WaPo : Computer Files Hold Key in CIA Case

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Computer Files Hold Key in CIA Case

Officer Had Maps, Photos Involving Abducted Cleric, Court Told

By Craig Whitlock | Washington Post Foreign Service | June 26, 2008

BERLIN, June 25 -- As Italian police investigated the mysterious disappearance of a radical Islamic cleric in 2003, they found a trove of clues on the home computer of the CIA's chief spy in Milan, according to court testimony.

Angelo Foglieri, an Italian anti-terrorism investigator, said Wednesday during trial proceedings in Milan that police found street maps on the CIA officer's computer that had been downloaded from an Internet travel service, Expedia.com. The maps, he said, showed the quickest routes from the cleric's mosque and home in Milan to Aviano Air Base, a joint U.S.-Italian military installation a few hours' drive away.

Also found on the computer were surveillance photos of the Egyptian cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, taken about a month before his alleged abduction, Foglieri said.

Foglieri's testimony came during a trial of 26 Americans charged with grabbing Nasr off the street as he walked toward a Milan mosque on Feb. 17, 2003. He was later flown to Cairo, where he has asserted he was tortured by the Egyptian secret police as part of an investigation into al-Qaeda.

All of the American defendants are being tried in absentia. Italian authorities said all but three are known only by aliases. Several members of the Italian military intelligence agency, SISMI, are also on trial, charged with conspiring with the CIA.

The seized computer belonged to Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA's chief in Milan at the time. It was taken by Italian police after they came to suspect CIA involvement in Nasr's disappearance, despite the agency's denials to Italian anti-terrorism investigators.

Recovered computer files also showed that Lady used Expedia to book a plane reservation to Cairo around the time Nasr was kidnapped. Lady left Italy before he was charged. He has since retired from the CIA.

The computer also contained a list of about 70 hotels around Milan that Italian investigators used to help identify CIA operatives who played a role in the kidnapping, according to testimony from Foglieri and another Italian investigator, the Associated Press reported.

Italian authorities have said they were astounded to find the evidence left unprotected on Lady's computer. But according to the testimony and court records, the CIA repeatedly failed to cover its tracks during the operation.

While most of the CIA officers used false identities, they left a long paper and electronic trail that enabled Italian investigators to retrace their movements, court documents show.

Posing as tourists and business travelers, the Americans often stayed in the same five-star hotels -- with rates as high as $500 a night. They rarely paid in cash, gave their frequent traveler account numbers to desk clerks and made dozens of calls from room phones that were not secure.

They were also spotted in broad daylight. A witness reported seeing men jump out of a van and grab Nasr as he was walking down the street around noon on Feb. 17, 2003.

Prosecutors in Milan have asked the Italian Justice Ministry in Rome to seek the extradition of the American defendants. So far, the Italian government has refused, but arrest warrants for the Americans have been posted throughout the European Union.