Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Bush League CIA

Called on their errors
CIA agents' use of cell phones during mission lets police in Italy identify them, spurring agency review


December 27, 2005

MILAN -- The trick is known to just about every small-time crook in the cellular age: If you don't want police to know where you are, take the battery out of your cell phone when you're not using it.

Had that trick been taught at the CIA's rural Virginia training school for covert operatives, the Bush administration might have avoided much of the crisis in Europe over the practice the CIA calls "rendition."

When CIA operatives assembled here nearly three years ago to abduct an Egyptian-born Muslim preacher named Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, and "render" him to Cairo, they left their cell phone batteries in.

Even when not in use, a cell phone sends a periodic signal, enabling the worldwide cellular network to know where to look for it in case of an incoming call.

Those signals allowed Italian police investigating Abu Omar's disappearance to construct an almost minute-by-minute record of his abduction in February 2003, and to identify nearly two dozen people as his abductors.

CIA director Porter Goss, "horrified" at the sloppiness of the Milan rendition, has ordered a "top-down" review of the agency's "tradecraft," the nuts and bolts of the spy business.

Amateur time

So amateurish was the rendition that the Italian lawyer for Robert Seldon Lady, whom prosecutors identify as the former CIA chief in Milan, says Lady's primary defense will be that he was too good a spy to have been involved in anything so badly planned and carried out.

Lady, 51, who retired from the CIA two years ago, is believed to be living in Florida. If he or any of the 21 other CIA operatives charged in Abu Omar's abduction set foot in the European Union they are subject to arrest and extradition to Italy for trial.

Prosecutors say there is little doubt Lady was a key player in Abu Omar's kidnapping and his rendition to Egypt, where he claims to have been tortured.

Evidence seized by police last summer from Lady's Italian villa includes a surveillance photograph of Abu Omar walking from his apartment to a nearby mosque, at the precise spot where he was later seized and thrown into a van.

Although Abu Omar is not an Italian citizen, he obtained political asylum in 2001. In ordering further probes, Milan judge Chiara Nobili said it was necessary "to identify which agency is responsible for such a severe violation of international law as kidnapping a person legitimately living in Italy."

Should the CIA decide to teach its trainees how not to conduct a covert operation, it could find few better examples than the Milan rendition.

The list of mistakes made here begins with the operatives' indiscriminate use of their cell phones. One of the CIA's operatives made at least four calls to what appear to be friends and family in Texas, court records show. Another made a personal call to Greece. A man whose passport claims he was born in Tennessee made nine apparently personal calls, including one to a stockbroker in Kentucky.

Leaving tracks

Although the Milan operatives frequently changed hotels, the changes only made it easier for the police to identify them.

Officials involved with the case said police searched for the numbers of cell phones that had been close to the scene of the abduction at the moment it occurred. They found 19. Then they discovered that many of those phones had been in communication with one another, in most cases for short calls.

The phones turned up in Milan in the weeks before the abduction but stopped transmitting shortly after it was over, making it a good bet that they belonged to the kidnappers.

Police also noticed that each night, based on their positioning signals, the suspect phones had come to rest in particular Milan hotels. Dozens of Americans had been registered at those hotels, but after a few days or weeks at one hotel, many of the phones had moved to another hotel.

Checking registration records for guests who had changed hotels on the same days produced the names of Americans who had listed U.S. post office boxes as their addresses and nonexistent companies as their employers.

A few of the operatives actually put their cell phone numbers on their hotel registration cards. When one bought a cell phone in Milan, she registered it in what police believe is her real name. At least three other operatives used their own names when registering at hotels and renting cars, investigators say.

One operative made sure when checking into hotels to hand over her frequent flyer number, to get credit for her hotel stay.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.


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