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On the Trail of Agency Kidnappers

On the Trail of CIA Kidnappers


Let me start with some CIA history that I find illuminating.

In 1989, ten years after the fall of the Shah of Iran and the dramatic eviction of U.S. citizens from that country, the CIA still had about forty informers and spies in the Iranian government and military. Our forty foreign agents were managed from a CIA station in Frankfurt since it was all but impossible to slip CIA officers into Iran. One day in 1989 a CIA clerk in Frankfurt had letters sent to all forty agents. The letters were all written in the same handwriting. The envelopes were all addressed in the same handwriting. The return address on all of the letters was the same German P.O. box. The letters were all mailed to the same Iranian address, all on the same day. When this bulk mailing arrived in Iran, the security service was suspicious—my eight-year-old would have been suspicious—and every one of the CIA’s forty agents was rounded up, interrogated, probably tortured, and then either imprisoned for long terms, executed, or tortured to death. No one in the CIA was so much as demoted for this debacle.

Another story. In 1994 in Guatemala, the CIA station chief decided that the U.S. ambassador, a supporter of human rights, had to go, so he set about gathering dirt on her. The Guatemalan Army, in cahoots with the CIA, bugged the ambassador’s residence and overheard her cooing in bed to her lover, a secretary in the embassy by the name of Carol Murphy. This was just the kind of thing the CIA had hoped to find because it was of course scandalous to have a lesbian ambassador. So the CIA went to Capitol Hill and leaked transcripts of her cooings to Members of Congress. When the ambassador was confronted with the damning evidence, she admitted whispering tender intimacies in bed to Murphy. There was only one problem for the CIA: Murphy was the also the name of the ambassador’s poodle, and it was to the poodle that she had been cooing. No one in the CIA was punished for trying to run the ambassador out of the country.

One last didactic story. You’ve probably all heard of Aldrich Ames, the CIA analyst who is perhaps the most notorious American traitor of the last fifty years. The CIA had a counterintelligence unit that was supposed to sniff out moles and double-agents inside the agency. The unit looked for signs like: Have tens of thousands of dollars inexplicably appeared in your bank account? Have you been seen meeting with members of the staff of the Soviet embassy? That kind of thing. Ames, it turned out, had bought a $500,000 house—this was in the 1980s—and paid in cash. He routinely racked up credit card bills of $20,000 a month, didn’t carry the balance, paid them off immediately. He bought a Jaguar, which you’d think the counterintelligence unit would have noticed since he drove it to work and parked it at CIA headquarters there in Langley. All of this he did while earning a salary from the CIA of $70,000 a year. In the years that the counterintelligence unit was missing his curious expenditures, he betrayed scores of agents to the Soviet Union, nearly all of whom were executed. By the time he was finally arrested in 1993, he had nearly single-handedly decimated America’s ability to know what was going on inside first the Soviet and later the Russian government. Again, no one in the CIA received more than a slap on the wrist for missing Ames’s preposterous wealth.

I start with these stories (for which I am mostly indebted to Tim Weiner’s superb Legacy of Ashes) to underscore two points. One is that you cannot overstate the CIA’s capacity to bungle things. Sheer incompetence explains far more of America’s espionage fiascos than most of us might think. The other point is the importance of hubris in CIA history—the idea that the CIA operates in such a different universe, is so far above the law, that its people often feel they can’t possibly get caught, and that if they do, they couldn’t possibly be punished. Hubris and incompetence are of course a dangerous combination in any field, be it law, medicine, engineering, but I would suggest they are a frighteningly grave combination in the field of international espionage.

Which brings us to the kidnapping in Milan. Milan might be thought of as the historic seat of violent Islam in Italy. Indeed, it is one of the most potent such seats in all of Europe. Well before Islamic terrorism had achieved a global reach, Islamic extremists in Milan were sending men and money to terroristic causes around the world—to places like North Africa, Bosnia, Afghanistan. Because of this history and because Milan’s magistrates and police happen to be particularly competent, the counterterrorists of Milan have been among the most active and have become among the most successful in the world. They fight terrorism with investigations, arrests, and trials, and they have probably put away more terrorists through the rule of law in their small jurisdiction than the entire U.S. government has done through the lawlessness of renditions, illegal war, and torture.

In 2003 the Milanese authorities were closing in on a network of Islamic terrorists. The police were a month, maybe two, from arresting one of the ringleaders, an imam with a violent interpretation of the Quran named Abu Omar. But one fine February day, Abu Omar sets off for his mosque and disappears. Just vanishes. There’s no warning or hint as to why or where he might have gone. His disappearance rather disrupted the very fruitful investigation by the Milanese counterterror police into his cell. The police asked around about what might have happened to him, and one of the places they asked was with their friends at the CIA, with whom they often collaborated on anti-terror work. In fact they had specifically collaborated on building their case against Abu Omar with the CIA’s bureau chief in Milan, a fellow by the name of Bob Lady. So they went to Lady, and Lady said, “No idea what happened to him. Couldn’t begin to tell you.” Later Lady’s superiors in Rome told the Italian counterterrorists, “We got a tip that he’s gone back to the Balkans, where he used to lived, so that’s probably where he is.”

I’m sure it will shock you to learn the CIA was lying. They had snatched Abu Omar and, as it turned out, had done so brazenly. They had grabbed him in broad daylight, almost literally at high noon—they missed that by only a few minutes—and did so 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, the snatch could hardly have been more brazen. They threw Abu Omar in a van, bound him, gagged him, roughed him up, drove him several hours across northern Italy to Aviano Air Base, from which he was flown to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he was further packaged and flown to Cairo, where for months and months and months he was savagely tortured.

Let me make an aside here. The main reason I got into this book four years ago was because I was frustrated that no one had written a compelling account of the horror of the torture that our client states were inflicting on our captives in what amounted to our offshore dungeons. Reporters of course said that the torture was horrific, and sometimes they went into a bit of good detail, but there were no narratives that went deep enough to make you feel that horror—to make you understand in your gut why systematic torture is not just a crime but a crime against humanity. I think, if I may say so, that I’ve written such a narrative in a chapter of the book, one of my favorite chapters, though perhaps the most difficult to read and one that I’ll leave for the book to tell. But I go into this aside because I’m usually asked at events like this what motivated me to write the book. What motivated me was outrage over our inhumanity

Back to the kidnapping. Unfortunately for the kidnappers, they were sloppy. They left a trail of cell-phone traces, hotel bills, and other clues strewn around Milan. Along came a magistrate, a charismatic and to me heroic figure named Armando Spataro, who gathered these clues and through them was able to retroactively track the spies’ movements and, eventually, to prosecute about two dozen of them in absentia for kidnapping. How Spataro gathered his evidence and pushed the case toward trial, what he and others, including reporters, learned about how the CIA snatched Abu Omar and why, and everything that happened to Abu Omar along his journey is a twisting, fascinating tale that makes up most of my book.

Almost all of the kidnappers had of course given fake names and fake home addresses when checking into hotels or renting cars in Italy. The few who used their real names were accredited as diplomats and worked out of the consulate in Milan or the embassy in Rome and were known to the Italians. So they had no choice but to use their true names as they went about their business. But while these people had an important supervisory role, for the most part they weren’t the on-the-ground managers and doers of the rendition. Those were the people who were flown over from the United States with fake identities, and so it was they who most interested me. As I studied the fake data that they gave about themselves in Milan, I eventually found that many of them hadn’t been very careful. I had theorized before I started examining them that some of the fake information might contain pieces of, hints of, their real names and addresses and so on. The reason why this might be so is that if you are, say, stopped by a customs officer and asked what your name is, if your real name is Jennifer Lynn Hurley, it’s easy to remember that your fake name is Lynn Jennifer Hermanson. Those are the kinds of moments when you don’t want to be caught off guard and have to pause suspiciously and try to remember your fake name.

Let me give you an example of how I tested my theory. There was one young spy, only a few years out of college, who on checking into her hotel in Milan gave a street address in Arlington, Virginia, as her home address. It was quite unusual to give a street address. Almost all of the other spies gave P.O. boxes that turned out on investigation to be dummy boxes set up by the CIA. But apparently this young woman didn’t get the memo. I was hopeful that since her claimed address was in Arlington, not far from CIA headquarters in Langley, where she probably worked most of the time, the address might prove to be her real or nearly real address. And if it turned out to be a house or a townhouse rather than an apartment building, it would be easy enough to find out who had lived there around the time of the kidnapping in 2003. So I checked it. Naturally it was an apartment building. I checked how many units, hoping for five or six. Naturally it had about a hundred.

At that point, I did what any self-respecting twenty-first-century reporter would do. I got on the Web. And I started rooting around in public records databases. I searched a lot of these databases for people who lived in that apartment building in or a little before 2003, and I found a lot of them. I then dug up whatever personal data I could get on them—their birthdates, their middle names, their parents’ names, their siblings’ names, their hometowns, whatever—to see if any of those names or other data were close to the data that the spy had given in Milan. This took an enormous amount of time. And I found precisely nothing.

At this point I wondered if my theory was weak. Would the CIA really have been so dumb as to have its spies use parts of their real names and addresses? My faith in the CIA was, however, pure. So I pushed ahead and looked up all the addresses within a block or two of the address the spy had given in Milan. Almost all of those addresses turned out to be big apartment blocks too, and I did the same searching and cross-checking of the people in those buildings. Building after building, day after day, I still found precisely nothing. This is a great example of why investigative journalism is so expensive. It just takes so much time—and it takes all the more if the investigation founders and you have to go back to the dock and chart another course.

Eventually I came to the last building. It was a building whose address was only one digit off from the address the spy had given in Milan—and there I stumbled onto a nugget, a rather large nugget: a person parts of whose identity so overlapped with the fake identity the spy had given in Milan that it seemed too great to attribute to coincidence.

With this nugget in hand, I happily left behind the public databases, which had grown more than a little tedious by that point, and I did some more investigating, mostly still online, to see what more I could learn about this possible match. What I learned was this woman in the apartment had majored in international studies at a large southern university, had made the Dean’s list, and straight out of college had moved to DC, just as she would have done if she had been recruited in college in the usual CIA fashion. The CIA would have liked her facility with languages, and it would have required for most of its entry-level positions the kind of good grades that she had gotten. After first living briefly in suburban Maryland, she took the apartment across the Potomac in Arlington, which was of course closer to Langley. Later she bought a condo in a town down the road, still closer to Langley, and a while later she married a guy who worked for another intelligence agency. In other words, she exhibited several signs that suggested she might well be the spy I suspected she was. I also learned, irrelevantly but to me interestingly, that her husband volunteered for a food bank, she volunteered for the Junior League, and her Facebook page—you would not believe how many spies have Facebook pages—showed that she had had a baby girl only a few weeks before I started hunting for her. She was, in other words, just the spy next door, a completely normal-seeming gal.

At that point I left the computer behind entirely and did some truly old-school investigating: I actually made a few phone calls, including to her, and the calls proved to my complete satisfaction that she was indeed the spy.

Over time, through these and similar means, I managed to find about half of the two dozen kidnappers. Now, I’m an OK investigator, but the truth is that my finding these people was a testament less to my investigative prowess than to, again, the CIA’s sloppiness and hubris. When all it takes to blow a spy’s cover is a Web connection, the price of a few bucks to access public and nearly public records, and a little patience, that’s a pretty thin cover indeed. You don’t give a spy a cover that bad unless you’re stupid or you think it doesn’t matter if you get caught, or both.

When I say I found half of the kidnappers, that doesn’t mean I spoke to half of them. It means I found their real names, where they lived, where they worked if they were contractors rather than CIA employees, sometimes photos of them, their spouses, their kids, what-have-you. Most of them, of course, didn’t answer my calls or letters or e-mails, but some did. Typically we spoke only briefly, but in every case we spoke long enough for me to learn that all of these people were spectacularly bad liars.

Here’s a section from my book about one of the kidnappers I found:

From a colonnaded ranch house in the Ohio Valley, “James Robert Kirkland”—the name is an alias—commanded a substantial acreage on which stood a great barn in fine trim and a taut wooden fence painted a crisp, happy color. After the kidnapping, Kirkland and his wife bought a nearby colonial manor and turned it into a tastefully appointed country lodge, which seemed mainly the project of Mrs. Kirkland. Using the name of one of her farm animals as her username, she reviewed the lodge favorably on a travel Web site. (The hosts, she said, were superlatively nice.)

For some years, Mr. Kirkland had been the director of a police force in a jurisdiction of a couple of million people. After a time he had left public service, resettled in his homeland, where cottontails and Pentecostals were thick on the ground, and became a consultant in private security. Mrs. Kirkland’s day job involved evacuation flights not dissimilar to the ones on which Abu Omar had been rendered.

Mr. Kirkland had used two SIMs in Italy.

[I explain earlier in the book that a SIM, which stands for Subscriber Identity Module, is a chip inside a cell phone that contains the phone number and other information about the account.]

One of the two SIMs that Mr. Kirkland had used in Italy had been activated at the start of December of 2002, which made him one of the earliest-arriving spies, which in turn suggested he was a senior planner. During his more than two months in Italy, he or someone using his SIM had been a prolific caller to the United States, calling numbers that belonged to his octogenarian mother, his then girlfriend (who was the present Mrs. Kirkland), the veterinarian who cared for their farm animals, an apparent stockbroker, an apparent accountant, and himself, which is to say the landline in his (and now Mrs. Kirkland’s) home. He or someone using his SIM had also called an unregistered mobile phone number in his home area code. My assistant Jessica called this number five years later. A man answered, and Jessica told him about our search for a CIA officer or CIA hireling named James Robert Kirkland. The man replied that he didn’t know anyone named James Robert Kirkland and that if he himself was a CIA agent, he didn’t know that either.

“We think,” Jessica told him, “that this Kirkland might know someone who uses this cell phone. Have you had it since 2003?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“Would you tell me your name?”

“I’d rather not.”

“Do you know anyone named———?” Here Jessica mentioned Kirkland’s real name, which I had discovered.

There was a very long pause.

“Yes, I do,” the man finally said. He sounded to Jessica, who has the exuberance of youth, quote creeped the fuck out.

“Alright, well—” she began again.

“Thank you,” the man interrupted, “goodbye.”

We were pretty sure we had our spy, but I traveled to the Kirklands’ farm to see for myself.

When I arrived at the front door, Mrs. Kirkland, a slender woman of middle age, motioned through a window that I should walk around to the side of the house, where a large den had been added. Her first words on opening the side door were “How did you find us?” It didn’t seem like the greeting of an innocent.

I explained that I was interested in speaking with her husband about some of his law enforcement work, and she asked me to wait and left me in the den. It was homey—every surface draped in shawls, a watercolor in progress in one corner, a blaze in the hearth. Presently Mrs. Kirkland returned with her husband and a more composed countenance. The former was absurdly well preserved for his sixty years. He was trim and agile, and he spent half the interview with his legs draped over the side of an armchair.

The Kirklands encouraged me to sit, and while Mrs. Kirkland fetched me a Diet Coke at her husband’s bidding, I told Mr. Kirkland about my search. He said he guessed he ought to ask if I had some identification to prove I was who I said I was. I gave him my business card. He looked at it, then he guessed he ought to ask if I had other identification—a driver’s license, say—and I gave him that too. He studied the watermark before transcribing my vitals, which I was sure were bound for the CIA. It was the only time in my career that I have been carded.

Mrs. Kirkland returned with my drink, and both Kirklands professed great surprise that I had come to talk about a rendition. They knew almost nothing about renditions except that a movie called Rendition had been recently released. I explained the essentials of Abu Omar’s rendition and the phone calls that James Robert Kirkland had made from Italy to the family and associates of the real Kirkland in the Ohio Valley.

Mr. Kirkland said he had no idea why someone in Italy might have called his mother, his home, his wife, and other people he knew. For a few minutes he and Mrs. Kirkland hypothesized explanations. Finally he remembered that in or around 2003 his wallet had been stolen from a hotel room near Miami Beach. Not long later, someone had tried to use his stolen credit cards, and he had had to change all of them and also several other accounts and his driver’s license. I knew that the passport of the Italian Kirkland had been issued by the U.S. Passport Agency in Miami, and I wondered if his story was meant to explain the new identity he had acquired there.

Mr. Kirkland also said that after his wallet was stolen, he and Mrs. Kirkland got a lot of strange phone calls. I asked what was strange about them, and he said uhhhh, from which I surmised that he was unable to manufacture an answer. Eventually he said that, well, Mrs. Kirkland had said she received some strange calls. I turned to Mrs. Kirkland and asked what was strange about them, but she could offer nothing either—not that the callers hung up as soon as she answered, not that there was heavy breathing, not that someone asked her to describe her undergarments. The calls were just strange, she said. As for how Kirkland’s mother or his veterinarian or the others had come to be called, Mr. Kirkland now remembered that he kept in his wallet a list of numbers of people he often called. Evidently he had failed to memorize even his mother’s phone number, though it seems she had had it for many years.

I said I wasn’t sure why the robber would want to call people close to Kirkland. “Wouldn’t that just increase the chances the robber would be caught?” I asked.

Mr. Kirkland explained that the robber was probably trying to establish himself in his, Kirkland’s, identity.

“From Italy?” I said.

“It could happen,” he replied.

A little later he said, “So tell me again what was the name of the man who was captured?”

I noticed he used the less pejorative captured over the more unflattering kidnapped.

I answered, “Abu Omar.”

“Abu—Abu what?”


“Omar, Omar. You spell that O-M?”—he searched his mind for what might come next—“A? R?”


“So where did all this take place, again?”

“Milan. Then they drove him to Aviano.”

“What’s Aviano?”

“An air force base.”

“Oh, it’s an air force base? Is it ours?”

He was trying too hard, but I was not actually embarrassed for him until he said, “And what will happen if the accused are tried in, in”—he paused and searched for the term. “In absentia? Is that what you call it?” There were not many senior law enforcers who, after a quarter century in the field, were unfamiliar with the term in absentia.

I could go on. It gets even more ridiculous. But suffice to say that by time I said goodbye, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that Kirkland was one of the kidnappers.

One of the things that fascinated me about my visit with the Kirklands was that by this point—this was in 2008—the story of the kidnapping in Milan had blown up in a fantastic way. Virtually every major newspaper, every major news Web site, every major TV news program in America, in Europe, and even in much of the rest of the world had covered the story to one degree or another. A handful of investigative reporters over the previous three years had made no secret that they were hunting for the spies. Yet even after all this, the CIA clearly had not taken the bare minimal step of preparing its kidnappers for what to say when a reporter came knocking on their door or called on the phone. Again, the ineptitude and arrogance of the CIA were almost literally breathtaking to me.

These defects are just two of the damning hallmarks—there are others just as important that I discuss in the book—that run through the affair in Milan from beginning to end. They are two practical reasons why the CIA should not be in the business of extraordinary rendition. There are, of course, many other reasons why we shouldn’t do renditions, even when done completely and with discretion rather than arrogance. But I will leave it to my book to make the case that extraordinary rendition is terrible public policy and has corrupted—and still corrupts—our national soul.

Now, why would all this be so? Why do incompetence and ineptitude stamp so much of the CIA’s work?

There are several reasons. Let me tell a concluding story to explain a piece of what I think is the most important reason. You perhaps noticed in the above passage, as with my story about the young spy in Arlington, that not only didn’t I reveal their real names, but I also didn’t give any details that would allow you to figure out who they were. The reason I didn’t is because of a law called the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. The act was passed in response to a book that was published in 1975 called Inside the Company: CIA Diary. Its author, Philip Agee, was a former CIA officer who was so disgusted by the CIA’s violent subversions of Latin American democracies that he exposed dozens of the subversions and hundreds of the subverters by name. The CIA and the Ford White House wanted Agee’s throat, but although they could have him prosecuted for breaking his contract with the CIA that required him to send any writings he wanted to publish through a CIA censor, there was no law against revealing the names of CIA officers per se. Any person, a reporter for example, could theoretically have published the entire personnel directory of the CIA without repercussion.

But in 1975 the CIA was not in a position to correct this oversight in the law (as the CIA saw it). The reason was that the CIA had just been exposed for having abetted the Watergate burglars, having spied illegally on thousands of Americans at home, having paid Mafia wiseguys to try to assassinate Fidel Castro, having helped overthrow the freely elected governments of Guatemala, Chile, and Brazil, and having done many other ugly things besides. But by 1982 the memory of these ancient sins had faded, the American Right was again ascendant, Reagan was at the helm. So Reagan and Congress enacted the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which made it a crime to reveal the identity of an American spy. The act made no exception for whistleblowing. A CIA officer could strangle infants in their cribs, could assassinate the Queen of England, but to report the spy’s name made the reporter a felon. There’s a strong First Amendment argument that the law is so indiscriminate as to be an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, but as you probably know, our current Supreme Court has subordinated the Constitution to an authoritarian ideal of national security. Even were the court saner and the odds of overturning the law with a lawsuit better, to bring such a suit would be the work of many years and thousands of dollars. For my last book, I brought a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit over four years against the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and several other federal agencies to compel them to release documents they did not want to release. I can tell you that even when you come up with the resources to sue—and I was able to do it only because my wife is a law professor and could represent me—it’s an exhausting, frustrating burden for one or two people to bear. It’s a small wonder that our marriage survived; renovating a house together was easier on our marriage. So when I wrote A Kidnapping in Milan, I left Abu Omar’s kidnappers their anonymity, even though I strongly believe that sunshine, in the old cliché, is the best disinfectant for criminality like theirs.

The point of this story is that the CIA does largely as it pleases—often incompetently, often arrogantly—in no small part because there are so few checks on its power. It doesn’t matter if the CIA gets it right or gets caught doing something wrong. Most of their failings will not see the light of day, and in any case there aren’t going to be many consequences either for the agency or the individuals. And the Intelligence Identities Protection Act is the least of the hurdles to good oversight. (I speak of it less because of its dire importance—though it is important—than because it violates a principle of accountability to the nation that I hold dear both as a citizen and as a reporter.) Much bigger hurdles to oversight are our Congressional intelligence committees. They are charged with reigning in the CIA, but they are instead merrily, disastrously in bed with it.

It is hardly original to say the CIA needs to be opened to greater public scrutiny, but it needs to be said again and again. So I’ll add my call to the many before me and the many to come, and hope they will someday cause light to be thrown into the darkest recesses of this agency whose capacity for inhumanity is so profound.

STEVE HENDRICKS is the author of A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trialwhich chronicles the CIA’s extraordinary rendition of an Egyptian cleric and the trial in Italy of the CIA kidnappers. His e-mail is Steve@SteveHendricks.org.