Sunday, December 25, 2005

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Worst tradecraft ever

John Crewdson has a front-pager in the Chicago Tribune on the extent to which the CIA left footprints in their rendition of an Egyptian-born Muslim cleric commonly known as Abu Omar. This exercise has led Italy to issue 22 arrest warrants for alleged CIA officers for what they did.

Without getting into the normative debate about whether such renditions are appropriate or not, Crewdson's story suggests that the CIA's tradecraft is so bad it couldn't smuggle a ham sandwich out of a foreign country without getting detected by local police. The lowlights:

The trick is known to just about every two-bit crook in the cellular age: If you don't want the cops to know where you are, take the battery out of your cell phone when it's not in use.

Had that trick been taught at the CIA's rural Virginia training school for covert operatives, the Bush administration might have avoided much of the current crisis in Europe over the practice the CIA calls "rendition," and CIA Director Porter Goss might not have ordered a sweeping review of the agency's field operations.

But when CIA operatives assembled here nearly three years ago to abduct an Egyptian-born Muslim preacher named Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, more familiarly known as Abu Omar, and "render" him to Cairo, they left their cell phone batteries in.

Even when not in use, a cell phone sends a periodic signal indicating its location, enabling the worldwide cellular network to know where to look for it in case of an incoming call.

Those signals allowed police investigating Abu Omar's mysterious disappearance to ultimately construct an almost minute-by-minute record of his abduction, and to identify nearly two dozen people as his abductors.

Aides use words such as "horrified" to describe Goss' reaction to the sloppiness of the Milan rendition, and the relative ease with which its details have been unearthed by the Italian police and the news media.

In response, Goss has ordered a "top-down" review of the agency's "tradecraft," as the nuts and bolts of the spy business is known.

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.

"I think Bob is too intelligent," the lawyer, Daria Pesce, said in an interview earlier this month....

Should the CIA decide to teach its trainees how not to conduct a covert operation, it could find few better examples than the Milan rendition.

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.

One of the CIA's paramilitary operators made at least four calls to what appear to be friends and family in Texas, court records show. Another made a personal call to Greece. A man whose passport claims he was born in Tennessee made nine apparently personal calls, including one to a stockbroker in Kentucky.

The Tennessee man also registered in two Milan hotels under his real name, prosecutors say. So did another operative, who also used his real home address and his wife's e-mail address. A few hours after the abduction, he used his cell phone to call home.

Although the Milan operatives frequently changed hotels, perhaps to keep from attracting the attention of the police, the changes only made it easier for the police to identify them later.

It is comforting, however, to know that the CIA agents lived high on the hog while screwing up this badly, as Crewdson points out in a sidebar:
Italian prosecutors wrote in court papers that the CIA 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.

A former CIA officer who has worked undercover abroad said those prices were "way over" the CIA's allowed rates for foreign travel....

In all, records show, the CIA paid 10 Milan hotels at least $158,000 in room charges....

Once Abu Omar was safely behind bars in Cairo, some of the operatives who had helped put him there split up into twos and threes and headed for luxury resort hotels in the Italian Alps, Tuscany and Venice.

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.

posted by Dan on 12.25.05 at 08:40 AM


Thanks for the article. It reminded me that it had been several years since I checked to see if "Hopscotch" the Walter Matthau/Glenda Jackson comedy about the CIA was available on DVD. It is, but unfortunately truth seems to be more outrageous than fiction.

posted by: ROA on 12.25.05 at 08:40 AM [permalink]

This would provide great material for an expose on 60 Minutes. One of the most under-reported stories of the year is how much we've gotten to see that the CIA wizards behind the curtain are so petty and less-than-stellar in the intellect department. Micheal Scheuer, Richard Clarke, Valerie Plame have all made me realize we're in a lot worse shape than I thought originally.

posted by: wks on 12.25.05 at 08:40 AM [permalink]

And all this is just the good news. The bad news is the roaming charges.

posted by: Zathras on 12.25.05 at 08:40 AM [permalink]

They should outsource the work to professionals.

posted by: jaimito on 12.25.05 at 08:40 AM [permalink]

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