January 11, 2006

Intelligence is our middle name

Here's a Christmas present you probably missed if you weren't surfing the web on December 25: A three-part package in The Chicago Tribune on the comedy of errors that was the CIA kidnapping (sorry, "rendering") of cleric Abu Omar from Italy in 2003.

The lead article reveals the CIA agents to be hilariously sloppy in their work. Whether this reflects incompetence, arrogance (justifiable arrogance, that is; after all, it's not like they'll ever actually be held responsible for anything), or the belief that the Italian government had their backs (hmmm) is for another time. For now, just enjoy the misadventure, described this way by the Trib: "So amateurish was the Milan rendition that the Italian lawyer for Robert Seldon Lady, whom prosecutors identify as the former CIA chief in Milan, says Lady's primary defense will be that he was too good a spy to have been involved with something so badly planned and carried out."

The list of mistakes made here is long, but it begins with the operatives' indiscriminate use of their cell phones, not only to communicate with one another but with colleagues in the U.S. Consulate in Milan, in northern Virginia where the CIA has its headquarters, and in some cases even with the folks back home...

A few of the operatives actually put their cell phone numbers on their hotel registration cards. When one operative purchased a cell phone from a store in Milan, she registered it in what police believe is her real name. At least three other operatives used their own names when registering at hotels and renting cars, investigators say.

One operative made sure when checking into hotels to hand over her frequent flyer number, so as to receive extra credit for her hotel stay. Her frequent flyer account, obtained by police, shows a record of her travel after leaving Milan, which may include subsequent renditions in Norway, Austria and Belgium.

Two operatives, who spent several days together at the Milan Hilton, paid their bills with Visa cards that differed only in the last two numbers. Those Visa cards, like the ones used by seven other operatives, are traceable to the same Delaware bank.

There's more in there, including blunders involving wristwatches and E-Z Pass, but for now, let's move on to story two in which Italian officials (and the Trib) are able to crack the cover names of 67 CIA agents operating in Italy, and then "scores" more who used the same PO boxes.

"Some of the bogus identities appear to be inside jokes, with surnames such as 'Grayman' and 'Bland,' or those of former CIA directors. One of the bogus identities is an apparent homage to Douglas Neidermeyer, the authoritarian ROTC commander in the movie 'Animal House' who later is killed by his own troops in Vietnam."

Last but not least, story three looks at how roughly 60 agents "spent 'enormous amounts of money' during the six weeks it took the agency to figure out how to grab a 39-year-old Muslim preacher called Abu Omar off the streets of Milan, throw him into a van and drive him to the airport."

First to arrive in Milan was the surveillance team, and the hotels they chose were among the best Europe has to offer. Especially popular was the gilt-and-crystal Principe di Savoia, with acres of burnished wood paneling and plush carpets, where a single room costs $588 a night, a club sandwich goes for $28.75 and a Diet Coke adds another $9.35.

According to hotel records obtained by the Milan police investigating Abu Omar's disappearance, two CIA operatives managed to ring up more than $9,000 in room charges alone. The CIA's bill at the Principe for seven operatives came to $39,995, not counting meals, parking and other hotel services.

Another group of seven operatives spent $40,098 on room charges at the Westin Palace, a five-star hotel across the Piazza della Repubblica from the Principe, where a club sandwich is only $20.

The article goes on to trace side trips to fancy resort towns, golf games and massages billed to the government, and male and female agents sharing hotel rooms. "Asked if there had been some operational or other official reason for the ultra-expensive hotels and side trips, the senior U.S. official shrugged. 'They work hard,' he said." The punchline: "One expense the CIA did spare the U.S. taxpayers was the dozen traffic tickets generated when the agency's rented cars were photographed by police cameras driving illegally in the city's bus and taxi lanes. Because the cars had been rented using false names and addresses, the $500 in fines was paid by the car rental agencies."

Does anyone else really want to see this movie? Call it The Bourne Incompetancy.

Posted by Daniel Radosh

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