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Cleric's abduction fuels debate over how to fight terrorism

MILAN, Italy—This is a story that could have been ripped from the pages of a spy novel. Except, apparently, it's true.

Italian anti-terrorism authorities were quietly gathering evidence against a militant Egyptian cleric in early 2003 when, on Feb. 17, he disappeared. At first they were perplexed, but 14 months later they intercepted a phone call between the cleric and his wife that led them to conclude that he'd been kidnapped by CIA operatives and flown to Egypt, where he'd been tortured.

The Italian investigators, acting independently of Italy's central government, began an investigation that ultimately identified 19 American men and women who were involved in the operation. The investigation also uncovered the Americans' passport photos, credit card numbers and hotel bills. Last week, Italian prosecutors sought arrest warrants for 13 of them.

The episode threatens to blossom into a full-fledged political crisis for the Italian government, worsen U.S.-Italian relations—already frayed over the shooting death earlier this year of an Italian secret-service agent by American soldiers in Iraq—and unmask the identities of CIA operatives, some of whom may still be working undercover.

It's also illuminated the growing U.S. use since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks of what the CIA calls "extraordinary renditions," forcible transfers of suspects to third countries, often to nations known to practice torture.

President Bush and other American officials deny that the United States sends people to countries where they're likely to be tortured. But Italian prosecutors think that at least one CIA official traveled to Egypt for the cleric's interrogation, during which the cleric said he was tortured, according to tapped phone conversations he had with his wife and a friend after he was released. Italian police recorded some of the calls.

Those conversations first tipped Italian police to the CIA's involvement in the disappearance of the cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, whom Italian prosecutors said they'd been investigating in connection with allegations that he'd recruited young men for possible terrorist attacks.

On Thursday, the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi denied that it had any prior knowledge of Nasr's abduction. Carlo Giovanardi, Berlusconi's minister for relations with Parliament, said Berlusconi has summoned the U.S. ambassador to discuss the case and that no Italian government agency had been informed of an American operation.

However, U.S. officials who are familiar with CIA operations said the agency wouldn't undertake such an operation without telling the local government and that the Italians had been informed. They noted that the Americans were surprisingly open about their presence in Italy, staying at hotels where they'd be required to register their passports and using cell phones whose records could be traced easily.

At least one of the Americans called CIA headquarters on one of those phones in the hours after Nasr disappeared, Italian investigators say. Some of them remained in Italy after the operation, another breach of the usual procedure.

It's unclear whether the Americans were using their real names, though evidence suggests that at least some of them were, possibly a sign that the CIA operatives didn't feel the need to take even routine precautions.

"Even so, it was incredibly sloppy tradecraft," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA official who served four years in Rome.

In Washington, the CIA refused to comment on any aspect of the case, including whether it had any objections to the publication of the names of the 13 Americans. One of them, Robert Seldon Lady, has received widespread publicity, both in Italy and the United States.

Lady, identified in court documents as the head of the CIA's office in Milan, is the American who Italian prosecutors say traveled to Egypt in the days just after Nasr's abduction.

As for the others, there was no way immediately to know if they were using their real names or pseudonyms. Four of the names are similar to phone listings in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs. Efforts to reach residents at those listings were unsuccessful. One of the numbers appeared to have been disconnected.

The dramatic revelations are a rare instance of the agency's covert operations coming to light in what was largely a successful mission. CIA activities more often become public when something goes wrong, such as the failed coup attempt against then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the mid-1990s and the subsequent roll-up of agency assets in northern Iraq.

However, authorities in Sweden and Germany are investigating the U.S. role in the renditions of alleged terrorists from their countries for interrogation elsewhere.

In the Swedish case, there's been a similar public airing of details, but Sweden's intelligence agency acknowledges that it approved and cooperated with the operation. Still, a parliamentary inquiry accused the CIA of illegal conduct.

The Italian case appears to be an example of excellent police work. Using computer databases, two Italian police technicians spent months tracing 17 mobile phones that the American agents used. They also tracked down other clues: passport photos, credit card numbers, hotel bills and airplane identification markings.

According to the investigative report, the agents were found to have spent at least $150,000 at some of Italy's finest hotels, including what appears to have been post-abduction vacations at luxury resorts in Venice and the Alps.

Italian prosecutors say they'll seek to extradite the Americans, but most analysts doubt that the operatives ever will see the inside of an Italian courtroom.

The revelations have touched off debate between the law enforcement approach to fighting terrorism, which many Europeans favor, and the kinds of covert, paramilitary and military operations that the United States has frequently employed since Sept. 11.

"This man had information in his head that the Italians and the Americans wanted access to, and they knew they would never get it if he entered the Italian criminal-justice system," said Ian Cuthbertson, a counterterrorism expert at the World Policy Institute in New York. "They wanted him tortured."

Cannistraro, the former CIA official, said the case raised a serious moral question: "Here we have rendered an Egyptian terror suspect to Egypt, and yet we know they practice torture."

Enzo Fragala, a member of Berlusconi's governing coalition who deals with intelligence matters, said he thought such operations were justified because the Italian justice system had a mixed record of convicting accused terrorists.

"This operation was a necessity, in my opinion," he said in an interview. "Fighting terrorism is not just a police activity."

That position inflames the Milan prosecutor who headed the inquiry.

"This kidnapping was not only a serious crime, but it did substantial damage to the fight against terrorism," Armando Spataro said Thursday in an interview.

According to Italian court records, listening devices overheard Nasr discussing the recruitment of terrorists. If Nasr hadn't been abducted, Spataro said, "It is sure that we could have identified other terrorists. He would be in prison and surely also would other people."

Others aren't so certain, noting that Italian courts have acquitted several suspected militants, some of whom were accused of recruiting suicide bombers in Iraq.

"The prevailing ethos in Europe is still this is law enforcement, this is not a war," said Cuthbertson, of the World Policy Institute. "The Europeans still cling to the idea that due process is worthwhile following. ... They just don't feel a clear and present danger."

As for Nasr, he's disappeared again and is thought to be back in Egyptian custody.

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(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel and researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report from Washington.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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