MILAN, Italy - They ran up tabs of thousands of dollars at some of Milan's best hotels and restaurants. They chatted on their cellular telephones and gave out passport, frequent flyer and drivers' license numbers when booking flights or renting cars.
And now they are fugitives.
If Italian authorities are right, a CIA operation has been exposed here that on some levels was brazen and perhaps reckless, even as it successfully spirited away a reputedly notorious Egyptian imam.
Italian arrest orders have been issued for 13 CIA operatives, and additional warrants are possible, in what might be the first time an ally of Washington, D.C., has attempted to prosecute its spies.
The suspects face kidnapping charges that carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Judicial authorities said yesterday that they might also seek the arrest of a senior U.S. Air Force commander who they say allowed the U.S.-run Aviano air base in northern Italy to be used in the abduction of Hassan Osama Nasr, a radical cleric better known as Abu Omar.
Italian authorities contend that Abu Omar was kidnapped by the American agents 2 1/2 years ago and taken to Egypt, where he was tortured. His whereabouts remain unknown.
Abu Omar had long been suspected of militant activities by Italian authorities, who had him under surveillance as part of an investigation into an Islamic cell accused of recruiting and sending suicide bombers and fighters to Iraq.
The alleged former CIA station chief in Milan, a 51-year-old Honduran-born American who is among those named in the arrest warrants, is believed to have accompanied or followed Abu Omar to Egypt and to have been present for some of the interrogations, a senior Italian judicial official said yesterday.
That raises the possibility that the American agent was aware of the alleged torture, the Italian official said. The man's movements were tracked by his use of a cellular telephone to make calls from Egypt in the two weeks after the disappearance of Abu Omar, the official said. "He was the one who knew everything about Abu Omar," the official said, referring to the former station chief, "and so he would have been very useful in the interrogation."
Abu Omar, during a brief period of freedom in 2004, told associates that he was tortured with electrical shocks to his genitals and beatings during the interrogations in Egypt.
The former station chief apparently planned on retiring in Italy and had bought a home near Turin. Although he has been absent from Italy for several months, officials say, his wife had remained in the home, which Italian police raided Thursday night, confiscating a computer, computer disks and papers.
That he thought he could live out his golden years in Italy is another indication of the impunity with which he and the other alleged agents felt they were operating, Italian prosecutors say.
It remains unclear whether the pro-U.S. right-wing government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed off on the Milan abduction. Several former U.S. intelligence officials consulted said it was virtually impossible that the operation would have been launched without Italian permission at some level.
All told, 19 American operatives - 13 men and six women - mounted the mission to capture Abu Omar, according to the warrants and other court documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, as well as interviews with several Italian officials involved in the case.
The abduction was an example of the U.S. "extraordinary rendition" program, a highly controversial tactic used with increasing frequency since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to pursue alleged militants. Dozens of people have been seized by CIA operatives in foreign lands and bundled off to third countries, according to intelligence officials and human rights organizations.
The Milan crew seemed to have made little effort to keep a low profile. Although much of the information they provided might have been false, they seemed to have left a trail worthy of Hansel and Gretel.
Arriving individually or in pairs during the weeks leading up to the abduction in February 2003, they checked into some of Milan's finest hotels: the Prince of Savoy on Milan's grand Piazza della Repubblica, the Westin Palace, the Milan Hilton. They ate at good restaurants and rented cell phones and cars. They offered up their frequent-flier account numbers, as well as their passports, VISA and Diner's Club credit cards and drivers' licenses.
Many of the names, home U.S. addresses and telephone numbers contained in the indictment appear to be false or have been changed.
In hotel bills, the group ran up a tab of $150,000, the documents indicate.
Cell phone alerts
The team divided up, with six of the agents conducting reconnaissance and others intercepting Abu Omar as he walked from his Milan home to a mosque. They loaded him into a white panel truck and sped off to the Aviano base, about four hours away, Italian prosecutors allege.
As they traveled, one of the agents used a cellular phone to call a commander at the Aviano base every half-hour or so, as though to alert him to their progress, Italian prosecutors said. That senior officer, Col. Joseph Romano, has since left Italy, but prosecutors said yesterday they want to question him and are considering ordering his arrest as well.
"We suspect he knew what the CIA agents were doing and who they had in his car," a senior Italian official said.
Once the rendition was completed, several of the agents traveled to Venice for a celebration, also at a five-star hotel, the court papers say. Four others took a vacation along the Mediterranean coast.
Italian judicial officials are perhaps most angry with the American operation because it ruined their own efforts to crack the cell and arrest numerous militant suspects in Italy.
"Not only was Abu Omar's kidnapping illegal in having seriously violated Italian sovereignty, but it was also an inauspicious act that has contaminated the overall fight against terrorism," Judge Guido Salvini said in issuing a separate indictment on the Egyptian-born cleric.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.