Prosecutors: CIA agents left trail

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Wed Aug 3 06:22:04 PDT 2005

Prosecutors: CIA agents left trail
Cellphone calls blew their cover

Thursday, July 28, 2005; Posted: 8:05 p.m. EDT (00:05 GMT)

ROME, Italy (AP) -- It wasn't their lavish spending in luxury hotels, their
use of credit cards or even frequent-flier miles that drew attention. Instead
it was a trail of casual cellphone use that tripped up the 19 purported CIA
operatives wanted by Italian authorities in the alleged kidnapping of a
radical Muslim cleric.

Italian prosecutors who have obtained arrest warrants for the 19 -- none of
whom are believed to be in Italy -- presented evidence that the suspects used
at least 40 Italian cell phones, some in their own names.

Experts say that either they were bumbling spies, or they acted with impunity
because Italian officials had been informed of their plan -- a claim the
government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi has publicly denied on several
occasions. (Full story)

"If these were really CIA agents they've made a disaster," said Andrea Nativi,
research director for the Rome-based Military Center for Strategic Studies.
"They strained relations between Italy and the U.S. and between the CIA and
Italian intelligence agencies."

Italian judges issued a first batch of warrants last month for 13 Americans
accused of abducting Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, known as Abu Omar, on a Milan
street on February 17, 2003.

Another court this week issued another six warrants for a group the
prosecution claims planned the abduction. (Full story)
Vulnerable cellphones

The Egyptian cleric was flown from Aviano, a joint U.S.-Italian air base north
of Venice, to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and then to Egypt, where he was
reportedly tortured. The operation purportedly was part of the CIA's
"extraordinary rendition" program, in which terror suspects are transferred to
third countries without court approval.

In his request for the latest warrants, prosecutor Armando Spataro wrote that
an analysis of mobile phone traffic showed that most of them were present on
the route that Abu Omar habitually took from his home to a Milan mosque,
"including in the days before" the kidnapping.

A track of their cell phones also showed them on those streets "nearly 100
times" during the month before Abu Omar's disappearance, the prosecutor said.
He concluded that the six were part "of a single group of Americans who came
to Milan to carry out the operation."

Why they would use their cell phones so openly has baffled experts,
particularly since prosecutors are certain that not all the names of the 19
suspects are aliases.

One has been identified by prosecutors as the former CIA station chief in
Milan, Robert Seldon Lady, who owns a retirement home in wine country in Asti,
near Turin. Though police didn't find Lady there when they raided the house,
they did discover a list of hotels where U.S. government employees received
discounts, including hotels where prosecutors contend the suspects stayed.

Another person on the list has the same name as a man who now works at the
U.S. Embassy in Tanzania.

Unless the power or the wireless antenna is turned off, a mobile phone remains
in constant contact with the nearest cell towers even when it's not being used
for a call. Information processed by the cells can be used to precisely locate
or track the movements of a phone user.

Nativi, the military expert, called the use of regular cell phone accounts "a
huge weakness in the operation."

It would have been more difficult to track anonymous prepaid cards, satellite
phones or radios, he said.

The wireless system used in Italy and most of the rest of Europe relies on a
stamp-sized smart card that is inserted in the back of every handset. This
removable "SIM" card stores an individual's phone number and other account

A unique numerical identifier is assigned to every phone and every SIM, said
Bruno Errico, director of consulting for Openwave Global Services, a company
that provides tracking applications and other software to wireless companies

Wireless companies are obliged by law to keep records of the unique data that
each phone exchanges with the cell network as well as the numbers to which
calls are placed, he said.

Since a phone is served by several cells at any given time, investigators can
easily triangulate the location of a device, Errico said. In an urban area,
where the network of cells is dense and overlapping, such tracking can have a
margin of error of just a few yards.
Going uncovered

Had the agents used non-Italian phones and SIMs, the local network would still
have tracked them, but magistrates might have had a tougher time linking the
phones to each of the suspects since not all countries require wireless users
to provide identification, said Errico. To avoid tracking, the agents would
have had to use other systems not available to the general public, such as
radios, Errico said.

"As long as you use public communication systems, there is no way you can
avoid being tracked," he said.

Or, as Nativi put it: "When you go on this kind of operation, you need to turn
off your damn phone."

Yoram Schweitzer, a researcher for the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in
Tel Aviv, said he wasn't surprised the operatives stayed in five-star hotels,
which provide excellent cover for those posing as businessmen or
businesswomen. But analysts did question whether using of credit cards was

Chris Aaron, a former editor of Jane's Intelligence Review magazine, said the
team must have known that local cells phones put them at risk of being

"A CIA team would have been aware of the Italian ability to log calls and
track their location, so they clearly weren't worried about that," he said.

The CIA in Washington has declined to comment on the case.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not
be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Eugen* Leitl <a href="">leitl</a>
ICBM: 48.07100, 11.36820  
8B29F6BE: 099D 78BA 2FD3 B014 B08A  7779 75B0 2443 8B29 F6BE

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