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Italian Probe of CIA Abduction Broadens to Domestic Spying Scandal and “Black Propaganda” Misinformation Campaign by Italy Intel

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Two Italian intelligence officers have been arrested on charges they helped CIA agents abduct a Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan three years ago. Italian investigators are now widening their probe into whether Italian intelligence agents were engaged in illegal domestic spying and a “black propaganda” campaign of misinformation. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to Italy where two high-ranking intelligence officers have been arrested on charges they helped CIA agents abduct a Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan three years ago.

Mauro Mancini, the deputy head of Italy’s military intelligence service, has been jailed. His predecessor, Gustavo Pignero, is under house arrest. The arrests marked the first time Italian officials have been linked to the abduction of Hassan Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. Nasr was seized as he walked from his home to a local mosque. He was taken to a joint U.S.-Italian base and eventually flown to Egypt. There, Nasr says he was beaten and given electrical shocks on his genitals. He was never charged with a crime and has never appeared in a court of law. Meanwhile, Italian prosecutors say they’ve obtained new warrants for three CIA agents and one employee of the local US air base. The new warrants bring to twenty-six the number of Americans charged in the case since last year.

In a new development in the case, investigators are now widening their probe into whether Italian intelligence agents were engaged in illegal domestic spying. Police uncovered what appeared to be a massive secret archive of surveillance on journalists, judges and businesspeople in Italy. Police also found evidence to suggest that the intelligence agency–known as Sismi–had been recruiting some Italian journalists and illegally wiretapping others as a way of keeping track of the investigation into Nasr’s abduction.

  • Stephen Grey, British journalist who been closely following the story. He joins us on the line from London where he recently returned from Milan.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Stephen Grey, a British journalist who has been closely following this story. He joins us on the line from London, recently returned from Milan. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Stephen Grey.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you lay out this story?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, we’ve been following it for some time. Last year, we had the first arrest warrants against the alleged CIA agents, who were accused of organizing this abduction. He disappeared on February 17, 2003. He was an Islamic cleric who was accused of being involved with terrorism. He was under investigation by police. And then, he just disappeared. And the police didn’t get any further information from him, except for a bogus report that was sent by the CIA, saying that they thought he had moved to the Balkans, until about a year later, when he actually phoned home to his wife and some friends in Milan. And he laid out what had happened to him. And the Italian police were actually listening to that phone call, and they then found out that he had actually been snatched from the street by what he described as people speaking Italian and English. And he was then flown from an air base, Aviano Air Base, via Germany to Egypt, where he said he was interrogated and tortured.

This is an example, it seemed, of rendition, the CIA program of transferring people to third countries. The real big difference here was that it took place in a country which is a great ally of the U.S., and apparently without any legal authority. That seemed to break all the rules. Now, initially, the investigators focused on the Americans. They managed to identify them really from phone records of phones that had been used in and around the kidnap scene. They tracked them down, and they identified that some of them were indeed CIA agents. That’s what they believe. And they issued those arrest warrants.

But there was always that question: would the CIA really have carried out this operation, this alleged operation, without the involvement of some Italian intelligence officers, as well. And it looks like they’ve found some evidence, certainly the prosecutors say that, which links very directly the Italian military intelligence into the whole affair. And that’s very serious, because even if they’ve got the approval of Italian intelligence, it doesn’t remove the fact that it’s a crime, because no official in Italy has the right to organize what amounts to a kidnap.

AMY GOODMAN: And they caught these two top Italian military intelligence officials by their own use of cell phones?

STEPHEN GREY: By their own use of phones. Yeah, it all seems to boil down to telephones again. What they did was they tracked a phone that was used near the scene of the kidnap, and that followed to a local police officer, a Carabinieri officer. And he said, oh — he admitted to it. He was the first person to provide a witness statement, who was actually there at the time. And he said, “Yeah, I was doing this for the CIA.” And he also said that he had approval of the military intelligence, its Italian intelligence. But then, followed that trail, had some suspects, at the top-levels of the SISMI, Italian intelligence, and then they started listening to the phone calls of these Italian intelligence officials. And they started discussing the whole case. And, in fact, one of them gave a statement to the prosecutor, in which he denied being involved in anything to do with an illegal kidnap.

The first thing he did when he came out of that interview, the prosecutor, was phone this other official, and they were listening in, and he started saying how, effectively, how they had made a fool of the prosecutor. And they had indeed been asked by the CIA, he said, to take part in an illegal seizure of this person, and he admitted this was an illegal activity. He said they actually refused to take part in it, but he had acknowledged that he had advance knowledge of this kidnap. And even knowing of a crime that’s about to be committed, which it’s alleged this rendition was, is quite a serious offense, particularly for a senior law enforcement official, that this intelligence official is.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the evidence of what the CIA agents, now numbering, what, 26, or all the individuals involved, one from a U.S. military base, what they were doing, how they were tracking Abu Omar, the sheikh?

STEPHEN GREY: Right. Well, there’s obviously a lot of people there involved, the 25 CIA alleged agents and another military official in Aviano Base. It seems that they were, and this is according to the prosecutor, there was a team that went out and put surveillance on Abu Omar for some weeks before the event. They even found a CIA surveillance picture of Abu Omar in one of the computers of one of these alleged — it’s at the station chief in Milan. And then there was another team that actually carried out the abduction. They stopped him in the street, and then they took him across to Aviano Air Base, and then another one actually followed across to Egypt.

Well, we don’t know why, but obviously the Italian prosecutors allege that he perhaps even took part or witnessed the interrogation of Abu Omar. That obviously remains to be proved. But what there is, is very clear evidence that all of these American citizens — we don’t know many of their real names, because they were obviously using cover names — were out there and were being — you know, were using their cell phones, were staying in hotels, were renting cars, and all of those pieces of evidence were gathered by the prosecutors to pinpoint their involvement in this abduction.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Italian prosecutors have named these CIA agents and want them, is this right, extradited to Italy?

STEPHEN GREY: That’s right. They’ve asked for their extradition from Italy. They’re going to put them on trial, though, even if they don’t get the extradition. I think that so far the previous Italian government, under Silvio Berlusconi, blocked their extradition request. There has been no extradition request yet. The prosecutors will try again, because there’s been a change of government in Italy, will ask the new government to approve their extradition request. But even if it’s refused, under the Italian system, they can put these people on trial in their absence. So one way or another, it looks like there will be a trial of these American citizens in an Italian courtroom.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, can you talk, Stephen Grey, about the part of the story that has come out with investigators coming into this apartment, or this office, that turns out to be a major site of Italian intelligence and how they’ve discovered this whole illegal surveillance operation?

STEPHEN GREY: That’s right. They were listening to these senior Italian intelligence officials talking to each other. They then realized they were talking to an official who seemed to be helping them with their inquiries. And what they were doing was they were actually monitoring the investigations by the prosecutor in Milan against them. And they were getting some information. It appeared to be coming from journalists, who the Italian intelligence were actually recruiting, it’s alleged, and sending to the prosecutor, to sort of do a rather bogus interview and find out what he was up to and how he was getting on with his inquiries.

And that operation centered in a flat, an 11-room flat, an attic, actually, apartment in the center of Rome. And last week, last Wednesday, they actually raided this place to find out what was there. And not only did they find evidence of this operation to monitor the Milan inquiry, but also boxes and boxes of files, which, according to investigators, contained information about magistrates, prosecutors, politicians and other journalists. It seems like a whole surveillance network they’ve uncovered in this way. It all remains to be proved, but that’s what they’re looking at at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, they have journalists’ names there. Journalists who they investigated? Journalists who apparently were on the payroll? These were conservative journalists from the newspaper, Libero?

STEPHEN GREY: They allege that there’s a rightwing newspaper, where they actually recruited journalists from. And they were used to plant — they planted articles in their newspaper. And they were used to go and find out information. They also were monitoring the activities of other journalists who were perhaps more not so sympathetic, and they were actually putting wiretaps on them and tailing them. That’s what they allege, and that’s what they’re investigating now. It seems like quite a — the Italian newspapers refer to this as a center of black propaganda, of misinformation. It’s caused quite a scandal in Italy, well beyond the actual investigation into rendition.

AMY GOODMAN: And the investigators have also found what they said were drafts of articles, including one suggesting a smear campaign against Prime Minister Romano Prodi, which was published in Libero?

STEPHEN GREY: That’s right. And it accused Romano Prodi of complicity in the CIA rendition program. This article was written after Prodi became prime minister. If that is true, that would amount to a gross disloyalty against the prime minister, because these people were supposedly working for this new prime minister.

AMY GOODMAN: And this all implicates the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, it doesn’t yet, but it’s going very high up in the Italian intelligence service. That intelligence service reports to Berlusconi. These people are deputies, who’ve been arrested, are deputies to the head of the Italian intelligence service, and it remains to be seen whether they will claim — they’re still being interviewed — they will claim they were under orders from people high up. So the trail is getting higher and higher. We don’t yet know if it will implicate Berlusconi.

AMY GOODMAN: And, finally, the response in Italy to all of this news, to the exposure of the high-level military intelligence and Italy’s involvement in this, what the U.S. calls, extraordinary rendition of the sheikh?

STEPHEN GREY: Well, they’re pretty scandalized, but obviously, there is quite a debate. Some people think it’s wrong to expose the activities of their intelligence service. America remains an important ally of the U.S., but there are many who think that even if the U.S. is an ally, that there are certain things which are illegal, and kidnapping is illegal, and if they’re going to abduct someone and send them to Egypt, they have to go through a courtroom and actually approve that extradition, not simply disappear someone without a warrant.

AMY GOODMAN: And the exposure of the surveillance, which is happening in a country where more than 100,000 phone lines a year are tapped, Italy? And the involvement of the journalists?

STEPHEN GREY: Absolutely, it’s causing quite a scandal. People are waiting to see the full details. The investigation is going on. The files are being examined. But it certainly seems to most people a pretty worrying development. But there’s a lot going on there, as you know, in Italy, so we’ll see what comes up in the next few days.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Stephen Grey, I want to thank you very much for being with us. British journalist who has been closely following this story, joining us on the line from London, where he recently returned from Milan investigating this story.

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