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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - CIA agents charged with kidnapping a Muslim cleric in Milan appear to have bungled their way into an international incident by ignoring the most basic rules of the spy trade, experts say. ADVERTISEMENT
Far from the suave discretion of James Bond, experts say the operatives who snatched radical Muslim cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr on Feb. 17, 2003, sound more like the bumbling secret agent Austin Powers of movie fame.
"Instead of super-sleuths, they were like elephants stampeding through Milan. They left huge footprints," said former CIA clandestine officer Melissa Boyle Mahle.
Media reports say the agents placed phone calls to CIA headquarters on unsecured lines, ran up $145,000 in bills at luxury hotels and operated far enough in the open for Italian authorities to learn their operational identities.
"Everybody knows that telephones can be traced. It's not exactly an emerging technology," said one former spy.
In fact, current and former intelligence officials, who had no actual knowledge of Nasr's abduction, said Italian accounts depict an amateur operation.
Several other intelligence sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the case involves a covert U.S. operation.
"The tradecraft was beyond appalling," said an intelligence official with long experience in clandestine affairs. "I'd have to wonder if these were CIA officers trained in the clandestine arts."
Some suggested the operation could have been carried out by intelligence officials from the FBI or the U.S. military.
But intelligence experts say tradecraft -- the bag of tricks spies use to execute operations without being detected -- has eroded at the CIA since the end of the Cold War and may not have improved much since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Loch Johnson, who teaches international affairs at the University of Georgia, said the mechanical gadgetry available to modern American spies is vastly more sophisticated.
"But one could argue that overall tradecraft expertise has not been at the level as it was during the Cold War," he said.
The abduction of Nasr, who court documents say was flown to Egypt and tortured there, threatens to rattle U.S.-Italian relations three months after U.S. troops shot dead an Italian intelligence agent in Iraq without facing disciplinary action.
Italian prosecutors are considering calling for the extradition of 13 people involved in the operation, while Italians are demanding to know if their own government was also involved.
"The Italians wouldn't necessarily be involved. You try to get local cooperation. But if the locals aren't helpful, you do it alone. You have to," said a former senior CIA officer.
Nasr, who is also known as Abu Omar, is under investigation in Italy for possible terrorism links.
The CIA has broad powers to abduct terrorism suspects overseas and transfer them to third countries under a classified directive signed by President Bush days after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. officials have said.
One former CIA official said a rendition operation like the one in Milan would probably involve only one or two CIA staff members. Others would likely be Italian nationals or foreigners hired on a contract basis.
Neither the Bush administration nor the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is likely to support extradition, given the national security aspects of the case, legal experts say.
"But it does show the importance of dealing with terrorists in ways that are broadly supported around the world," said John Moore, director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia.
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