian investigators also collected photocopies of the operatives' passports, photographs, cellphone numbers and their MasterCard and VISA credit card numbers. Six other American officials - either C.I.A. officers or diplomats posted at the Milan consulate - are under investigation for helping support the abduction, Italian investigators said.
Former American intelligence officials said there was increasing concern within the agency's directorate of operations that aggressive actions by operatives against suspected terrorists might lead to indictments of agents in foreign countries.
Mr. Nasr, a 42-year-old Egyptian-born cleric, came to the attention of counterterrorism officials here in 1997, shortly after he arrived from Albania. After Sept. 11, 2001, he was identified by American and Italian intelligence officials as a supporter of Al Qaeda who fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia and had made anti-American statements. At the time that he disappeared, Italian authorities were investigating reports that Mr. Nasr had tried to recruit jihadists through his mosque in Milan.
From the arrest warrants and interviews with investigators, the following chronicle of Mr. Nasr's disappearance can be assembled.
The Milan police said they had been told by witnesses that at noon on Feb. 17, 2003, two or three Italian-speaking men approached Mr. Nasr as he walked along Via Guerzoni, in an industrial area on the outskirts of the city. The men asked Mr. Nasr to show them his identification, the witnesses said. The men then sprayed him in the face with chemicals and forced him into a white van, which sped away.
Since then, the Italian police and prosecutors, led by Prosecutor Armando Spataro, have treated Mr. Nasr's disappearance as a missing person's case.
The warrants describe evidence that Mr. Nasr was taken within five hours to the American military base at Aviano, and was flown to Egypt on Feb. 18, 2003. His journey to Egypt began on an Air Force Learjet, operated under a radio call-sign Spar 92, which is used by the 76th Airlift Squadron, in Ramstein, Germany. It took off from Aviano at 6:20 p.m. for Ramstein. There, a week later, Mr. Nasr was transferred onto a Gulfstream IV executive jet for Cairo, the warrants say.
The Gulfstream belongs to a part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, Philip H. Morse. The warrant noted that Mr. Morse had previously confirmed that his jet was regularly leased to the C.I.A., with the team's logo covered. In an article in The Boston Globe on March 21, Mr. Morse was quoted as saying he was "stunned" by a newspaper report that the plane might have been used for renditions.
Mr. Nasr was released from custody in Egypt 14 months later, in April 2004, and he phoned his wife in Milan and an associate to say he had been subjected to electric shock treatments, the investigators said. He also described the route that he was taken shortly after his kidnapping, providing an important clue to the Italian police. Besides complaining about hearing loss in one ear, Mr. Nasr also said he could barely walk.
Shortly after placing the calls, he was rearrested by the Egyptian police and has not been heard from again.
In Italy on Friday, several public officials demanded answers from the Italian government. Paolo Cento, a Green Party legislator and vice president of the justice committee in the Chamber of Deputies, called for the interior and defense ministers to say whether the Italian authorities had been alerted by the Americans before the seizure. "We want to know if American agents have freedom of action on our territory and how, if that is the case, the government intends to protect the prerogative of our sovereignty," he said.
It is a time of particular vulnerability for Mr. Berlusconi in his relationship with the United States. Positioning for general elections next year has already begun, and he is likely to face strong questioning from the opposition and possibly from inside his own divided coalition on whether his center-right government knew, approved of or took part in the abduction.
Mr. Berlusconi could be open to criticism in any case: Not knowing could bring into question the government's competence and add to a sense here that the United States has taken Italy's friendship for granted, especially given the 3,000 troops it supplied for Iraq.
A senior Italian official said the apparent abduction of Mr. Nasr had disrupted the Italians' attempt to identify his connection to a suspected terrorist network in Europe. "Our belief is that terrorist suspects should be investigated through legal channels and brought to a court of law - not kidnapped and spirited away to be tortured in some secret prison," the official said.
Milan's chief prosecutor, Manlio Claudio Minale, said in a statement, "We will also ask the Egyptian authorities and the American authorities for assistance."
A senior Italian investigator said neither country had provided much help during the investigation.