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What Happened in Italy: An interview with "Kidnapping in Milan" author Steve Hendricks
In November, 2009, an Italian criminal court convicted 22 CIA agents and one Air Force officer of kidnapping for snatching an Egyptian-born Muslim cleric known as Abu Omar from a Milan street and rendering him to Egypt to be tortured. The 23 Americans were sentenced in absentia to from five to eight years in prison. It is the only criminal prosecution to date of anyone involved in the Bush administration's Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program
Writer Steve Hendricks recreates this rare episode of accountability in his new book A Kidnapping in Milan: the CIA on Trial, a riveting prosecutor-versus-spy pageturner that reveals not only how lawless and abusive the CIA's Milan operation was, but also how bungling and utterly counterproductive.
I had the chance to interview Steve Hendricks last week about the book and about the quest for accountability in the U.S. and abroad. Here's what he had to say.
LS: In the U.S., as you know, we're having a hard time holding people accountable for torture. Last month, as the former president was boasting that he approved waterboarding, we learned that nobody will be prosecuted for the destruction of the CIA interrogation tapes, and we have been told that no CIA agents who used the White House-approved ‘enhanced interrogation techniques' will be prosecuted either. So to read A Kidnapping in Milan is first of all to be amazed that the events you recount actually happened, to be reminded that CIA agents have actually been tried and convicted in connection with the Bush administration's Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program. What happened in Milan?
SH: In 2003, the Milanese counterterror police were closing in on a network of Islamic terrorists. They were a month or two away from arresting one of the network's ringleaders, an imam with a violent interpretation of the Quran named Abu Omar. But one fine February day, Abu Omar set off for noon prayers at his mosque and disappeared. Just vanished. His disappearance rather disrupted the fruitful investigation by the police into his cell. Eventually the counterterrorists discovered that the CIA had snatched Abu Omar, and had done so brazenly—in broad daylight, just down the block from one of the busiest streets in what is Italy 's second-largest city. If they had grabbed a guy at the lunch hour just off the Miracle Mile in Chicago, it could not have been more a more outrageous kidnapping. The kidnappers bound and gagged Abu Omar, roughed him up, and drove him several hours across northern Italy to Aviano Air Base. From there they flew him to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where they packaged him further, and then flew him to Egypt, where for months and months and months he was savagely tortured.
LS: If Americans are familiar with the Milan story, it's probably through accounts of the dumbfoundingly sloppy spycraft of the CIA kidnapping team. What were some of their most notorious blunders?
SH: Their biggest idiocy was to use their cell phones like teenagers. Evidently they were unaware or unconcerned that with every connection to a cell tower, a phone company was logging their general location, with the time. The counterterror police knew Abu Omar had gone missing on his noon walk to his mosque, so they checked the records of nearby cell towers to see if there were suspicious calls around that time. The records showed that a dozen or so cell phones were stationed along his route making short calls to one another. The frequency of the calls increased as noon neared, they reached a crescendo at the moment of what must have been his kidnapping, and just after that all of the phones immediately left the area or were shut off. In other words, the kidnappers left the investigators an outline of how they had staked out Abu Omar's route and watched him as he stepped out his apartment and made his way toward the snatch team and was snatched.
The police, led by a bold magistrate named Armando Spataro, studied the movements of the dozen cell phones during the period of their activation and found that the phones were in frequent contact with scores of other cell phones. Spataro's team then traced most of the fifty or so phones to hotels, and by cross-checking the days the phones were there with the hotel check-in logs, they identified about two dozen kidnappers by name. (Many of the kidnappers had used multiple phones.) The majority of the names that the police found were aliases, but not all of them were. In some cases, the investigators found passport or driver's license photos, and in a few instances they even found frequent flyer numbers the kidnappers had given to hotels to earn award miles. Perhaps the kidnappers thought that since Abu Omar was getting a free flight out of the deal, they should too.
LS: As you lay out so well, the U.S. was seizing people and rendering them to third countries as a matter of policy even before 9/11. What was different about the Bush administration's rendition program? And what's wrong with removing terrorism suspects from the streets this way?
SH: Before September 11, 2001, the CIA carried out at least seventy extraordinary renditions—the vast majority, it seems, under Clinton. We know very little about most of these renditions, but the fact of our knowing little suggests they were carried out with a degree of discretion and competence. Under Bush, the quantity of renditions went up and the discretion and competence went down. Bush's CIA rendered several score victims at a minimum and more probably a couple hundred. His demands for renditions were so great that, for example, the CIA's in-house air fleet didn't have enough planes to do all the jobs, so the agency had to lease torture taxis from outside the agency. The CIA also rented many of the renderers—the on-the-ground planners, the heavies who actually grabbed the victims, the in-flight medics, you name it. A lot of them were poorly trained, including some of the kidnappers in Milan.
Bush also took a brazen approach to covert action that filtered down to the lowest levels of the CIA. Even in the best of times, the CIA thinks it can get away with murder (sometimes literally), but under Bush the hubris reached heights not seen since the anything-goes Cold War days. A lot of people involved in renditions believed they would never be punished, even when they broke the laws of allied countries like Italy .
As for what's wrong with extraordinary rendition, let me mention just two things from the many I could offer. First, when we kidnap men and dump them in Third World hellholes to be tortured rather than bringing them back to the United States to be tried, we violate our most fundamental legal principles. Ever hear of innocent until proven guilty? The right to a fair trial? The right to answer, with adequate counsel and evidence, the charges of your accuser? A lot of people (either ill informed or immoral) have responded that if the CIA grabs someone, he must be guilty. Those people should talk to German citizen Kahled El-Masri and Canadian citizen Maher Arar, both innocents whom we mistakenly rendered to foreign dungeons where they were horrifically tortured. They will spend the rest of their days trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
A second reason to decry extraordinary rendition is that it's a crime under both US and international law. The UN Convention Against Torture, which Congress and President Clinton made law in 1994, says it is a crime to “effect the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture. . .” Apologists for extraordinary rendition—that is, apologists for torture by proxy—argue that our extraordinary enemy justifies extraordinary measures. But this argument is a canard the Convention Against Torture foresaw. “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever,” the Convention reads, “whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency may be invoked as a justification of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” And I would add that to violate the Convention repeatedly is to commit not merely a crime but a crime against humanity.
LS: Talk a little about Abu Omar—who is he, and what did Italian law enforcement know about him before the Americans seized him?
SH: Abu Omar was a radical Egyptian cleric who fled his homeland in 1989 because of persecution there. Thereafter he spent nearly a decade among extremists in Yemen , Peshawar , and the Balkans, probably becoming ever more radicalized, before settling in Italy in 1996. In Milan he quickly established himself atop a modest-sized terrorist cell that tried to recruit young men to go to Iraq and fight, and perhaps to suicide-bomb, the Americans. Abu Omar was just one of many such recruiters across Europe , and while he was not harmless, he was by no means a big fish. The Italian counterterror police knew all of this because they had him under very close surveillance. They knew he had no immediate plans to mount an attack, and they would almost certainly have learned if his plans changed. And as I said above, they were about to arrest him. There was, in short, no reason whatsoever to render him, even by the CIA's own criteria, which amounted to getting “the worst of the worst” off the street when they couldn't be taken care of any other way.
LS: One of the perpetual debates in the U.S. is over whether terrorism suspects should be treated as criminals or as combatants, and the widespread supposition seems to be that the criminal justice system is somehow too weak to try and convict terrorists or effectively neutralize them. How do the Italians view this question? What would Armando Spataro have to say about this?
SH: Magistrate Spataro would say the U.S. approach to terrorism is matto— nuts. He and his colleagues in Milan fight terrorists with old-school police work: tapping and bugging, staking out and using informers, indicting and arresting, trying and, almost always, convicting. It's nothing fancy, just good cop work and respect for the rule of law, but the Milanese have probably lawfully put away more terrorists in their one small jurisdiction than the entire U.S. government has put away through the lawlessness of renditions, torture, and illegal war.
Italy has long experience stopping terrorists by treating them as criminals rather than enemy combatants. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Italians endured what almost amounted to a low-grade civil war, with terrorists of the right and left kidnapping, assassinating, and indiscriminately killing people by the hundreds. The Italians call the era the Years of Lead, as in the material of bullets, and they had a choice during those years: clamp down with martial law and other authoritarianisms or stick with the rule of law and their democratic principles. Rightists wanted the former—indeed, much of the terrorism of the right was an attempt to provoke Italians to return to Fascism—but although the government infringed on some civil liberties, on the whole it stayed true to the rule of law. Spataro was one of the magistrates who applied the law, and, to oversimplify a bit, he and his peers arrested and prosecuted the terrorists out of existence. He concedes that you can crush people with lawless brutality, but he argues, correctly, that others will rise up in retaliation, as we have seen in Iraq. “We make a big gift to the terrorists when we behave contrary to our democratic principles,” he says. “We give to those fish other water to swim.”
LS: What has happened to the characters whose stories you chronicle—to Abu Omar? Spataro? the CIA agents?
SH: Twenty-three of the twenty-six alleged kidnappers were convicted in absentia and sentenced to from five to eight years, depending on their degree of involvement. Because the verdict is valid throughout the European Union, any of the convicts who sets foot in an EU country is to be arrested and forwarded to an Italian prison. Most of the kidnappers don't have much to worry about since they were convicted under their fake names, but a few were convicted under their real names, and even those who weren't have to worry that their true names might come out. (I tracked down a some of them, as I recount in my book.) The judge also ordered the guilty to repair Abu Omar and his wife with 1.5 million euros. Again, this won't affect most of the kidnappers, all of whom had long since left Italy before they were charged. But the CIA chief in Milan, Bob Lady, had a hilltop villa with ten acres of vineyards that the Italians seized. If his conviction withstands the appeal filed by his court-appointed lawyer, the villa will be sold and the proceeds given to Abu Omar, who could live like a pharaoh off the income.
As for Abu Omar, after a year of brutal torture, the Egyptians released him, which was another sign he was not the major terrorist the CIA claimed—if he had been, he would never have gotten out. The Egyptians ordered him not to talk about his ordeal, but he called his family and friends in Italy, and the Egyptian state security service (which had surely tapped his phone) hauled him back to prison. Again he was tortured, but the torture tapered off, and two years later he was released once more. He lives somewhat freely in Alexandria but is not permitted to leave Egypt. Most of his bodily wounds have healed, but his psychological ones have not, and when last I saw him, he was ennervated, depressed, and unable to master his emotions. He recently divorced his wife.
Armando Spataro, after winning his convictions, went back to what he had been doing before the CIA sidetracked him: he is prosecuting Islamic terrorists again. He convicted all of the members of Abu Omar's terrorist cell and convicted many other terrorists besides, and he is rumored to be gathering evidence that might someday allow him to prosecute officials at the CIA headquarters and the White House who ordered Abu Omar's kidnapping. He also plays a lot of water polo.
LS: What is the public's view in Italy about this case and about the trial and conviction of the CIA agents? What would they say to Americans about reckoning with torture?
SH: Most Italians were outraged by the CIA's rendition of Abu Omar. As I researched A Kidnapping in Milan , many Italians said to me, How would gli americani like it if Italian spies flew over to the United States and swiped a terrorist who had been under fruitful surveillance by the FBI? But while there was originally widespread outrage, many Italians came to oppose Spataro's prosecution. These Italians had bought into the spurious argument of Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister who doubles as the bimbo-chasing clown-in-chief, that we can't try spies for their crimes because to do so would reveal state secrets vital to national security. It's the same argument that Bush and Obama have used to get courts to throw out lawsuits here by victims of extraordinary rendition. Happily, Berlusconi failed to get most of Spataro's case thrown out (Berlusconi got a few lesser pieces of evidence barred), but he succeeded in convincing a large minority of the Italian public that the darker deeds of the war on terror are best left buried.
If most Italians nonetheless see a need to reckon with torture, it is partly because torture is not abstract for them. There are still Italians alive who were tortured under Mussolini or were shipped off and tortured in Nazi concentration camps. “We have known the way of Fascism,” Spataro likes to say. “We do not wish to repeat our mistakes.” The United States too has known a soft Fascism under Bush, but under Obama we are repeating our mistakes. No doubt we will continue to do so until we have had our day of reckoning.