Panama Nails a CIA Torture Capo

You gotta love our erstwhile banana republics. While Uncle Sam has been busy the last dozen years trampling on the rights of everyone—and we now know, thanks to that paragon Edward Snowden, that everyone means everyone—and while nearly all the governments in the “civilized” world have been going along with their favorite uncle, a few Latin American countries have suddenly stood up and flipped him the bird. First there were Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Bolivia offering Snowden asylum, and then yesterday Panama arrested a former CIA bureau chief who is wanted by Italy for a kidnapping conviction but who has been steadfastly protected by the United States.

The Italian story is a tasty one that goes like this:

After 9/11, the White House and CIA loved nothing so much as a good body snatch, more politely called an extraordinary rendition. You remember those, right? We would zoom into another country, grab a guy we claimed was a “high-value terrorist,” whisk him to some hellhole like Syria or Egypt, and let our friends there give him a long dose of tough love or maybe just kill him—or, better still, both. What wasn’t to like? We didn’t have to gather evidence that would hold up in court, didn’t have to hold a messy trial, didn’t have to let reporters nose around in the merits of the case.

Pretty soon CIA chiefs all over the world were throwing guys on torture taxis and sending them to dungeons whose horrors were almost beyond imagining. Most of the victims we’ve never heard of and never will. A few, like Germany’s Khalid El-Masri and Canada’s Maher Arar, we learned of only because they were completely innocent—we had grabbed them, tortured them, then (oops!) realized we got the wrong guy, at which point even our vile client states felt compelled to let them go. (Obama’s America nonetheless refuses to compensate either El-Masri or Arar for their trauma, just as Bush’s America refused.)

Then there’s the case of Abu Omar. Abu Omar was an Egyptian living under a grant of asylum in Milan, where he worked at a radical mosque. The mosque was part of a farm system, if you will, that recruited potential sluggers and sent them to the terrorist big leagues—to Iraq, say, during our late war. Abu Omar may have been a low- or mid-level cog in the terrorist machine, or he may just have been a terrorist wannabe. Whatever the case, he was not a big player. At least a hundred other guys around the world were more deserving of America’s renditionary affections than he.

But the CIA chief in Italy, one Jeff Castelli, wanted to render Abu Omar. It’s not absolutely clear why, but the most likely motivation I found while writing my book on the case (A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial) was that renditions by then had become feathers in the caps of aspiring CIA officers—standout bullets in a spook’s résumé. A station chief who pulled off a successful rendition was as good as on his way up at Langley, and Jeff Castelli was definitely being groomed for higher postings. He wanted to get in on the action, and his superiors were happy to green-light him.

Trouble was, not only was Abu Omar not much of a terrorist but Castelli’s jurisdiction wasn’t Somalia or Pakistan or some other semi-lawless CIA playground. It was Italy, and the Italians already had Abu Omar covered. Ordinarily Italy is something of a laughingstock of European law enforcers—hell, the laughingstock of European law enforcers. But it turns out that the Italian counterterrorism police and a_kidnapping_in_milan_cover_medprosecutors are actually quite good—skilled at monitoring suspected terrorists, gathering evidence against them, taking them to trial, and sending them to prison for long sentences. It’s all so . . . civilized. In fact, it’s everything the Bush and Obama administrations tell us we can’t do because terrorists are too damned dangerous to deal with in the usual, constitutional, enlightened manner.

But back to Abu Omar. The Italian counterterrorism police had him under tight surveillance. His home and office were bugged, his phones were tapped, his computer probably was too, his movements were watched, and his colleagues were getting similar treatment. The Italians knew he had no attacks planned, and they were in the process of amassing a damning pile of evidence against him. (After the CIA kidnapped him, the Italians arrested and convicted all of his co-terrorists or co-wannabe-terrorists. Abu Omar would certainly have been convicted as well, because in Italy it’s a crime even to associate with terrorists—so long as you know they are terrorists, which Abu Omar plainly did of his cronies.) Moreover, the CIA knew that the Italians had Abu Omar in check because they routinely coordinated their efforts with the Italians, including on Abu Omar’s case.

These facts, however, were nothing to Castelli, and at the end of 2002 he brought a team of CIA planners, scouts, heavies, and transporters to Italy. He didn’t tell our allies in Milan what he was up to. A couple of months later, in February of 2003, the team nabbed Abu Omar while he was walking to his mosque for midday prayers. He was snatched only steps from one of Milan’s busiest streets, steps also from a police station, literally at high noon, in the broadest of proverbial broad daylight. The hubris was astonishing even for the CIA. It was a sign they thought they would never get caught, a sign they thought they could do in Italy pretty much as they pleased—as, indeed, they had since the end of World War II. (The CIA and NATO even set up a secret army in Italy in case the Communist Party were elected to power. Honest. But that is another story.)

After Abu Omar was hauled off the sidewalk and thrown into a waiting van, he was beaten, drugged, trussed, and driven across northern Italy to Aviano Air Force Base, from which he was flown to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. At Ramstein he was bundled onto another plane and flown to Cairo, where, for hour upon hour, day upon day, month upon month, he was visited with the worst barbarisms the Mubarak regime had to offer.

Back in Italy, when the counterterrorist police wondered where Abu Omar had disappeared to, the CIA said it had heard a rumor that he had gone to Albania.

The lackey in Milan who carried out Castelli’s deception was a jovial bear of a man named Robert Seldon Lady, who ran the CIA’s Milan office. By most accounts, Lady thought the kidnapping was a dumb idea and told Castelli as much. He apparently argued that it was unnecessary because of the Italians’ fine surveillance and that it would hurt the CIA’s very productive relationship with the Italians if the Italians learned that the CIA double-crossed them. (He was right.) But Castelli insisted, and Lady went along. Of his decision he would later say, “I am responsible only for carrying out an order I received from my superiors”—a defense whose pedigree was succinctly summarized by one commentator as “I vas only following ze orders.”

Lady and the CIA got caught for two reasons. One, they were sloppy. Two, the Egyptians, very uncharacteristically, eventually let Abu Omar out of prison. His release was conditioned on his telling no one what he had been through, but it wasn’t long before he was calling his wife in Italy and relating to her his travails. Unknown to either of them, the Italian counterterrorists were still tapping the phone in their Milan flat, and so heard everything. Unluckily for Abu Omar, the Egyptians were also tapping Abu Omar, via his phone in Alexandria, and he was quickly dragged back to prison for more torture.

On hearing Abu Omar’s account of his kidnapping, a bold Italian prosecutor named Armando Spataro began to investigate it, with the help of Milan’s double-crossed counterterrorism police. Prosecutors in Italy are an independent lot who are insulated, like American federal judges, with life tenure. In his long career, Spataro had taken on the Mafia, left-wing terrorists of the seventies, and latter-day Islamic terrorists. More than once he had been marked for death, but he was still standing, and he wasn’t about to be cowed by the US government. A lawbreaker, he had always held, was a lawbreaker, no matter who he was, and kidnapping was against the law in Italy.

The case opened up for Spataro when his investigators stumbled on the CIA’s embarrassingly slapdash tradecraft. The most ridiculous of the CIA’s idiocies was the way they recklessly used cell phones—making hundreds of calls to one another in the months before the kidnapping and, in doing so, leaving hundreds of traces of their locations with cell-phone providers. (Had they used satellite phones, they could never have been traced.) On the day of the kidnapping, as they coordinated their movements with Abu Omar’s walk to his mosque, they made scores of calls to one another that reached a dizzying crescendo. Spataro and his investigators examined all of the calls made by the thousands of cell phones that were connected to cell towers near the kidnapping site. Then they sorted out which phones made several short calls to each other in the minutes before the abduction, as a kidnapping team that was stalking its prey would do. They then looked at which of those phones had also called Bob Lady’s cell phone or the US consulate in Milan or an unlisted number in Langley or some other telltale number linked to the CIA.

When they found a phone that they were pretty sure belonged to the kidnappers, they tracked its movements over the previous months, which led to further discoveries. For example, they located the hotels that many of the kidnappers stayed in and turned up the hotels’ copies of their passports and driver’s licenses. A few of the kidnappers carelessly traveled under their real names or under names so close to their real ones that there was hardly a difference. The identities of a couple of the kidnappers were tracked down through—get this—their frequent-flyer numbers, which they had given to hotels and rental car agencies to rack up miles. Evidently they thought Abu Omar shouldn’t be the only one to get a free trip out of the job.

Prosecutor Spataro marshaled his evidence, charged a couple dozen Americans in absentia with the kidnapping, and won convictions for nearly all of them. Bob Lady got eight years, but it seemed that neither he nor any of the other Americans would ever do their time. Lady was in Central America when the warrant for his arrest was handed down, all of the other kidnappers were long gone too, and the United States made clear that it would not hand over any of the CIA criminals to serve their sentences, even though our extradition treaty with Italy requires us to do so.

Lady, however, didn’t go entirely unpunished. He had invested his life savings in a villa in Italy’s Asti wine country, where he planned a graceful retirement. But upon his conviction, the Italians confiscated the villa and have either put it up for sale or will soon, with the proceeds going to none other than Abu Omar. Right-wing bloggers have shed voluptuous tears for Lady on this score, even though by now the US government has almost certainly made him whole for his loss. (Abu Omar, incidentally, could use the money. Egypt set him free for a second time in 2007, but an enemy of the Egyptian state is not highly employable. His two releases, it is worth noting, suggest that even the Mubarak regime thought he was small fry in the terroristic seas.)

Other than Lady’s lost villa, though, no penalty loomed for the American torture team—until, that is, plucky Panama stopped Lady yesterday. He was reportedly crossing into the country from Costa Rica. Lady was raised in Honduras, and after retiring from the CIA (shortly after Abu Omar’s kidnapping), he was said to have taken a job as a security consultant in Latin America. It’s likely that he traveled a lot in the region. If so, the countries in which he traveled seem to have ignored—in keeping with the United States’ wishes—the Interpol arrest warrant that Italy put out for him. But at last Panama has broken the chain of inaction and silence.

What will happen next is anyone’s guess. Italy and Panama seem to have no extradition treaty, so there’s not a routine process for returning Lady. Indeed, there is no guarantee at all that Panama will return him. What is certain is that right now Panama is being lobbied by the United States to turn Lady loose. Equally certain is that right-wingers in Italy, true to their historic role as America’s patsies, are leaning on their government not to demand Lady’s return. Will Panama continue to push back against the United States? Will Italy’s centrist government ignore its rightists? We shall see. In the meantime, let’s just enjoy watching one of the world’s minnows shit in the eye of the planet’s only 800-pound crocodile.

Steve Hendricks is the author of A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial. He is at work, improbably, on a book about soccer in Spain.

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Steve Hendricks is the author, most recently, of  A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial. His website is SteveHendricks.org.

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