The story is getting more play outside the US than in, but credit the Chicago Tribune's John Crewdson for a Christmas Day present to news junkies and a delicious scoop on CIA bungling:
The trick is known to just about every two-bit crook in the cellular age: If you don't want the cops to know where you are, take the battery out of your cell phone when it's not in use.
Had that trick been taught at the CIA's rural Virginia training school for covert operatives, the Bush administration might have avoided much of the current crisis in Europe over the practice the CIA calls "rendition," and CIA Director Porter Goss might not have ordered a sweeping review of the agency's field operations.
But when CIA operatives assembled here nearly three years ago to abduct an Egyptian-born Muslim preacher named Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, more familiarly known as Abu Omar, and "render" him to Cairo, they left their cell phone batteries in.
The stories on the Italian investigation into the CIA "covert" operation also include an extremely embarrassing accounting of just how spendthrift American spooks can be -- $158,096.56 in hotel charges alone, not counting meals and rental cars. After the kidnapping, various of CIA agents split off into smaller groups and treated themselves to "luxury resort hotels in the Italian Alps, Tuscany and Venice" the Trib reports. And when the newspaper's reporters asked if there was "some operational or other official reason" for this dent in the US's $40 billion intelligence budget, "the senior U.S. official shrugged. 'They work hard,' he said."
Oh, and just how well did these James Bond wannabes protect their cover? Check the sidebar on how easily "the Tribune was able to identify the names, and in some cases the post office box addresses, used by 67 suspected CIA rendition specialists who registered at hotels in Milan and on the island of Mallorca. Those post office boxes, in turn, led to scores of other names that share the same addresses, most of which are in the suburbs of Washington, D.C."
More media outlets are starting to pick up at least an abbreviated version of the more damning details from the Italian investigation and upcoming prosecution (in abstentia) of the CIA operatives. Maybe the very outlandishness of the alleged behavior -- e.g. one operative registered in her own name so she would get extra frequet-flyer miles -- scare off some editors and news directors, but the Italians seem to have built themselves a solid case with the tracking of a blizzard of cellphone calls, including several to CIA headquarters. Can US agents really be so inept? Now that's what's scary.