Like so much else in our moment, it contravened laws the U.S. had once signed onto, pretzeled the English language, went directly to the darkside, was connected to various administration lies and manipulations that preceded the invasion of Iraq, and was based on taking the American taxpayer to the cleaners. I’m talking about a now-notorious Bush administration “extraordinary rendition” in Italy, the secret kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric off the streets of Milan in early 2003, his transport via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to Egypt, and there, evidently with the CIA station chief for Italy riding shotgun, directly into the hands of Egyptian torturers. This was but one of an unknown number of extraordinary-rendition operations the estimate is more than 100 since Sept. 11, 2001, but no one really knows that have taken place all over the world and have delivered terror suspects into the custody of Uzbeki, Syrian, Egyptian, and other hands notorious for their use of torture. It just so happens that this operation took place on the democratic soil of an ally that possessed an independent judiciary, and that the team of 19 or more participants, some speaking fluent Italian, passed through that country not like the undercover agents of our imagination, but, as former CIA clandestine officer Melissa Boyle Mahle told Reuters, “like elephants stampeding through Milan. They left huge footprints.”
Those gargantuan footprints and some good detective work by the Italian police based on unsecured cell phones (evidently from a batch issued to the U.S. diplomatic mission in Rome), hotel bills, credit card receipts, and the like have given us a glimpse into the unexpectedly extravagant “shadow war” being conducted on our behalf by the Bush administration through the Central Intelligence Agency. So let me skip the normal discussions of kidnappings, torture, or whether we violated Italian sovereignty, and just concentrate on what those footprints revealed. If the president’s Global War on Terror has been saddled with the inelegant acronym GWOT, the Italian rendition operation should perhaps be given the acronym LDVWOT, or La Dolce Vita War on Terror.
Of course, if Vice President Dick Cheney could say of administration tax cuts, “We won the  midterms. This is our due”; if House Majority Leader Tom DeLay could charge his airfare to Great Britain to an American Express card issued to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and food and phone calls at a Scottish golf-course hotel to a credit card issued to Washington lobbyist, Edwin A. Buckham; if Halliburton could slip a reputed $813 million extra in “costs” into a contract to provide logistical support for U.S. troops (including “$152,000 in ‘movie library costs’ [and] a $1.5 million tailoring bill”); then why shouldn’t the Spartan warriors of the intelligence community capture a few taxpayer bucks while preparing a kidnapping in Italy?
Here’s what we know at present about this particular version of La Dolce Vita:
- The CIA agents took rooms in Milan’s five-star hotels, including the Principe di Savoia, “one of the world’s most luxuriously appointed hotels” where they rang up $42,000 in expenses; the Westin Palace, the Milan Hilton, and the Star Hotel Rosa as well as similar places in the seaside resort of La Spezia and in Florence, running up cumulative hotel bills of $144,984.
- They ate in the equivalent of five-star restaurants in Milan and elsewhere, evidently fancying themselves gourmet undercover agents.
- As a mixed team at least six women took part in the operation men and women on at least two occasions took double rooms together in these hotels. (There is no indication that any of them were married to each other, at least.)
- After the successful kidnapping was done and the cleric dispatched to sunny Egypt, they evidently decided they deserved a respite from their exertions; so several of them left for a vacation in Venice, while four others headed for the Mediterranean coast north of Tuscany, all on the taxpayer dole.
- They charged up to $500 a day apiece, according to Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post, to “Diners Club accounts created to match their recently forged identities”; wielded Visa cards (assumedly similarly linked to their fake identities); and made sure they got or used frequent flier miles. (The Diner’s Club, when queried by TomDispatch, refused to comment on any aspect of the case.) Our master spies “rarely paid in cash,” adds Whitlock, “gave their frequent traveler account numbers to desk clerks and made dozens of calls from unsecure phones in their rooms.”
- To move their captive in comfort for them they summoned up not some grimy cargo plane but a Learjet to take him to Germany and a Gulfstream V to transport him to Egypt, the sorts of spiffy private jets normally used by CEOs and movie stars.
You would think that our representatives in Congress, reading about this in their local newspapers, might raise the odd question about the rich-and-famous life-styles of our secret agents. So far, however, despite the well-reported use of taxpayer dollars to fund trysts, vacations, and the good life, nary a peep on the subject has come from Congress; nor has anyone yet called for the money to be returned to the American people.
Now, because a Milan prosecutor had the temerity to issue arrest warrants for 13 of our high-flying spies and to seek warrants for another six of them the great majority are now officially “on the run” and assumedly have been pulled out of Europe by the Agency. The CIA station chief who headed the operation had even bought a retirement house near Turin. “That he thought he could live out his golden years in Italy,” reports Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times, “is another indication of the impunity with which he and the others felt they were operating, Italian prosecutors say.”
A small tip for Interpol investigators: If any of these agents are still at large in Europe, I wouldn’t be checking out obscure safe-houses. The places to search are top-of-the-line hotels, Michelin-recommended restaurants, and elite vacation spots across the continent.
When evaluating the CIA’s actions in Italy, you might consider the Agency’s mission statement as laid out at its Web site: “Our success depends on our ability to act with total discretion. Our mission requires complete personal integrity. We accomplish things others cannot, often at great risk. We stand by one another and behind one another.” Or you might simply adapt an ad line from one of the few credit cards the team in Milan seems not to have used: The nightly cost of a room in Milan’s Hotel Principe di Savoia, $450; the cost of a Coke from a mini-bar in one of its rooms, $10; the cost of leasing GulfstreamV for a month, $229,639; that feeling of taking the American taxpayer for a ride, priceless.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.
[Special thanks go to Nick Turse for his typically invaluable research aid.]
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt