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Italian tells of spying on spies in cleric's abduction

The anti-terrorism officer testifies in trial of 26 American agents accused in 'rendition.'

May 29, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MILAN, ITALY — One of Italy's top cops told a court Wednesday how, with meticulous detective work and substantial luck, he blew the lid off one of the Bush administration's most controversial counter-terrorism tactics.

Testifying in the trial of 26 Americans, most of them CIA operatives, who are accused of abducting a radical Egyptian cleric in Milan, the senior officer described tracking massive amounts of cellular telephone traffic to piece together Europe's only prosecution of the much-disputed practice known as extraordinary rendition.

The officer, Bruno Megale, recounted an astonishing tale of spies spying on spies. Police, armed with judicial warrants, used cellphone logs, wiretaps and intercepted e-mails to ensnare a CIA station chief, a U.S. Air Force colonel, five American diplomats and officers from Italy's military intelligence service accused of collaborating with the Americans.

The Americans are being tried in absentia; none are in Italy and none have acknowledged the proceedings in Milan's main courthouse. For their 20-plus court-appointed defense attorneys, one said, this is a trial of ghosts.

Megale, head of the Italian anti-terrorism police in Milan, said he and his agents first became aware of the disappearance of the cleric, known as Abu Omar, when his wife and friends reported him missing after he dropped out of sight Feb. 17, 2003. They wondered, did Italian authorities have him?

The Italians didn't. As is now known, Abu Omar was nabbed by an alleged CIA squad that threw him in a car, put him on a private jet at a U.S. military base in northern Italy and whisked him off to Egypt, where he has said he was tortured.

But Megale and the police were unaware of the CIA operation. And so they began to try to find out who had kidnapped Abu Omar.

"The sensation was that he had been kidnapped. . . . We spoke of possibilities, of the Americans, the Egyptian [security] service. . . , " Megale testified.

"At first there were no definitive clues."

Megale and his agents interviewed people in Milan's large Muslim community, including a couple of people who saw Abu Omar being taken away. But there was no real progress until 14 months later, when Abu Omar telephoned home from Egypt and told his wife and friends what had happened.

Before his disappearance, Abu Omar, whose full name is Hassan Osama Nasr, was being investigated by Megale's office for possible ties to radical groups sending Islamic militants to Iraq. As part of that inquiry, police bugged the phones in Abu Omar's home and mosque. When he called, the police listened, and jumped into action.

Megale obtained records of all cellphone traffic from the transmission tower nearest the spot where Abu Omar was abducted, for a 2 1/2 -hour period around the time he disappeared. There were 2,000 calls.

Then, using a computer program, Megale was able to narrow down the pool by tracing the phones that had called each other, in other words, an indication of a group of people working together. Seventeen phone numbers, which showed intensifying use around the time of the abduction, were pinpointed. By following all other calls made from those phones, the investigators ultimately identified 60 numbers, including that of a CIA officer working undercover at the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

In his testimony, Megale revealed that one telephone number he recognized was that of Robert Seldon Lady, then-CIA station chief in Milan. Lady and Megale had worked together in counter-terrorism investigations. It was a number, Megale said somberly, that he and his team knew.

Megale and his agents then set about establishing that all the names to which the phones were registered were fictitious. Most of the phones were activated about four months before the abduction and went out of service a few days after it.

Ultimately, with layer upon layer of cross-referencing, Megale identified 26 American suspects, although many of the names in the indictment are thought to be aliases. Most of the details of Megale's testimony have already been reported in The Times and other newspapers. But the blow-by-blow account represents the meat of the prosecution's case and was delivered by, arguably, its star witness, an unlikely figure destined to take down a major CIA operation.

In security circles, Megale is widely known as a prominent expert on Islamic terrorism, a field he has specialized in for a decade. Yet he shuns the spotlight, is rarely quoted in news accounts and his public appearances are generally limited to courtrooms, where, as a lead investigator on numerous terrorism cases, he is often called to testify.

"He knows all the names, all the connections," senior prosecutor Armando Spataro said. "Counter-terrorism officials all over the world want to know about him."

An owl-faced man with heavy brows who comes from Italy's poor south, Megale is discreet and fiercely serious. He rarely smiles, or shows much emotion of any kind.

Senior Italian police officials in Milan have expressed resentment that the CIA nabbed Abu Omar without informing them and before their investigation of his activities had been completed.

If the prosecution's allegations are true, it would appear the American operatives informed not the police but the Italian military intelligence branch, a more politicized agency close to the prime minister's office and whose former head is among the Americans' codefendants in the trial.

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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