Relations between Italy and the United States are being tested after arrest warrants were issued last week for 13 CIA operatives suspected of abducting an Egyptian terror suspect. But the Washington Post newspaper is now reporting that some Italian officials were aware of the operation.
The work of Italian investigators has brought to light extensive information about what prosecutors say was a CIA operation of "extraordinary rendition" carried out in Milan in 2003. The man abducted was Osama Mousafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, an Egyptian believed to have Islamic terrorist links.
Italian investigators say they have evidence that Abu Omar was flown from a U.S. air base in northern Italy to one in Germany before he was flown to Cairo on a CIA chartered aircraft. There, he was reportedly tortured in jail.
Italian prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for the CIA operatives who allegedly participated in the mission and say they will seek their extradition.
The Italian government has said it had no prior knowledge of the CIA operation, but current and former CIA officials have told the Washington Post that the CIA station chief in Rome briefed and sought approval from his Italian counterpart.
According to the Washington Post report, intelligence officials from both countries agreed beforehand that if the operation became public, neither side would confirm its involvement. This is reported to be a standard agreement the CIA makes with foreign intelligence services over covert operations. The newspaper also reported that intelligence sources say the CIA has conducted more than 100 of these operations since September 11.
The CIA has refused official comment on the story.
Journalist Paolo Biondani of the Italian daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, which first reported the abduction story, says investigators managed to isolate phone contacts made by the CIA operatives with their headquarters in Virginia, U.S. consular offices in Milan and the U.S. air base at Aviano, in northern Italy.
"Some of these cell phones were calling, contacting hotels. So the police could discover in which hotels they were sleeping and in the hotels they found addresses, they had to leave U.S. addresses, U.S. telephone numbers and most of all passports," he said. "They got the passports, copy of the passports and so in the passports you find the photos too."
Prosecutors in Italy are aware that many of those names and addresses are false, but not all. So far, at least three appear to be real including that of the former Milan CIA station chief, who is now retired.
It took over two years for investigators to obtain the confirmation they needed of a report made by an Egyptian woman in February 2003.
The woman, who was walking along the street where Abu Omar was allegedly abducted, described what she saw to members of the Islamic community in Milan. Abdel Hamid Shari heads the Islamic Cultural Center in the northern Italian city.
She said she saw a man with a beard and a long shirt talking to two men who were checking his papers. Then she said she heard some fumbling, the door of a vehicle being shut violently before it drove off at high speed.
Mr. Shari says it soon became clear to the woman that it was a forced abduction, but it was not until Abu Omar called his wife and an imam in Milan more than a year later that it was learned he had been taken to Egypt.
Abu Omar said he was first asked to become an informer but when he refused he was taken to prison to be beaten and tortured.
For Italian prosecutors, like Armando Spataro, who were watching Abu Omar as part of anti-terrorism investigations, his abduction was counterproductive.
"The kidnapping of Abu Omar was not only a serious crime but also a serious damage in the fight against terrorism because if he was not kidnapped it's sure that we could have obtained other information," he said. "We could have identified other terrorists."
The lawyer for Abu Omar and his wife, Carmelo Scambia, says no one voiced concern or indignation over the abduction. He adds that the CIA operatives must have felt they could act with impunity in Italy, which is probably why they left a trail of evidence behind them.
"I am convinced," the lawyer said, "that these people believed they were acting in a local situation where they did not need to be too careful."
Italian officials have denied they were informed of the operation by U.S. officials and have been demanding answers about the case, as well as the extradition of the CIA agents allegedly involved.