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WAR ON TERRORISM -
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For Agency's "Rendering" Teams, A Lavish Overseas Lifestyle

Posted in the database on Tuesday, December 27th, 2005 @ 13:44:02 MST (1337 views)
by John Crewdson    The Chicago Tribune  

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MILAN, Italy -- When the CIA decides to "render" a terrorism suspect living abroad for interrogation in Egypt or another friendly Middle East nation, it spares no expense.

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 later 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 managed to spend $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.

"But you can get away with it if you claim you needed the hotel `to maintain your cover,'" he said. "They would have had to pose as high-flying businessmen."

Judging from the photographs on the passports they displayed when checking into their hotels and the international driving licenses they used to rent cars, not many of the Milan operatives could have passed as "high-flying businessmen."

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

Although the Milan police obtained the hotel bills of 22 alleged CIA operatives, they say at least 59 cellphones were used in the weeks leading up to the abduction. Even allowing for the possibility that some operatives used more than one phone, prosecutors believe that a significant number of operatives remain unidentified.

A senior U.S. official said the agency's deployment in Milan was "about usual for that kind of operation." But in December 2001, when the CIA arrived in frigid Stockholm to transport two suspected Islamic militants to Cairo, it sent eight rendition experts to do the job, according to a Swedish television documentary.

When a rendition team showed up in Macedonia in January 2004 to collect a Kuwait-born Germany citizen, Khalid el-Masri, and fly him to Afghanistan, there were only 11 operatives on the plane, according to a Spanish police report.

At the beginning of February 2003, with the abduction still three weeks away, 10 of the operatives, who presumably had been spending their days charting Abu Omar's movements as he walked from his apartment to the local mosque and back, left Milan to spend the weekend in a hotel overlooking the harbor at La Spezia, on Italy's Mediterranean coast.

Some male and female operatives shared the same hotel rooms, records show. Before heading back to Milan, five members of the group detoured to Florence, where they checked into the renowned Grand Hotel Baglioni.

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.

Hotel records indicate at least two couples on those trips shared the same 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.

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.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. intelligence budget has been increased by Congress to an estimated $40 billion a year, an all-time record.

In their travels around Europe, some of the CIA's rendition teams gravitated to another vacation resort spot, the Mediterranean island of Palma de Mallorca, according to a recent report by a Spanish police agency, The Guardia Civil.

At least three planes believed to be owned or operated by the CIA - including a Boeing 737 that rendered el-Masri to Afghanistan and the Gulfstream executive jet that Italian prosecutors say flew Abu Omar to Cairo - made at least 10 stops on Mallorca during 2004.

The Spanish government says it has been assured by the Bush administration that none of the CIA planes stopping on Spanish soil had prisoners on board or otherwise infringed Spanish law. At least some of the Mallorcan stopovers were used to take on fuel after arriving from, or before departing for, the United States.

But according to the Guardia's report, the 737 spent five days on Mallorca in April of last year before departing for Libya - more time than required for refueling.

Another of the Mallorcan stopovers lasted three days. There were five two-day visits, and three others that lasted a single day and night.

The police say most of the passengers on those flights spent the layovers at two of Palma's most exclusive hotels, the Mallorca Marriott and the Gran Melia Victoria.

The five-star Gran Melia charges $1,018 a night for a suite during the month of September, when several of the stopovers occurred, although it is not known whether they rented a suite. The $1,018 price does not include breakfast.

At the Marriott, a junior suite goes for $300 a night, and an executive suite for $325. Access to the hotel's golf course is $65.

According to the local newspaper, the Diario de Mallorca, the hotel bills incurred during some of those layovers included greens fees, massages and $78 bottles of Pesquera red wine.

Chicago Tribune correspondents Drew Crosby and Samuel Loewenberg in Madrid contributed to this report.



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