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Exposing the CIA's Italian Kidnapping Plot

Italy is delving into its intelligence agency's involvement with the CIA in waging an off-the-books war on global terrorism.
 
 
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Italian investigators are continuing to probe Italy's role in America's anti-terrorist war, particularly the rendition and torture of U.S.-wanted terrorist suspects. Reacting to the public and media outcry, the Italian parliament is also tracing links between Italian defense firms and the country's recently defeated government in an attempt to understand how these connections may have pushed Italy into an unpopular war.

The investigation will focus on the role played by Giovanni Castellaneta, currently Italy's ambassador to the United States, in the crafting and the delivery of the yellowcake dossier to the White House. The Italian Senate investigation seeks to detail the full extent of its intelligence agency's involvement with its American counterpart in waging an off-the-books war on international terrorism.

"Castellaneta's role is pivotal, not only because he seems to be deeply involved with the yellowcake dossier and the steering of the Marine One contract to Finmeccanica, but also because he is at the crossroad of many of Italy's activities in relation to the more general American-led war on international terrorism," states Francesco Martone, Italian senator from Sardinia for Sinistra Europea and a member of the Foreign Affairs Commission. Martone is a leading promoter of a full scope parliamentary investigation.

Recent revelations by La Repubblica, ANSA and L'espresso -- some of Italy's leading media -- support the hypothesis that the Italian agencies played a more central role in covert U.S. operations and the expansion of American military activities abroad, and that Castellaneta, on the Italian side, is the nexus for this collaboration. (See sidebar.)

For instance, Italian media have revealed that intelligence operatives close to Sismi have been involved in America's "extraordinary rendition" program. Italian agents actively participated in the Feb. 17, 2003, daylight kidnapping on a Milan street of Hussan Mustafa Omar Nasr, or Abu Omar, an Egyptian imam who had legally obtained political asylum in Italy by proving he'd be tortured if repatriated. Omar was "rendered" to Egypt -- snatched, drugged, beaten, humiliated and transmitted to Cairo via a plane leased by the CIA from the Boston Red Sox's owner. (Photos of the jet on the Cairo airport tarmac show the Red Sox team decal temporarily removed.) Omar was immediately incarcerated in an Egyptian prison where, according to Dick Marty, a Swiss congressman who recently produced a report on behalf of the Council of Europe, Omar was beaten and electrical shocks were administered to his genitals. The cell phone records of CIA agent Robert Lady, who managed the snatch in Milan, place Lady in Cairo during the initial interrogations. "It may safely be inferred," Marty's report concludes, "that [Lady] contributed, in one way or another, to the interrogation."

Although Italy's intelligence agency partnered with the CIA in the kidnapping, neither agency informed the Italian anti-terrorism police. These carabiniere thought for more than a year that Omar had fled on his own to the Balkans, a wild goose chase spurred by an urgent (fake) tip offered by the CIA. Omar resurfaced via telephone from Cairo in April 2004, when he was briefly consigned to house detention because the Egyptians decided he wasn't a threat. Once Omar alerted his wife in Italy of his fate, however, he was rearrested and placed in solitary confinement.

Italian authorities have vehemently denied any foreknowledge of, let alone participation in, the Omar kidnapping. Nonetheless the independent Italian judiciary persisted, and in late 2005, European-wide arrest warrants were issued for 22 CIA operatives whom an Italian prosecutor accused of kidnapping Abu Omar. But in April 2006, just after Berlusconi was defeated, his outgoing justice minister told the prosecutors that he would not pass their extradition request on to the United States -- a step that is usually a formality.

In May of this year, a member of Italy's paramilitary police force was indicted for having helped the CIA carry out the kidnapping. "Ludwig," as he was called by other members of the CIA's abduction team, stopped Abu Omar as he was walking along a Milan street and asked to see his identification papers. As Omar showed his papers, two men leapt out, gassed him and bundled him off. Ludwig's boss and operational partner was Marco Mancini, Gen. Nicolo Pollari's right-hand man. In turn, Gen. Pollari, the Italian Intelligence Agency's director, is the man who delivered the yellowcake dossier to Condoleezza Rice and Steve Hadley in the White House.

According to Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA's anti-bin Laden unit and author of "Imperial Hubris," the Abu Omar rendition was prepared at the highest levels of the U.S. and Italian governments. National security advisors on both side of the Atlantic were involved, on the U.S. side, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and on the Italian side, Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta, who at that time was Berlusconi's national security adviser. "It is unthinkable," Scheuer says, "that such an operation could have been carried out without informing first the appropriate Italian authorities, in particular Nicolo Pollari, head of Sismi, and without obtaining prior permission by the Italian National Security Agency."

It is worth remembering that Pollari and Castellaneta were simultaneously central to the transmission of the forged Yellowcake dossier. Furthermore, by virtue of his role as deputy chair of Finmeccanica, the Italian defense contractor, Ambassador Castellaneta was securing the Marine One contract -- 23 new helicopters for the president.

SIDEBAR

The Bush-Berlusconi Defense Deal

According to some Italian defense analysts -- and Italian Senator Martone agrees -- Ambassador Castellaneta may have been negotiating for much more than the Marine One contracts; he could have secured an agreement with the Bush administration to propel Finmeccanica into the upper echelons of the defense industry The full payout? A larger share of the international defense market for Finmeccanica; plenty of military know-how for the Italians; and for the Bush administration, a flexible framework for a new military alliance. Such an alliance would exclude older European powers (except the UK) while connecting Washington to Rome, Tel Aviv, and Warsaw.

According to Debkafile, an Israeli online periodical on politics, intelligence and terrorism, "Rome rather than the EU, figures on the Bush game board as the foremost bulwark of America's long-range strategic plan for Eastern Europe".

Debkafile believes that Poland is also central to this defense network since the US has transferred key air bases from Germany to Poland. In addition, Debkafile states that an agreement between the Italian and the Israeli defense industries would assure the uninterrupted flow of US military technology to Israel, a transfer which frequently runs afoul of Congressional stipulations about not selling military sensitive military technology to China.

"Lingering questions remain," says Giovanni Russo-Spena, Senate Speaker for Rifondazione Comunista, a member of Italy's current governing coalition, who is pushing for a broad parliamentary investigation into Castellaneta's and Finmeccanica's activities.

"Why and how did Finmeccanica became such a behemoth of the defense industry? Why was Berlusconi so invested in this company to the point of appointing his National Security Adviser to its board of directors? Can there be some sort of personal profiting? It may come out that there's a simple and innocent explanation to everything, but the Parliament should investigate nevertheless."

Understanding Finmeccanica's proprietary structure is akin to opening up a matrioska doll. Once the 32 per cent owned by the Italian state is removed, understanding who owns the remaining 68 per cent is like solving puzzles within puzzles, with Milan banks fronting for investors.

During the years of the Berlusconi administration, Finmeccanica became a defense giant, in no small part because the Italian government gave the company some $4 billion in interest-free loans that the European Commission says were actually illegal subsidies. In 2003, in a joint venture with the Carlyle Group, Finmeccanica acquired Fiat Avio, another prominent Italian defense contactor. According to sources close to the company, Finmeccanica has also joined forces with other, undisclosed partners.

Could there already be a Berlusconi investment? Although Senator Martone doesn't discount such a hypothesis, he suspects Berlusconi's end game may be more sophisticated. Martone wonders aloud: "With this country's finances in such a shamble, it wouldn't be surprising if Finmeccanica at some points ends on the selling block. And once there, who knows who will come up to buy it?"