Travel Logs Aid Germans' Kidnap Probe
CIA Team's Movements Tracked With Spain's Help
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 2, 2007; Page A11
BERLIN, Feb. 1 -- If not for the pit stops on a Mediterranean resort island, where they relaxed in four-star hotels and went to the spa for a massage, the CIA operatives who now face arrest on kidnapping charges in Germany would have remained safely in the shadows, according to German prosecutors.
German investigators said they received detailed records of the intelligence agents' stopovers on the Spanish island of Palma de Mallorca from Spanish police last year. The documents, which included the operatives' passport numbers, hotel bills and aviation records, enabled prosecutors to identify a CIA abduction crew that allegedly kidnapped Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen, in a bungled counterterrorism operation in early 2004.
On Wednesday, prosecutors in Munich announced that a German court had issued arrest warrants for 13 people it named as CIA operatives involved in the Masri kidnapping. While most of the people used aliases and their true identities remain unclear, German authorities said the Spanish records provided a critical break and kept the investigation alive.
"It made it possible for us to identify specific individuals and to connect them with the kidnapping case," said Christian Schmidt-Sommerfeld, the chief Munich prosecutor, in a statement disclosing the warrants. "This information as well as other investigative evidence now leads to the grounds of suspicion against these 13 distinctly identifiable individuals."
It's not the first time that CIA officers have left a long trail of clues during an undercover counterterrorism operation in Europe. Italian prosecutors charged 25 CIA operatives and a U.S. Air Force officer with kidnapping a radical cleric in Milan in 2003 after investigators traced their cellphone logs and frequent-flier records. They also found that the operatives had racked up more than $150,000 in expenses while in Italy, including long stays at $500-a-night hotels.
Records of the other team's stopovers at Palma de Mallorca were gathered by the Guardia Civil, a Spanish police agency that has investigated the CIA's use of the island as a staging ground for other counterterrorism operations in Europe and North Africa. Some of the records were provided to The Washington Post by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group that has investigated extralegal abductions by CIA counterterrorism squads.
A CIA spokesman at headquarters in Langley, Va., declined comment for this article.
Aviation records show that the CIA operatives arrived at Palma de Mallorca at 10 p.m. Jan. 22, 2004, from Algiers. They spent the night at the Marriott Son Antem Golf Resort and Spa, paying $175 each for a room, including breakfast. One male member of the team, who stayed in Room 216, was billed for $85 worth of massages and a $23 bar tab. He and the others paid with their Visa cards.
The next day, the CIA crew departed in a privately chartered Boeing 737 for Skopje, Macedonia, where Masri had been detained secretly for three weeks by Macedonian security agents on suspicion of involvement with a terrorist network, according to German prosecutors. The plane stayed on the ground for less than six hours before departing with Masri on board, heading first to Baghdad and then to Kabul.
Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese descent, said he was kept in a secret CIA prison that was known as the Salt Pit and interrogated about Islamic radicals in Germany before his captors realized they had the wrong man. He said he was flown back to the Balkans five months later, released on a hillside in Albania and warned to keep his mouth shut.
After delivering him to Afghanistan, the CIA operatives flew back to Palma de Mallorca after a brief stopover in Romania, aviation records show. The team spent three more nights on the Spanish island before returning to Washington. For the flight home, they ordered a shrimp cocktail for the pilot and two bottles of Pesquera red wine, according to invoices from the ground services crew at the Palma airport.
John Sifton, a senior researcher on counterterrorism for Human Rights Watch, said the operatives may have taken a carefree approach because they assumed they were being protected by European intelligence partners. Masri, for instance, was handed over to the CIA by Macedonian security agents. And in the Milan kidnapping case, top officials with the Italian military intelligence agency known as Sismi have been charged with conspiring with the CIA.
"I suppose they never expected there would be a flap about all this or else they would have been more cautious," Sifton said. "When you think a local government is cooperating with you in your criminal activities, you're probably less careful."
U.S. officials have never publicly admitted guilt or responsibility in the Masri case, and the U.S. Justice Department has refused to cooperate with requests for information from German prosecutors.
Masri sued the CIA for damages in U.S. District Court in Virginia. His complaint was dismissed in May on grounds that the lawsuit could generate revelations that would damage national security. Masri is appealing. His attorneys said the recent revelations from Europe show that the secrecy concerns are moot.
"It renders even more far-fetched the argument that every single development in this case is a state secret," said Ben Wizner, an ACLU lawyer who is representing Masri in his lawsuit.
Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.