Rendition's Revenge

It's no secret that some of the more dubious intelligence cited by the Bush administration to justify its invasion of Iraq ran through Italy. The most infamous case is that of the forged "uranium from Niger" memos that ultimately became a key basis for the administration's mistaken claims that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. A 1998 Italian newspaper report on a purported meeting between an emissary of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden circulated into U.S. intelligence as a key shred of evidence of prewar cooperation between Iraq and al-Qaeda, since discredited by the September 11 commission.

Italy, of course, was by no means the only U.S. ally to provide dubious Iraq intelligence to Washington. But as two of the more conservative governments in the strained transatlantic alliance, the Bush and Berlusconi administrations have tended to see things eye to eye, at least more so than Washington and some of its more war-skeptical European allies. Italy contributed troops to the U.S.-led alliance invading Iraq, despite the overwhelming unpopularity of that war among the Italian population.

But that unpopularity may finally put the two countries' intelligence relationship at risk. Italy's close cooperation with some of the more controversial practices in the U.S. war on terrorism may be becoming politically untenable for Silvio Berlusconi, facing re-election next year, as a delayed result of the CIA abduction of an Egyptian cleric from Milan two years ago. If the outrage surrounding the case continues, the Italian administration could be forced to distance itself from the United States -- or be forced from office.

On February 17, 2003, a month before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq got under way, Hussan Mustafa Omar Nasr, an Egyptian cleric better known as Abu Omar, disappeared from Milan. News reports say that the United States suspected Omar of being a European leader of the Iraq-based terrorist group Ansar al-Islam. Since June 2005, a Milan prosecutor has indicted 19 alleged CIA employees (most identified by their cover names) for allegedly snatching Omar from outside a Milan mosque and bundling him off to Egypt. Since his alleged abduction, Omar has been heard from only once, telling his wife that he had been kidnapped by Italian- and English-speaking agents, flown to Egypt, imprisoned, and badly tortured. Omar is believed to still be in custody in Egypt.

For two years, Italy's counterterrorism police unit, Digos, has been simmering about the snatch job carried out under its nose. It had been closely surveilling Omar for months when Washington disappeared him, as part of Italy's own domestic counterterrorism efforts. The CIA's extraordinary rendition of Omar blew Digos' investigation and led it to demand the Milan prosecutor's investigation of the Omar rendition from Italy's sovereign territory.

This creates a problem for the Berlusconi government, which is already reeling from U.S. solders' killing of an Italian military-intelligence agent, Nicola Calipari, in Iraq last March (see Jason Vest's story "Checkpoints and Balances") and the wider unpopularity of Italian participation in the Iraq War. Berlusconi administration leaders are claiming that the CIA kept them in the dark about the Omar operation.

But former U.S. intelligence officials say the details of the operation, the history of U.S. intelligence operations in Italy and NATO countries, and the timing of the raid as the United States was trying to woo European support in advance of its invasion of Iraq all indicate that the snatch would have been reported to certain Italian authorities in advance.

There's no way you do something like this unilaterally in a friendly country without coordinating, says a former U.S. intelligence official who asked not to be named. It's always coordinated.

"The Italians were one of the few countries in Europe standing by us on Iraq," Michael Scheuer, former chief of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit, told the Prospect. "There is no way in the world that agency management would have authorized unilateral operation in Italy on the eve of the invasion of Iraq by ourselves." Scheuer indicated that he did not know about the Abu Omar operation in particular, but was speaking from his years of experience overseeing similar cases before his resignation last November.

"We don't do, for the most part, unilateral operations in NATO countries," Scheuer continued. "I wish we would but our management -- and the White House -- values and worries so much about European opinion that we were never allowed to take unilateral operations in Europe."

Importantly, Scheuer adds that the Bush administration halted a plan to kill an al-Qaeda figure operating in northern Iraq before the war -- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, now believed to be a leader of the insurgency -- because of European opposition. "In the same time frame as this operation was supposed to occur, we had precise locational data for Zarqawi in northern Iraq nearly every day for a year before the invasion, Scheuer said. They could have killed him, using missiles or aircrafts, had the [National Security Council] approved it. But at the time they were sweet-talking all the Europeans, especially the French and the Germans, into joining us in Iraq. They tried to kill Zarqawi as soon as the war started, but at that time, he was gone."

Scheuer's similar observations to the Italian daily La Repubblica, coupled with a Washington Post story reporting that the CIA told a tiny number of people' [in Italy] about the action," have had a polarizing effect in Italy. The case has become a sort of Rorschach test for Italians' opinions about U.S.-Italian cooperation in the war on terrorism, dismay over the Iraq War, and concern about Italian government secrecy. "I think a majority of people believe that, somehow, at the technical level, the Italians were indeed informed," says Roberto Monetti, an analyst at the Aspen Institute Italia. "There's a sense that the issue was dealt with at the technical level between the [intelligence] services, but didn't reach the top level of the Italian government. In a way this allows the government to say it never lied."

Nicolo Pollari, the chief of Italy's military-intelligence service, Sismi, claimed to a parliamentary committee that he wasn't informed of the operation. Italian newspaper reports have hinted that Pollari may even be replaced over the scandal. "We can't prove that they want to change Pollari. Right now, it's just a rumor," says Gianni Cipriani, an expert on Italian intelligence and chief of Rome's Center of International Strategic Studies. "Right now, the Italian government has other problems -- election problems."

While Berlusconi's election problems might weigh against Pollari and collaboration with the United States, his terrorism problem is keeping changes at bay. Just two weeks after the Italian press was reporting the blown covers of the CIA operatives involved in the Omar snatch, the July 7 bombings in London put Italy on high alert for terrorism. Two days after those bombings, Italian police arrested 142 people, issuing expulsion orders for 53 of them, and deployed 2,000 carabinieri across the country to counter the threat. A thwarted second wave of bombings led straight to Rome. On July 29, Italian counterterrorism police nabbed one of the second set of London bombers, after he arrived at his brother's flat in Rome by train, and have been questioning him. "After the London bombing[s], people [are] worried about terror[ism]," says Corriere della Sera reporter Guido Olimpio, who helped break the story of the Milan prosecutor's indictments of the CIA agents. "At this moment, the government needs every single intelligence agent to control the situation to counter terror[ism]."

Heightened terrorism fears in Rome have pushed the Omar rendition case out of the Italian headlines for now, but it remains a sleeper issue for the upcoming elections. Did the Italian government tacitly cooperate with a U.S. policy that in effect condones torture? And depending on what the Italian electorate comes to believe, U.S. policy-makers may face their own dilemma: At what point do allies become more important than the intelligence information gleaned from the practice of extraordinary rendition?

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