Wednesday 6 July 2005

Why the CIA Went Astray over Italy's Abu Omar

by Trowbridge H. Ford

The role and relationship among America's mutliplicity of law-enforcement agencies, especially that between the Bureau and the Agency, have always been most confused, almost disfunctional. While the wars and wedges between "Wild Bill" Donovan's CIA and Hoover's Bureau are legendary, their dealings with one another have hardly improved despite the ending of the Cold War - what most observers thought would lead to a decided improvement with the disappearance of the common enemy whose threats allegedly called for a kind of no-holds-barred kind of competition to insure national survival. If anything, though, relations between the FBI and the CIA have even declined further since then, as the indictment of 13 apparent CIA agents a week ago in Italy for kidnapping radical Islamic cleric Abu Omar aka Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr in Milan in February 2003 demonstrated.

The root causes of the renewed conflict between the Agency and the Bureau were the growing threat of terrorism at home and abroad while they were riven internally by acrimonious charges and countercharges of betrayal and spying during the closing stages of the Cold War. While the claims of moles working for the KGB, resulting in the murder of many double agents, proved all too true with the belated exposure of the Agency's Aldrich "Rick" Ames, and then, much later, of the Bureau's Robert Hanssen, both agencies were expanding their operations and responsibilites at the expense of the other, first the FBI thinking that all that was needed to stop growing terrorism was more pro-active operations, especially overseas, while the Agency, when its turn came, thought that it could handle the tasks of domestic law-enforcement.

The Bureau's crime-fighting approach to terrorism was well illustrated during Louis J. Freeh's tenure as Director. He had succeeded Judge William Sessions after his scaling back of the Bureau's counter intelligence efforts - because of its failure to prove that the State Department's Felix Bloch was the all-important mole who had decimated Operation Courtship's double-agent efforts against the Soviets - had helped blind cleric Sheikh Omar Adbel Rahman not only to enter the States, but also organize the first attack upon the World Trade Center. While Egyptian and other counterterrorist officials warned American ones of the impending attack, appropriate countermeasures were not taken because leads were not passed from the Agency to the Bureau for the necessary law-enforcement to be conducted to prevent it.

Hardly had Freeh taken over from the accident-prone Sessions than the Agency's Counterterrorism Center (CTC), already hunkered down because of the growing Ames spying investigation, prevailed upon DCI R. James Woolsey to see that Omar Mohammed Ali Rezaq was extradicted to the States from Ghana for highjacking an Egyptian airliner, and shooting the Israelis and Americans on board in 1985.

Rezaq had been convicted by a Maltese court of the crimes, but the island's authorities released
him because of pressure from Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. Then Ghanaian officials refused to act upon the Agency's request. Instead of letting the matter die, though, Freeh managed to get permission to grab him when he fled to Nigeria. "When Rezaq landed there," Mark Riebling wrote in Wedge, "he was shoved aboard a Gulfstream-4 jet leased by the Bureau, and the next day he was in a Washington courtroom, wearing a pumpkin-organ federal prison jumpsuit." (p. 441)

It was a far different matter when the FBI had to collect and analyze information of its own about domestic terrorism, as the Oklahoma City bombing, and the capture of the Unabomber demonstrated. On April 19, 1995, the Murrah Building in the Oklahoma capital was almost totally destroyed by a truck bomb despite repeated warnings of an imminent attack by informants. Edwin Angeles, for example, working for the Philippine Defense Department, reported that Terry Nicholas, Timony McVeigh, and Ramzi Yousef, a follower of Rahman, and indicted in the WTC attack, met several times in Manila to plan Al-Qaeda bombing attacks (Project Bojinka). Yousef is believed to have been videoed, walking away from the truck bomb with McVeigh shortly before the explosion.

Instead of this being a wake-up call for more possible international terrorism, though, the Clinton administration - thanks to George Tenet, a former WH counterterrorism advisor, and now the DDCI -turned the bombing into an electoral boost by limiting its fallout to the Americans involved. "FBI agents have come forward to testify," Oklahoma State Representive Charles Key wrote in Issue Thirteen of Eye Spy! magazine, "that they were told to stop the pursuit of Middle Eastern suspects and focus on McVeigh and Nichols." (p. 65) Ultimately, the Bureau failed to hand over to McVeigh's lawyers the documents written during the week after the bombing, allegedly caused by a malfunctioning computer, embarrassingly postponing his execution in June 2001.

To reinforce the message as the campaign heated up, Ted Kaczynski aka The Unabomber was arrested in April 1996, though the Bureau had known of his identity for about 15 years - after the crude bomb attack on former UAL president Percy Wood on June 7, 1980 - but had been prevented by the Reagan administration because of fears that it would raise unwanted questions about the 'October Surprise' and President's near assassination.

With the Bureau now on the backfoot, the Agency resumed its covert operation approach to protecting national security. Thanks to DCI Woolsey's damage limitation exercise during the investigation of Rick Ames's spying, and his successor, John M. Deutch, cleaning up the loose ends, especially the unsolved assassination of Swedish statsminister Olof Palme - making it look as if suspect Viktor Gunnarsson had done it, and then former Salisbury (N.C.) policeman L. C. Underwood had murdered the Swedish immigrant in an act of revenge - DCI Tenet was ideally positioned to carry out Clinton's revenge agenda against Al-Qaeda overseas, especially since it helped blunt right-wing efforts to remove him from office.

The President chased bin Laden with rockets, especially after the massive bombings of the embassies in East Africa in August 1998, all the way back to the deepest reaches of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Then the Agency started using paramilitary teams of six-member squads, Hellfire missiles from drones, and financial inducements to its tribal chiefs to eradicate Osama bin Laden's network - what would permit it to carry out another Phoenix Program, as it had in Vietnam, without all the adverse publicity. Cofer Black managed the operation from the Special Acitivities Division (SAD) whose staff tripled from 300 in just three short years.

Al-Qaeda retaliated with a suicide attack on the USS Cole at Aden while it was refueling on October 12, 2000, killing 19 sailors and injuring dozens more. Freeh's people, especially counterterrorism expert John O'Neill, did what they could to catch the prepetrators of this terrorist act, directed against Americans, but they increasingly came up against opposition from the White House in their investigations. The Director and the President had a most frosty relation by then because of the way the White House handled the Bureau during all its scandals. In fact, Freeh postponed seeking indictments against Iranian intelligence officers for the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia for fear that Attorney General Janet Reno would not support it.

In this most confused law-enforcement environment when the Bush administration took over in January 2001, the Agency was able to assume the initiative, thanks particularly to the belated exposure of the Bureau's Hanssen as another rotten apple during the double agent Operation Courtship against the now defunct Soviet Union. The FBI mole hunters had never even played the only recorded message they had of Hanssen talking to his KGB handler to the other members of his Courtship squad.

In fact, the CIA, despite his law-enforcement limitations - agents were not supposed to carry weapons in the US, and did not have the power of arrest - decided to put bin Laden out of business by setting up his host, Afghanistan's Taliban, as the perpretrator of coordinated hijackings in the States, efforts intended to blackmail America into making further concessions to terrorists. To arrange the operation. A. B. 'Buzzy' Krongard, who thought that killing bin Laden - what the Clinton administration had repeatedly attempted - would only make matters worse, was appointed Executive Director.

With the Bureau deeply in the doghouse, it was essentially forced to delegate responsibility for keeping track, and rendering harmless the growing number of Al-Qaeda operatives in America, seeking training to crash airliners into public buildings, to the Agency. As Freeh was being forced out, so was counterterrorism expert O'Neill, who fervently believed that Al-Qaeda was planning to attack the WTC again, taking up the post of security director of the complex instead, and in which he died on the fatal day.

Meanwhile, squad superivor Thomas Frields of the Bureau's Washington Field Office somehow lost a tip from a former Iranian intelligence officer four months before the 9/11bombings that Al-Qaeda was planning to attack targets in Chicago, LA, and NYC with suicide bombers using planes. Then Frields claims that he never saw the report from Phoenix agent Kenneth J. Williams in July that a suprising number of Arabs were taking flying lessons. Then Frields refused the request from the Bureau's general counsel in Minneapolis, Coleen Rowley, that a warramt be issued to inspect visa violator Zacarias Moussaoui's laptop on suspicion that he wanted, as Paul Sperry wrote for on March 28, 2004, " take control of a plane and fly it into the World Trade Center."

To keep track, and counter these growing threats, the CIA recruited teams from the Special Activites Division for the operation - to accompany the highjacked aircraft to LA where the unsuspecting hijackers would be overwhelmed by the forces hidden within the aircraft and on the ground. This would then justify Operation Gateway to eliminate the Taliban regime - what Bush's National Security advisers had approved a $200 million authorization a week before the attacks to get things started.

To start the ball rolling in the airliners, the Agency placed a squad of agents on the second plane leaving Boston, even a larger group on the one going from Newark to San Francisco, and three agents - along with Barbara Olson, wife of the Solicitor General, and general overseer of the operation - on the plane which crashed into The Pentagon. The first plane from Boston - the one carrying operation leaders Khalid-Al-Midhar and Nawaq-Al-Hamzi - had no agents on it for fear that their presence would tip off the highjackers.

The only trouble with the plan was that the planners had not taken seriously the claim that Arabs would act as suicide bombers, and that the highjackers could have the expertise to fly the planes into pre-selected targets. The scope of this miscalculation was well demonstrated when Ms. Olson frantically called her husband, Ted, twice for further instructions, air defense directors did not know whether the highjackings were part of a planned exercise or the real thing, and the President and his security in Florida reacted laconically to the unfolding tragedy. They knew that the presidential party had nothing to worry about, as it was well away from any possible action. Little wonder that the government was most dogged in preventing the release of the full passsenger lists for the flights for fear of disclosing that its countermeasures constituted the making of a terrible tragedy.

Given its scope, though, the Bush administration could not act, much less acknowledge, as if anything this monstrous had happened. Denial, and belated admissions of serious incompetence -especially regarding the Bureau, its new Director Robert Mueller having yet to take command -became the order of the day. To clean up the record, as best it could, the Bureau appointed Turkish translator Sibel Edmonds, assuming that she would do the job.

Instead, Edmonds made a terrible case of counterterrorism look even worse. She went through all the untranslated and unused material, hundreds if not thousands of them, that the Bureau had indicating the attacks, and charged that the people responsible for preventing them - now
counterterrorism chief Dale Watson, Radical Fundamentalist Unit chief David Frasca, Frields, headquarters supervisory special agent Michael Maltbie, and others - had benefited, been promoted,
for their "incompetence and corruption". Alledegly, on the very morning of the attacks, Frasca called Rowley, and told her not to proceed with her investigation of Moussaoui "...because Minneapolis might 'screw up' something else going on elswhere in the country."

"Edmonds was fired last year," the Ceneter for Media & Democracy reported in 2003, "after reporting her concerns to FBI officials." Her subsequent efforts to force her rehiring, and to gain compensation for denial of her rights were frustrated by Attorney General John Ashcroft's claiming the State Secret Privilege. Once she started talking to the Senate's Judiciary Committee and the 9-11 Commission behind closed doors about specific plots, dates, airplanes used as weapons, and specific individuals and activities, the Justice Department reclassified information regarding her to prevent further disclosure to her astonishing story.

As the Bureau was then scrambling to make up for lost credibility - Director Mueller calling for the transfer and hiring of new agents into fighting terrorism, especially joint "flying squads" with Agency personnel - CIA reverted to Cofer Black's SAD operations which had characterized Tenet's early days as DCI. Soon the Agency was running more ambitious paramilitary operations, reminiscent of how Israel's Mossad operated, in Afghanistan to isolate targets through bribes to tribal leaders so that they could be either eliminated by Hellfire missiles fired from drones, or assassinated by teams on the ground. "What is happening in Afghanistan," John Donnelly wrote for The Boston Globe in January 2002, "is likely to be a precursor of what happens in other countries as the war on terrorism expands."

Actually, Black's people had already struck in Europe by then, having "rendered" two Egyptians living in Sweden, and wanted by Cairo with the greatest ease. Despite Sweden's reputation of neutrality, the Agency had no trouble in getting Director General of its Security Service Jan Danielsson, Justice Minister Thomas Bodström, and Foreign Minister Anna Lindh to not only agree to the rendition, but also to make all the necessary arrangements. All the Agency squad had to do was to arrive in its Premier Executive Transport Services, Inc. Gulfstream jet at Bromma's airfield west of Stockholm, and pick up the two to be kidnapped.

Once the sortid details of the kidnapping leaked out - especially how they were treated by the American agents on the tarmac, and Egyptian ones in Cairo - Sweden was up in arms about the scandal. Even Säpo's new DG, Klas Bergenstrand, was obliged to make this unprecedented public statement: "In the future we will use Swedish laws, Swedish measures of force and Swedish military aviation when deporting terrorists."

Unfortunately, for the Bush administration and the Agency, the unprecedented character of the Swedish rendition, and the public backlash it created when finally discovered was lost upon the planners of the next rendition. As the planning of the ouster of Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein was moving into high gear with a resumed, intensified aerial bombardment of his command-and-control and air defense centers, and assassination squads of the Coalition were taking out sources of possible trouble - like apparently former UN weapons inspector Dr. David Kelly, and Swedish Foreign Minister Lindh - the DCI increasingly feared of being fired, and to head off any such effort he gave the okay to another rendition, that of the radical Islamic cleric in Milan, Abu Omar.

Omar was a veteran of the wars in Bosnia, and Afghanistan, and was suspected by Italian authorities of forming an Al-Qaeda cell to attack targets in Europe. Cairo wanted him because he was suspected of being connected to bin Ladin terrorists in Kurdishstan. Omar was noted for his fiery preaching in the city's mosques, especially at the Viale Jenner one. Though Italian authorities were tapping his phone in an attempt to keep track of his activities, the Americans assumed because of the way that the Swedes had reacted to the renditions there that the Italians would go along with what they were planning. The big problem was to conduct a kidnapping in such a manner so as not to tip off the Italian public and police about what was happening.

To keep the Italians in the dark about what was afoot, the Agency had Milan station chief since 2000 Robert Seldon Lady transferred to the State Department as its first consul there to make it appear that he had resigned rather than moved into position to direct the operation. He had a villa well away from Milan in Asti. Lady, it seems, is a former New York policeman who joined John Negroponte in Honduras for some of the Iran-Contra paramilitary operations against the Sandinistas and other leftists. Lady was born in Tegulcigalpa on February 2, 1954, so going back there was like going home. He apparently served in the area, especially around Panama, until he went to Milan in 2000

As for who the other Agency members of the operation were, it is easy to talk and speculate about who people like Pilar Rueda, Monica Courtney, Drew Channing, George L. Purvis, Cynthia Dame Logan, Garbriel Carrera, and the others indicted really are, but it may only put their lives, and those completely innocent of any involvement, in danger for no good reason. They were just doing the job they were told to do. Besides, it's against the law, as the leaker or leakers of Agency operative Valerie Plame's name to reporters Matt Cooper of Time magazine and the NYT's Judith Miller are belatedly learning now. Those guilty of this offense could go to jail for a good while.

To keep the operation as secret as possible, the Agency molibilized all the language and tourist capabilities it had, and could develop on the ground in Italy. While the press has treated the stays by the two paramilitary squads of agents in the area's luxury hotels, and the costs thereof as another lark by the runaway agency, they were all cover - means by which agents working out of places like Florida International University, noted for its Agency connections and its School of Hospitality and Tourism, could make contact with former students working in the best establishments there without raising any concerns. In the process, they could make some of them American versions of the Mossad sayanim - like-minded people who supply information, assistance, and short cuts of all kinds necessary for the operation's success.

Then the hotels themselves were so grand that no one would consider them the centers of a most sensitive operation. The 13 agents stayed in four, five-star hotels in Milan - the Hilton, Sheraton, Principe di Savoia, and the Meridien Gallia, running up bills of 150,000 euros. The Gallia is certainly the grandest, with its refurbished facade facing the Piazza Duca d'Aosta, and its famous suites. "These suites are ideal," says its posting for possible clients, "for small meetings or private dining for up to eight people."

To make contact, and develop lookouts on the ground, the Agency also relied upon Italian teachers in other American universities which had programs with Italian ones in the area, especially Milan's Catholic University of the Sacred Heart - places like Dominican, Boston, and many other universities seem like likely candidates in this regard. Of course, these domestic contacts are now the most vulnerable, and little wonder that Italian investigators are not saying much about them, much less that they are considering prosecutions. Such contacts assured the agents that they would be suspected of nothing untoward, so they used American passports, some of the people using even ones issued to them privately, and their own cellphones, some bought on the spot in the name of unsuspecting Italians and companies, with little fear of any blowback.

After a week or so of tracking the fiery cleric, a squad, like the one that took down the two Egyptians, bushwacked him on February 17, 2003 as he was making his way to the mosque - two of them posing as Italian policemen stopping him, spraying some incapacitating agent into his eyes, and bundling him into a menacing-looking white van. Omar still had time to call for help, and his call in Arabic was heard by a woman nearby who later reported the apparent kidnapping to the police.
The other squad was, it seems, in the vicinity, ready to provide backup if necessary.

The van then drove 200 kilometers east to Aviano Air Base, some 100 kilometers north of Venice, passing through Bergamo, Brescia, Verona, Vicenza, and Treviso along the way. There, Omar was put on a plane for Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and from there he was flown to Egypt for intensive interrogation during which he was tortured. To keep up the myth that the kidnapping squads were really just tourists enjoying the sites, and staying in posh hotels, they all then went to Venice's Westin Europa Hotel for a grand celebration, and staying overnight in sumptuous suites.

"Before disappearing from Italy," the Italian paper Corriere reported, two couples of CIA agents from the group, allowed themselves a vacation in the romantic hotels in Valmalenco and the Gulf of Poets." While this was somewhat an overstatement of the agents' agenda in going there, and of the facilities at the Alpine ski resort, and in area around the Cinque Terra National Park near La Spezia, it still was a good cover story for a highly successful operation. Four day later, Lady was in Cairo to observe Omar's interrogations, and stayed for two weeks.

For the next 14 months, the case grew colder and colder, as Omar had, it seems, simply disappeared. Then, in April 2004, while on leave from his Egyptian prison, Omar managed to call his wife back in Milan, and tell her what had happened - what immediately revived Italian police's interest in the case, especially since all his claims about his kidnapping and torture checked out. In the process, the police were able to trace the comings and goings of the 13 agents, their use of passports, their 23 hotel registrations, 4 auto rentals, 17 cellphones active when Omar was seized in via Guerzoni, etc.

Of course, none of this would have happened if the Egyptians had not been so lax in their treatment of him after they had exhausted his potential as a source, and the Americans had not been at least somewhat concerned about the fate of, it seems, one of their former agents in Afghanistan. If Omar had been killed after interrogation, or the Egyptians had kept him firmly under lock-and-key, the case would never have broken wide open. As it was, Italian authorities discussed privately with their American counterparts the growing possibility of arrests warrants being issued against the 13 agents, and in January they were told to leave Italy in anticipation of this happening.

Once they had gone, and the warrants were issued, Italian authorities were free to talk about their alleged sloppiness, but the dispensations allowed them, especially the backup still living in Italy, showed that things were a bit more complicated than that.