History Commons Groups

October 25, 2009

The Conventional Wisdom on the CIA’s Italian Job and Why It Might Be Wrong

One of the most famous CIA counterterrorist operations after 9/11 is the extraordinary rendition of Islamist extremist Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (a.k.a. “Abu Omar”) from Milan, Italy, to Egypt in 2003. Although it generated little publicity at the time, Abu Omar was later released in Egypt and called home. The Italian authorities intercepted the call, found he had been tortured, and started to investigate.

The investigation led to charges being filed against 26 Americans (25 CIA officers and an air force colonel), as well as several Italians, including the heads of the local military intelligence service, SISMI, which had colluded with the CIA in the rendition. Extra publicity was generated by some of the details of the CIA operation, in particular the high credit card bills some of the officers racked up at Milan’s top hotels.

As far as I can tell, the conventional wisdom on what are perceived as the CIA’s excesses after 9/11 is attributed to the Bush administration (read Richard Bruce Cheney) panicking after the attacks, perhaps over the worry that there would be another attack and they would be hounded from office. However, in my opinion this doesn’t really sit well with the evidence–there was some theoretical groundwork for the rendition and torture programmes done in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, but the real shape of the GWOT (lots of waterboarding, black sites, ghost detainees) was determined in the argument over what to do with training camp leader Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi at the end of December 2001.

I think it would be productive to set out what the conventional wisdom on the Abu Omar rendition is, and then think about it some. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the conventional wisdom is generally not set out explicitly in the various articles dealing with the case. However, this is the impression they give: the CIA decided to render Abu Omar to Egypt because this was the sort of operation the CIA was doing at this time; the rendition was typical of the CIA’s gloves-off approach to counterterrorism after 9/11. Therefore, it’s really no surprise that the CIA went for it.

Now let’s look at the events in context. Italy, and Milan in particular, was a key location for Islamist extremists in general and al-Qaeda in particular for the decade before 9/11, being linked to both the 1993 WTC bombing and the war effort in Bosnia. Co-operation between the CIA and Italian authorities was good, and suspects were monitored there before the attacks. After September 11, co-operation remained good and the CIA helped the Italians monitor local radicals, who were then arrested, tried and sent to prison.

The proposal to render Abu Omar is said to have come from the CIA’s station chief in Rome, Jeff Castelli (who Plameologists will know for his involvement in the forged Niger documents). Reporter Jeff Stein even went as far as to say the operation was Castelli’s “brainchild.” There was opposition from Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA’s man in Milan, and from some people at headquarters, but in the end Langley got behind the proposal, with both CIA Director George Tenet and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice signing off on the operation.

To me, this makes no sense. First, consider the operation’s import. The CIA was not taking somebody out of a banana republic with the say-so of the local generalissimo. Italy is a developed country with a well-established rule of law ;-). In addition, the government had not signed off on the operation. This is absolutely unique. AFAIK at no other time in the GWOT was anybody grabbed from a developed country without the local government’s approval. Remember innocent German resident Khalid el-Masri who spent several months in the Salt Pit? He was grabbed from Macedonia, hardly a shining beacon of democracy, with the locals’ OK. This fact alone gave the Abu Omar operation the potential to become the major scandal it did in fact become, and this must have been crystal clear to everybody from the get-go.

Also consider Abu Omar’s relative unimportance. He certainly knew lots of radicals, and I’m sure he gave the Egyptians plenty of names when he got to Cairo. However, he was not Osama bin Laden, not Ayman al-Zawahiri, not even remotely close. If you called him an al-Qaeda middle manager, you might get a stiff letter from a real al-Qaeda middle manager in response. So why take the risk for a guy that was not really worth it?

Also bear in mind that (a) he had been in Italy for years and was going nowhere, and (b) he was under tight surveillance and the US and Italians already knew quite a lot about him.

Finally, as mentioned above, there had already been three waves of arrests in Italy after 9/11 and Abu Omar was scheduled for inclusion in the fourth. So why grab him now? He was no more important than some of the people already arrested. One of the key aims of rendition was to get people off the streets, but this is a guy whose days on the streets were already numbered.

So what is the narrative here? Castelli is gazing into the Trevi fountain and suddenly has a dark side moment: “I’m going to do me a rendition!” He’s been sipping Lattes in the Piazza de Spagna thinking of the Niger forgeries and wishfully dreaming of being freezing cold in the GWOT’s Hindu Kush, but now he realises he can get a piece of the action. Then he convinces the whole CIA bureaucracy to go along with his mad idea.

That, I think, is basically the conventional wisdom in a nutshell. Castelli went gung-ho, nobody else had the balls to stop him.

And maybe the conventional wisdom is right, but before we make that judgement, let’s look at an alternative or two.

Here’s one. The Chicago Tribune reported, pretty convincingly, that Abu Omar had been a CIA mole inside the global jihad. While he was in the Balkans, he was just pulled in one day and started singing like a canary, and then he made a habit of it. After a while, he left the Balkans and moved to Italy, although whether he was still working for the agency at this point is unclear. So here’s the first alternative: the CIA rendered Abu Omar to Egypt not to get information from him, but to stop somebody else (in this case the Italian authorities) getting information from him (the specific information being that he had worked for the agency).

Here’s another alternative. It’s also clear that before 9/11 Abu Omar was tight with operatives close to al-Zawahiri who had some sort of foreknowledge of 9/11 (spooky conversations about planes, WTC photos, let your imagination do the rest). So the “enhanced informer option” is that the CIA had him rendered to Egypt so he couldn’t tell the Italians he was a CIA informer and knew about 9/11 (and told the agency about it?).

I could go on in this vein, but two additional options is enough to illustrate the point: we don’t know why the CIA did what it did, there is no evidence based on which we can even make a preliminary judgement about which option is right, and which ones wrong, so let’s keep an open mind on the CIA’s motivation.

Finally, let’s ask the big question: take the CIA’s excesses after 9/11—like al-Libi, KSM, Abu Zubaida, Abu Omar, Khalid el-Masri—are these just random events, or should we be looking for a pattern?

The timeline we have for the Abu Omar entity is here (and it will soon be updated with new entries). It is also worth reading this great GQ article about the case, and Jeff Stein’s SpyTalk has in-depth coverage.


  1. […] I blogged a while back, the rendition made no sense. Leave a […]

    Pingback by ‘Italian Job’ Verdict: That’s Not Justice « History Commons Groups — November 5, 2009 @ 2:38 am | Reply

  2. bisogna rivedere il funzionamento del segreto di Stato che troppo spesso serve a proteggere le deviazioni della nostra intelligence piuttosto che operare nell’interesse della sicurezza.

    Verità e misteri della vicenda Abu Omar. Il nodo irrisolto del segreto di Stato

    Comment by fab — November 7, 2009 @ 11:46 am | Reply

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