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Exclusive: I Was Kidnapped by the CIA

Inside the CIA's extraordinary rendition program ­and the bungled abduction of would-be terrorists

"Before 9/11 we never asked for some guarantee that prisoners would not be tortured or coerced," says Scheuer. The Bush administration says it has since sought such assurances, but Garrett, the interrogator, thinks those promises are worthless in any case. "In my view it is a shell game and a legal cya to say that the other country (Egypt—give me a break) will not use torture," he wrote. "We are unfortunately promoting terrorism by using these abhorrent approaches. Shame on us."

Milan's slate-grey skies glower over the city in both summer and winter, and charmless skyscrapers dominate the skyline of the financial, media, and fashion capital of Italy. It's an unlikely setting for the operatic tale of Abu Omar's cia kidnappers and their nemesis, Deputy Chief Prosecutor Armando Spataro.

Spataro may have launched the first-ever criminal case against American officials over an extraordinary rendition, but he's hardly a bleeding-heart Euro-liberal. A prosecutor for more than three decades, the affable 59-year-old has put droves of drug traffickers, mafia dons, and terrorists behind bars. When I asked him if he was anti-American, he laughed and asked, "What do you think?" gesturing around his massive office inside the gloomy, Mussolini-era Palace of Justice. The walls were festooned with photographs of marathons he has run in the United States, certificates of appreciation from the Drug Enforcement Administration, and reproductions of paintings by Warhol, Rockwell, and Hopper.

Spataro had been building a potential terrorism case against Abu Omar for months before his kidnapping; as a result of his investigation, a number of Abu Omar's acquaintances were convicted of terrorism offenses and in 2005 Abu Omar himself was indicted in absentia on charges that he had been recruiting fighters to go to Iraq. But his sudden disappearance into the bowels of Egypt's prisons had set back Spataro's probe dramatically.

I asked Spataro why he'd pushed so hard to investigate the snatching of a militant he himself was about to indict. In measured tones, he explained, "Kidnapping is a serious crime. It is important for European democracy that all people are submitted to the law. It is possible to combat terrorism without extraordinary means."

The prosecutor also didn't appreciate being lied to—American officials had let it be known around Milan that Abu Omar had likely fled to the Balkans. It didn't take Spataro long to get past the smoke screen and even track down an eyewitness to the abduction. But the bulk of his case would revolve around a rookie mistake made by the kidnappers: using cell phones, and unencrypted ones at that. Spataro's investigators reviewed the records from three Italian cell phone companies with relay towers in the vicinity of where the Egyptian militant disappeared and ran them through a commercial data-crunching program. Of the more than 10,000 cell phones in use during a three-hour window around the kidnapping, 17 were in constant communication with each other. The investigators also determined that soon after the abduction, some of the cell phones' users traveled to Aviano Air Base, a major American installation several hours east of Milan. And virtually all of the phone numbers stopped working two or three days after the abduction.

The suspicious cell phones had made calls to the American consulate in Milan and to numbers in Virginia (where the cia is headquartered). The phones, most registered under bogus names, also made many calls to prominent hotels in Milan—hotels where, the Italian investigators found, a dozen Americans had stayed in the weeks before the kidnapping. They registered under addresses in the Washington, D.C., area, and Spataro believes they used their real passports. Their movements matched those of the suspicious cell phones. Over the course of several weeks the Americans had blown more than $100,000 on easily traceable credit cards at hotels such as the Principe di Savoia, where rates start at $345 a night and which offers a special room-service menu for dogs. Others took side trips to Venice, where they stayed at the five-star Danieli and Sofitel hotels.

If the Americans had only used encrypted satellite phones and paid in cash—standard tradecraft, according to cia veteran Robert Baer, the former operative who was the model for George Clooney's character in Syriana—Spataro would have had fewer leads to follow. Why the sloppiness? Very probably, say law enforcement sources in Milan, because the Americans had clued in senior Italian intelligence officials about their plans and thus felt safe.

Next, Spataro's investigators began reviewing records from Italian air-traffic control, nato, and the main European air-traffic facility in Brussels. They discovered that a 10-seat jet departed from Aviano a few hours after Abu Omar was abducted and flew to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. An hour after it landed, an Executive Gulfstream with the tail number N85VM departed Ramstein for Cairo. In March 2005, the Chicago Tribune reported that this jet was owned by Phillip Morse, a partner in the Boston Red Sox and one of a number of individuals whose planes are occasionally rented by the cia.

One of the suspicious cell phones had made hundreds of calls in the vicinity of both the Milan residence and the country house of the cia's station chief in Milan, Robert Lady. Armed with a warrant, Spataro's investigators searched Lady's country house in June 2005 and found that he'd gone on a 10-day trip to Cairo a week after Abu Omar's abduction. The investigators also found surveillance photos of Abu Omar taken on the street where he was picked up, as well as printed directions to Aviano Air Base. And they discovered a telling email sent to Lady from a former colleague in the Milan consulate: On Christmas Eve, 2004, as Spataro's inquiry was gathering momentum, she told Lady she'd received an email "through work" titled "Italy, don't go there"—an apparent reference to the investigation. She'd also heard that Lady, who has since retired, had relocated to Geneva "until this all blew over."

Even Arianna Barbazza, the court-appointed public defender for 13 of the 26 American officials indicted in the Abu Omar case, conceded that the case against Lady and his colleagues is substantial. Lady could receive a sentence of up to 15 years. (The trial is scheduled to start in March, although none of the indicted Americans is expected to show up. The cia has refused to comment on the case or its rendition program.)

Another important break came when Luciano Pironi, the mysterious Italian police officer who had first "arrested" Abu Omar on the street, began to cooperate with Spataro. Prior to Abu Omar's arrest, Pironi was found to have been "frequently and intensely" in contact with Lady. Pironi said that Lady had told him that the operation was approved by the Italian military-intelligence agency, sismi, and that Lady had received a tip that Abu Omar was planning to hijack a school bus operated by the American school in Milan—a claim Italian law enforcement officials say is false.

Lady, who speaks fluent Italian and had good relations with his local counterparts, emerges from this tale as something of a tragic figure. He had opposed the snatch of Abu Omar on the grounds that it was counterproductive; he knew that Italy's counterterrorism police had been trying to build a case against the Egyptian militant and had even warned a top Italian counterterrorism official, Stefano D'Ambrosio, that the cia was planning the Abu Omar operation. D'Ambrosio told Italian investigators that Lady considered the whole scheme "stupid." But Lady was forced to lead the operation by his bosses in Rome and Langley, who were under intense pressure from the White House to produce results in the war on terrorism. Lady told Pironi that he'd never have spent all his savings to buy a retirement house in the Italian countryside "unless he had been sure that no inquiry against him was under way."

Today, that house has been seized by Italian authorities and Lady, who fled to the States, is the subject of a Europe-wide arrest warrant. In a final twist of irony, Lady told a friend in the Italian police that in his retirement he'd hoped to work for a firm made up of former cia officers who specialize in negotiating releases for people abducted in South America.

In february 2007, Abu Omar was finally released—this time, it seems, for good. "Without the human rights and media campaign, I would still be in prison," he told me. The conditions of his release were that he stay in Egypt and keep quiet about his treatment. But realizing that notoriety might be his best protection, Abu Omar attended the trial of a 22-year-old blogger whom the Egyptian government accused of insulting President Hosni Mubarak. (He was sentenced to four years.) In the Alexandria courtroom, he paraded his scars before the cameras and talked about his years of torture. "Now I am a public figure," he told me. "It protects me."

Jobless and still monitored by Egypt's security services, Abu Omar now spends most of his time cruising the Internet and posting occasional comments on Arabic-language newspaper sites. Toward the end of our interview he pulled out a plastic bag stuffed full of Christmas cards with pictures of windmills and little red robins sent by people in the United Kingdom who'd learned about his case through a letter-writing campaign organized by Amnesty International. He told me he is happy that these kind people write, sending the message that someone out there knows he hasn't disappeared.

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