Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro’s move to arrest six more CIA operatives accused of kidnapping Egyptian cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr brings into focus growing friction between America and its allies in the shadow war against terrorists. Mr. Nasr, a.k.a. Abu Omar, was lured off the streets of Milan in February 2003 by CIA agents pretending to be Italian authorities checking his identity. Instead, he was whisked to the U.S. Air Force Base at Aviano and flown to Egypt in one of the CIA’s “extraordinary renditions” of terrorist suspects.
An Italian court has already issued arrest warrants for 13 other CIA operatives involved in the Nasr abduction. If Mr. Spataro’s new warrants are approved, the total number of CIA employees and contractors subject to extradition to Italy will rise to 19. A ruling is expected within days. The outcome could further strain cooperation between Italy and the United States at the operational level where counterterrorism succeeds or fails.
It is a mistake to interpret the Nasr affair as the by-product of an independent Italian magistrate intruding on intelligence matters. This is a case of spy versus spy. The Italian government, according to one intelligence insider, made no effort to block the DIGOS investigative police from probing the abduction. If it had, there would be scant evidence for Mr. Spataro to indict American counter terrorism operatives. The United States and Italy are caught in a vendetta that spells trouble for collaboration in fighting terrorism.
Accountability for the Nasr affair is rapidly becoming shrouded in denials and cover stories. Despite Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s feigned outrage and demand that the United States respect Italian sovereignty, there is little doubt the Italians had advance knowledge of the operation. The restraints under which the CIA’s Milan base operates are “liaison only, unless an operation is unilaterally compatible with liaison or is jointly conducted with liaison.” That means that unless the Italian security services approve or help carry out an operation, it is off-limits.
Nor was the Nasr affair a rogue operation carried out solely by Robert Lady, then-head of the CIA’s base in Milan. The Milan base is subordinate to the CIA station in Rome. Mr. Lady, who is now subject to arrest in Italy, did not have the personnel at his disposal for this operation. Even if Mr. Lady were a CIA cowboy, he could not have pulled this off without approval from the Rome station chief and CIA headquarters. He needed people and resources that had to come from Langley.
Intelligence insiders say up to 23 operatives were involved in planning and executing the rendition. Most were drawn from the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. The CIA team was diverse. Their ages range from 32 to 66 years. There were a number of women and Hispanics, fluent speakers of Arabic and Italian, and individuals born in Greece and China. They arrived in Italy in waves, took up residence in four-star hotels, ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs and meticulously planned the moment to intercept Mr. Nasr on the streets and egress routes for transporting him to Aviano.
They also left many traces, including hotel bills, car-rental records and cell phone calls that allowed Italian authorities to easily re-create their movements. The lack of good tradecraft means the CIA team made little effort to conceal its activities from its Italian hosts, presumably because the Italians had agreed to permit the operation. Italian authorities have the real names and photographs of the CIA team.
For weeks now, the intelligence grapevine has buzzed with rumors that the photos will be given to the Italian media. If so, it will be a vindictive move. Minimally it will terminate their careers, or, worse, expose them to retaliation by Islamic radicals.
One factor causing friction between Italian and American spy services, according to an insider, is that the United States has been stingy in sharing intelligence from renditions such as Mr. Nasr’s with the Italians. Insiders agree the friction escalated after U.S. troops killed an Italian intelligence officer escorting a freed hostage to the Baghdad airport.
When the Italians demanded a full investigation, U.S. authorities, in the words of another intelligence insider, “burned the Italian spy network in Baghdad.” Ironically, al Qaeda cells seem to be able to cooperate across borders more effectively than intelligence agencies.
Italy is not our only ally where cooperation between intelligence agencies is strained. Britain routinely denies the London CIA station permission to target and recruit Islamic sources. For almost a year, Israel has withheld cooperation from the CIA, most likely because of growing differences over Iran’s nuclear energy program.
None of these problems will be eliminated by opening flashy new counterterrorism centers with flat-screen HD monitors and satellite imagery on every wall. They will only be improved when high-ranking officials immerse themselves at the operational level and understand how the details of intelligence, security and terrorism really work.
John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He writes frequently on terrorism and national security matters.