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UPI Intelligence Watch

By LAURA HEATON, UPI Intelligence Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Legal developments Europe last week will have an impact on the CIA's rendition program, in which suspected terrorists are seized outside the United States and turned over to third countries for prosecution or interrogation.

German prosecutors announced Jan. 31 they were issuing arrest warrants for 13 alleged CIA operatives accused of kidnapping a German-Arab citizen, Khaled el-Masri, in Macedonia in late 2003.

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Earlier in January, Italian prosecutors asked a court there for permission to try in absentia more than two dozen CIA operatives and an Italian intelligence agent they charge abducted an Egyptian cleric who disappeared in Italy in 2003. Then, in the latest development in the long-running legal saga, on Jan. 26, judicial officials seized the Italian home of one the men accused, former Milan CIA chief Robert Lady, indicating that a trial may be imminent.

The CIA routinely declines to comment on rendition, which is a covert activity, now conducted under the legal authority of a sweeping intelligence finding signed Sept. 17, 2001 by President Bush. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called el-Masri's detention "a mistake." Given that these are the first indictments of Americans linked to the rendition program, one expert says, the Bush administration is likely to move cautiously and behind the scenes -- acutely aware of the precedent-setting nature of the case.

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"Government officials typically like to deal with these types of controversies quietly," said Thomas Sanderson, a senior fellow and deputy director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Transnational Threats Project in Washington.

Sanderson said he expected that the indictments of U.S. intelligence officers would be bilaterally cleared up through "new inexplicit agreements."

"The United States is never going to extradite its intelligence officers to another country, especially an ally, to stand trial for something that that ally most likely agreed to have done on their soil in the first place," said a former CIA operations officer.

However, the fact that judiciaries in Europe are now involved suggests that the controversy might not be so easy to negotiate away. Regardless of the ultimate implications these investigations in Europe will have on the individuals accused, the controversy will likely have some effect on the way that the rendition program is run, experts say.

Rendition has evoked a strong public response in the United States and Europe ever since testimony surfaced in the press from individuals who had been detained and tortured in secret facilities run by the CIA and the intelligence or security services of U.S. allies after being rendered.

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Going forward, these cases may have a lasting affect on the rendition program as well as on trans-Atlantic relations in general.

El-Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese origin, was handed to U.S officials after Macedonian border authorities detained him in Skopje in late 2003. El-Masri said in testimony that he was transferred to a secret detention facility in Afghanistan where he was held for more five months. He claims he was drugged, beaten, and held in squalid conditions in an attempt to make him confess to being a member of al-Qaida. Many details of his experience were corroborated by German prosecutors.

In early 2004, doubts emerged about whether El-Masri was the terror suspect the CIA sought.

In May 2004, months after the CIA began investigating its possible mistake, Condoleezza Rice, who was National Security Council Director at the time, called for el-Masri to be released. Two weeks later, and over five months after being seized, he was returned to Germany.

Less than a year before, CIA agents in Italy had allegedly been involved in another rendition case targeting Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar -- a Muslim cleric from Egypt living in Italy, where he had been granted political asylum.

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The operation, in which two dozen CIA agents have been implicated, involved kidnapping Abu Omar from a street in Milan, transferring him by plane through Germany to Egypt. Abu Omar has been imprisoned for nearly four years, most of the time at Egypt's notorious Torah Prison.

Reports indicate that Italian anti-terrorism units had tracked Abu Omar for some time before he disappeared from the street in Milan. According to a report by The Chicago Tribune, the local police in Milan had Abu Omar under surveillance for his suspected role in recruiting young Muslim Europeans to travel to Iraq to prepare for the expected invasion by the coalition forces. The Tribune reported that Lady, the head of the CIA station in Milan, had advised against seizing Abu Omar, citing possible negative on the agency's relationships with its Italian counterparts.

Last week, Italian authorities seized the villa to which Lady is said to have planned to retire. The head prosecutor in the case indicated plans to sell the property to pay for court costs and any damages that might incur, should the case move forward.

Although President Bush publicly acknowledged in a speech last fall that the U.S. intelligence community uses rendition, officials continue to remain silent on the cases that are now unfolding in Europe.

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"The official position of the Bush administration is that whatever Europe does, whatever other nations do, won't affect us. But it can't not have any effect on the rendition program," said Steven Watt, a senior human rights advisor for the ACLU who worked directly on el-Masri's dismissed lawsuit against the CIA. Watt explained that the cases in Germany and Italy would make European intelligence agencies more hesitant to cooperate with their counterparts in the United States.

"I think that's going to have a detrimental effect on the effectiveness of the U.S. response to countering terrorism. (U.S. intelligence) clearly needs the assistance and cooperation of counterparts in other parts of the world," Watt said.

Experts told UPI that how the public in Europe reacts to the mounting controversy will play a role in determining the amount of pressure European intelligence agencies feel to reform their intelligence gathering tactics - including their willingness to collaborate with U.S. programs.

"There will be pressure brought to bear on legislatures to rein these intelligence agencies in," said Watt.

Sanderson also indicated that the extent of the uproar from the general public both in the United States and Europe may influence how vociferously the controversy would play out.

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Asked to comment on the indictments and investigations in Europe, the former CIA operations officer called the uproar "disingenuous."

"The fact is, this would never have occurred - if it did occur - without the prior agreement of those intelligence services and their governments," she said.

"The European public is absolutely asleep as far as the war on terror goes," the former officer said.

"The European public and their political elites (...) have outsourced their defense to the United States for 60 years, and then when they find out exactly how that defense is conducted, they're upset," she said.

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