Book Review: A Kidnapping in Milan by Steve Hendricks

George Orwell said they defend the indefensible. According to George Carlin, they “conceal reality.” Both reasons can explain how euphemisms have come to pervade modern media and be increasingly relied upon in government and politics. The so-called war on terror has generated plenty of them, from “regime change” to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Yet one of the characteristics of euphemisms is that there is often a grim reality at their core.

Such is the case with the term “extraordinary rendition,” the shibboleth used to describe the extrajudicial transfer of a person from one jurisdiction or country to another for arrest, detention and/or interrogation. From a legal perspective, rendition simply describes one government surrendering a fugitive to another. Yet as Steve Hendricks points out in A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial, the root of the word also means to violently tear or to split apart. His sweepingly researched account of the extraordinary rendition of Muslim cleric Abu Omar (Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr) from Italy to Egypt in February 2003 reveals how that etymology might also apply.

Although he focuses on Abu Omar’s kidnapping and interrogation, Hendricks covers much more ground in his book. We learn that more than a century ago the U.S. Supreme Court ratified kidnapping a fugitive in a foreign country and returning them by force to the United States for trial. Abu Omar’s and similar renditions are “extraordinary” because they weren’t brought to the United States, where U.S. law would apply, but to countries where restraints on interrogation techniques were minimal to nonexistent. A Kidnapping in Milan also examines America’s use of rendition against terrorists, stemming back to the Reagan Administration and including President Clinton being the first to authorize extraordinary renditions. Hendricks summarizes the history and efficacy of torture and research into by the United States government as well as its Cold War efforts to create shadow armies in European countries to be prepared for action should a Communist party take control of a government, whether legitimately or not.

As a result, Abu Omar’s rendition is placed in the overall context of American policy. Although the rendition itself and the subsequent detention and interrogations seemingly went according to plan, this is a case that would blow up in the CIA’s face. Not only would an Italian prosecutor investigate, last year an Italian court convicted 23 Americans, 22 of them supposedly CIA agents and the other a U.S. Air Force colonel, and two Italian intelligence agents for the kidnapping. The Americans were tried in absentia. Even that verdict, however, leaves unclear exactly where the decision to take Abu Omar was made.

Hendricks does a fine job detailing the actual abduction and the subsequent detention and interrogations. As he notes, though, much of it comes from Abu Omar himself, not necessarily contemporaneous documents of others. Equally intriguing is the Italian investigation, based in large part on SIMs cards used in European cell phones and records from cell phone towers. Where some readers may encounter problems is the potpourri of Islamic and Italian names and the various pseudonyms used by the surprisingly large number of Americans involved in the operation. While this can’t be avoided, Hendricks also occasionally uses too jocular a phrase or words that contrast too much with the straightforward narrative style of the book (for example, referring to “leporine” renditions in discussing the removal of rabbits from Aviano Air Base due to the flight hazards they posed).

All in all, though, A Kidnapping in Milan shows an unvarnished truth behind a euphemism used frequently by the American government over the last decade.

A problem with preparing men to seize a country is that they may grow dissatisfied when not allowed to do so.

Steve Hendricks, A Kidnapping in Milan

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