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BOOK REVIEW: When cellphones subverted a sting

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A KIDNAPPING IN MILAN: THE CIA ON TRIAL

By Steve Hendricks

W.W. Norton & Co., $26.95, 317 pages

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden

Italian security officers listened, via hidden microphones, as an instructor lectured a group of aspiring terrorists in Milan. Apparently brandishing a mobile phone, he said, "Do you see this? This was created by an enemy of God. You can't imagine how many operations this has made fail and how many arrests it has caused. You can use it to communicate. It's fast. But it causes you huge problems. They created it, and they know how to intercept it."

Presumably, the same sort of warning is given to CIA officers as they train for counterterrorism assignments. So it is ironic that their careless, even reckless, use of cellphones led to one of the worst operational fiascoes to beset the agency in years. For snatching a suspected terrorist off the Milan streets and spiriting him away to Egypt, 23 CIA operatives were convicted in absentia of various crimes, including kidnapping, and sentenced to up to 13 years in prison.

"Rendition," the abduction and transfer of a person from one nation to another, is a tool that American law enforcement officers have used since 1883, when an embezzler fled to Peru. He was seized by Pinkerton detectives and returned to Chicago. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that trial judges should be concerned only with trying such a fugitive, not how he came to be in court. In subsequent cases, the court reaffirmed the ruling.

An evolution in the rendition process began in 1986, when terrorists seized the cruise ship Achille Lauro. Fleeing by plane, they were forced down at a NATO base in Sicily. Italian authorities refused a request by President Reagan that the terrorists be held and permitted them to proceed to sanctuary. Angered, Reagan signed a National Security Decision authorizing the CIA to capture terrorists abroad and return them to the United States for trial. A subsequent directive by President Clinton authorized the CIA to take such individuals to a third country - a so-called "extraordinary rendition," out of reach of American courts.

The man at the center of the Milan episode, Abu Omar, was a dissident in Cairo, where police brutality allegedly turned him toward terrorism. He fled to Milan, where he hooked up with terrorism suspects under surveillance by an Italian security agency. Hidden recordings revealed Omar talking about terrorist acts and the means of committing them. Officers were content to "keep listening" for intelligence purposes.

Concurrently, the Milan CIA base chief, Bob Lady, received an alarming tip: Omar was "plotting to hijack or in some other way attack a bus from the American School of Milan." Mr. Lady enlisted a trusted officer of another Italian agency to help a CIA team snatch Omar off the street and transport him in a van to Aviano Air Base, from which he was flown to Egypt.

Here, Steve Hendricks introduces an utterly fascinating account of electronic police work. When Omar disappeared, Stefano Dambruso, the magistrate assigned to investigate, learned that one of the abductors was seen talking on a cellphone. He asked phone companies with nearby cell towers for records of calls they routed during the time period. What he found proved acutely embarrassing to the CIA.

Every cellphone contains a microchip the size of a postage stamp, a "subscriber identity module," or SIM. When a call goes through a cell tower, the SIM - and the calling number - is recorded. As Mr. Hendricks explains, "having a mobile phone turned on in a dense city can reveal its location to within a few blocks."

Investigators found that 10,718 SIMs - individual phone calls - went through towers around the kidnapping area during a three-hour span. They discovered matches of repeat calls between 54 of the phones. One of them belonged to Mr. Lady, who received and made calls involving many of the numbers. Some phones had been purchased locally and for ID purposes buyers often showed their U.S. passports. The trail of numbers up a parkway led to the Aviano Air Base, frequently used by U.S. planes. (One SIM belonged to the American security chief.)

Checks of towers in hotel areas produced registrants using home addresses "almost all of which were post office boxes not far from the CIA headquarters." At swank spa hotels near Aviano, several male and female operatives shared rooms (prompting Italian press headlines such as "The Spies Who Came In From the Hot Tub").

Using information the operatives provided on hotel registers and elsewhere, and through public records checks known to most journalists, Mr. Hendricks writes that he established, to his satisfaction, the true identities of perhaps half of the people - a damning indictment of CIA tradecraft. None, of course, chose to contest the charges by returning to Italy.

Nor did the CIA help the accused to defend themselves. Mr. Lady had started purchasing a vineyard for a retirement retreat. To him, the crowning insult is that Abu Omar - freed by the Egyptians - is suing him, with the goal of winning the vineyard.

Mr. Hendricks does not care for renditions. But as with any other tool, they must be used by people who do not cut off their fingers. This is a how-not-to book on tradecraft that should be read and heeded.

Joseph C. Goulden has completed an update of his "Dictionary of Espionage: Spy-Speak Into English," to be published by Dover Books in the fall.

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