Saturday, June 25, 2005

CIA Official Goes to Ground After Charges

Chicago Tribune Investigation
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A senior official with an Italian prosecutor's office, has confirmed that one of those accused of kidnapping Abu Omar in Italy was a CIA officer posing as a U.S. diplomat in Milan at the time of the abduction.

Speaking on condition of anonimity, the official said that the diplomat was well known as the CIA's representative in Milan and that the dozen other suspects charged had been in cell phone contact with him during their stay in Milan.

The diplomat is believed to have left Italy, and his whereabouts are unknown. Several U.S. telephone numbers listed in his name were unanswered or disconnected on Friday.

Italy charges CIA agents

Four days before Osama Nasr Mostafa Hassan vanished into the thin Italian air, three middle-aged American visitors -a man and two women- checked into the $300-a-night Milan Hilton on Via Luigi Galvani.

The names on their U.S. passports and visa cards, driver's licenses, and even frequent-flyer IDs were bogus. So was their shared corporate address, a non-existent company with a post office box in Washington. Italian authorities say the three were members of a covert action team assigned to snatch Hassan off the street and ship him back to Egypt, where he would later say he was brutally tortured.

On Thursday an Italian judge issued arrest warrants charging two of the three Americans and 11 of their colleagues with illegally detaining Hassan, a fundamentalist Muslim preacher better known in Milan's Islamic community as Abu Omar.

Although the CIA refuses to talk about the Milan abduction or even acknowledge that it occurred, documents obtained by the Tribune clearly link the intelligence agency with the identities, addresses and cell phones used by several of the American operatives.

News reports and human-rights organizations have identified at least 33 suspected terrorists who have been "rendered" by the U.S. since Sept. 11. Unnamed intelligence officials have been quoted as putting the number over the past two decades at closer to 100.

Armando Spataro, the Milan prosecutor who requested the warrants, said the names of those accused, which have not been made public, were taken from the passports and other documents used at hotels and car rental agencies in Milan.

None of the databases accessible by the Tribune contains any indication that individuals with those names have ever had a spouse, a residence, an employer, a driver's license, a telephone, a mortgage, a credit history or a family--in short, none of the things typically associated with real people.

Agents Spent $150,000

According to their U.S. passports, several of the first CIA operatives to arrive, and who apparently were used to track Abu Omar's comings and goings, were of late middle age, suggesting they might have been posing as retired Americans on holiday.

The 18 people brought into the city for the operation spent at least $150,000 at the Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton and Westin hotels, according to documents obtained by the Tribune.

Nearly all gave post office boxes as their home or business addresses. Those names and addresses are linked to what appears to be a CIA network of dozens of post office boxes in the Washington area with hundreds of names attached.

They include a 64-year-old man whose passport said he had been born in Alaska, a 57-year-old woman whose passport said she had been born in Florida and a 50-year-old man whose U.S. passport said he had been born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

The Moldovan-born man listed his U.S. employer's address as a post office box in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington. His name is linked, via a half-dozen post office boxes in the Washington and Boston areas, to a Massachusetts company, Premier Executive Transport Services, that until last year was the nominal owner of a Gulfstream executive jet spotted at the scene of post-Sept. 11 "renditions" in Pakistan and Sweden.

Before checking into the Sheraton's Room 814, the man also left the hotel's front desk a Virginia telephone number. When the Tribune first began making inquiries, the number was answered "Coughlin Enterprises" by an operator who described the company as a "management consulting" firm.

According to the operator, the company's owner, a man she identified as Robert Coughlin, was unavailable.

"He's in and out a lot, but he always checks his messages," she said.

The next day, a different operator who answered the same number identified the company's owner as "Rosemarie Coughlin," who she said was similarly unavailable.

Neither Coughlin ever returned a reporter's telephone calls. The operators have since been replaced by an anonymous answering machine.

Red Sox Owner Gave Plane to CIA

Most of the aircraft known to have been used in CIA renditions are executive jets, such as Gulfstreams or Learjets, that are either owned by the agency through front companies like Premier Executive Transport or chartered for upward of $5,000 an hour.

Several planes shown by FAA records to have visited Afghanistan or the CIA's training facility at Camp Peary, Va.--destinations not normally accessible by private corporate aircraft--are registered to companies with names like Rapid Air Transport, the Path Corp. and Braxton Management Services, with mailing addresses in Nevada, Montana and Delaware.

The plane that carried Abu Omar to Cairo was not a CIA aircraft but a chartered Gulfstream owned by Phillip H. Morse, a multimillionaire Florida businessman and a co-owner of the world champion Boston Red Sox.

Morse confirmed to the Boston Globe in March that he charters his plane to the CIA and other clients when it is not being used for Red Sox business. But Morse said he knew nothing about the uses to which the intelligence agency had put the plane.

On Monday, Italy will issue the arrest warrants through the European police agency, Europol, and the international police agency, Interpol.


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