by Mike Dakkak at ITN in the News
Three major scandals involving the U.S. intelligence community have either originated in Italy or have had major aspects of them involve Italy over the last 20 years: the Milan Rendition, SpyGate and ItalyGate.
When the timelines of the respective cases are overlapped a picture emerges of an element within the U.S. intelligence community that has acted independently of, and sometimes in direct contradiction to, the country and its elected leadership.
While the timeline below is not exhaustive, it is meant to offer a glimpse of that picture. It has been constructed using public documents, congressional testimony, press reports, whistleblower accounts and interviews with the principals.
November 27, 1999 – Link University is founded in Rome, Italy, by Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud and former Italian Interior Minister Vincenzo Scotti. The university would be the first foreign university allowed to operate in Italy. Over the next two decades the campus would serve as a “mingling place” for Western intelligence officials.
February 17, 2003 – A Muslim cleric known as Abu Omar is abducted from Milan, Italy, and flown to Egypt where he is allegedly tortured by Egyptian government officials. The case would become known as the Milan Rendition.
Despite being characterized as a joint US/Italy counter-terror operation approved by both the George W. Bush and Silvio Berlusconi governments, rank and file CIA officers would be convicted for the operation.
January 2007 – A trial against CIA officers for the Abu Omar abduction begins in Italy. Shortly after, plans to charge CIA leadership were scuttled when, in an unprecedented move, an Italian judge ordered an evidence “swap.” That evidence consisted of “non-redacted documents” and contained details about the rendition case, including presumably, the names of high-ranking U.S. and Italian officials who facilitated and approved the operation. The documents they were replaced with were redacted documents transmitted by Italian Intelligence.
As a result of that swap of evidence the prosecutor could not proceed with charges against CIA leadership. Twenty-six rank and file officers – including Sabrina de Sousa – would be charged instead.
2008 – A whistleblower identified as Ryan Dark White starts working with officials at the FBI in Maryland on counter-terrorism operations. (The whistleblower is also active on social media under the handle @Johnheretohelp.)
The group, John says, would become known as the “Dirty Trick Squad.” Under the guise of information systems security operations the group would spy, illegally compromise, illegally wiretap, break into computers, plant, reverse, change information and change emails on individuals’ computers.
The team was headed by future Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland at the time. Also part of the group was Shawn Henry, an FBI agent who would go on to head the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike.
Nov. 4, 2009 – Former CIA officer Sabrina De Sousa is convicted for her role in the Milan Rendition. Of note (and has been proven by Italian FOIA requests, court documents and testimony – all of which has been submitted to the European Court of Human Rights) is that de Sousa played no role in either the planning or the execution of the operation. In fact at the time Abu Omar was being abducted in Milan, de Sousa was over 100 miles away chaperoning her son’s school ski trip.
2014 – CIA Director John Brennan asks Barack Obama to broach the subject of pardons of the CIA officers involved in the Milan Rendition with the Italian president at the time Sergio Mattarella. He never mentioned to Obama that one officer, Sabrina de Sousa, had been excluded from the list. This questionable exclusion of de Sousa seems to confirm Brennan’s acting unilaterally without the knowledge of the Obama – and subsequently Trump – White Houses in getting de Sousa imprisoned, likely for speaking out against an unjustified rendition.
(An email from the Italian Minister of Justice in 2017 confirmed that “the main difficulty with the De Sousa case was related to the little support that the former US administration, [Obama] and the CIA itself gave her in the past. This didn’t allow her to be included in the former clemency request to the President of the Republic.”)
De Sousa came to believe there was a quid pro quo: she serving her sentence in Italy in exchange for charges being dropped against Jeffrey Castelli, the CIA station chief in Rome at the time of Abu Omar’s abduction. Castelli was privy to all the details of the operation including who in Italy ordered and facilitated it.
April 2015 – De Sousa travels from the U.S. (where she had been since 2010) to Portugal to visit her family. Prior to her travel de Sousa and her legal team obtain approval from then Portuguese Attorney General Joana Marques Vidal. Vidal issued de Sousa an informal nulla osta, or permission from Vidal, that she would be able to travel safely without being arrested.
Such assurances were necessary at the time as de Sousa had a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) out on her. Meaning if she traveled anywhere on the European Continent she could be taken into custody. De Sousa would spend the next several months in Portugal without incident or without threats of extradition.
June 16, 2015 – Donald Trump announces his candidacy for President.
September 2015 – By this time, despite incessant media attacks, Donald Trump had emerged as the prohibitive favorite for the presidential nomination in a field of more than a dozen Republican presidential candidates – most of whom had extensive political experience. A majority of Republican voters at the time (51%) believed he would emerge as the eventual nominee.
Stefan Halper, a person known to be an operative for both the CIA and FBI is awarded contracts by the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment. It is believed intelligence officials, including Halper, are charged at the time with befriending individuals close to Donald Trump and setting them up with “Russian connections” so they could be used against them.
For the contract awarded in September 2015, Halper lists former Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov as a consultant and advisor. Trubnikov is a known Russian intelligence officer who would be listed as a source by retired British intelligence officer Christopher Steele in the Steele Dossier, the report submitted by Steele to the FBI in 2016 that claims Donald Trump was a Russian asset.
This same month an FBI officer calls Yared Tamene, the IT Director at the Democratic National Committee, and asks him to look into and corroborate specific cyber activities the FBI had noticed emanating from the DNC’s network and that could be considered “nefarious” (i.e. attempted hacking by a foreign entity).
Tamene, after having an analysis of the DNC’s systems performed, would tell the FBI officer no such activity could be found. The same officer would correspond with Tamene on a monthly basis in the ensuing months to ask if any hacking activity had been detected at the DNC. Tamene would repeatedly tell the officer there was none.
Right around this time (listed in Congressional testimony as “September or October 2015”) the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, contracts with a Washington, D.C. political research firm called Fusion GPS, to begin gathering opposition research on Donald Trump.
In Portugal, Sabrina de Sousa would be told there was a high level meeting that took place in the country between U.S. and Portuguese officials – likely brought under pressure from the U.S.
October 5, 2015 – After being in Portugal for months without incident de Sousa is surprisingly detained at the Lisbon airport as she attempted to travel to India to visit her mother.
October 7, 2015 – Two days after being detained in Portugal Italy issues an extradition request for de Sousa. She was freed shortly afterward but ordered to stay in Portugal pending a decision on her extradition.
October 2015 – Nellie Ohr contacts Fusion GPS partner and co-founder Glenn Simpson to ask for a job at the firm. She is hired as an independent contractor shortly thereafter. Ohr’s husband is Bruce Ohr, the head of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force at the Department of Justice at the time.
February 23, 2016 – Donald Trump wins the Nevada Republican primary contest. It is his third win in the first four primary contests making him the odds-on favorite to win the nomination.
In France, the ECHR rules in favor of Abu Omar in his case against Italy for his unlawful abduction from Milan.
March 14, 2016 – George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, is introduced to Joseph Mifsud for the first time during a trip Papadopoulos took to Rome while he was associated with the now defunct London Centre of International Law Practice (LCILP). The purpose of the trip was to meet officials affiliated with Link University.
Papadopoulos would tell Mueller investigators that Mifsud at first seemed uninterested in him but took a greater interest after learning about his role with the Trump Campaign. The two would begin corresponding.
April 26, 2016 – In a meeting in London, England, Mifsud tells Papadopoulos that during a recent trip to Moscow, he had learned that the Russian government had obtained “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, at that point the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Papadopoulos would later tell the FBI Mifsud said the “dirt” was in the form of “emails of Clinton,” and that they “have thousands of emails.”
April 28, 2016 – IT Director Yared Tamene, in Congressional testimony, would say this is the first day the DNC IT team noticed “activity on our network that was unusual, nefarious by adversaries.”
The FBI would later say that Russian intrusion into the DNC’s servers had been traced back to the summer of 2015.
April 30, 2016 – The Democratic National Committee contacts cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike to respond to a suspected breach of its servers. The following month Crowdstrike would conclude two separate Russian intelligence-affiliated adversaries breached the network.
May 2016 – The Washington Free Beacon ends its funding of opposition research into Donald Trump with political research firm Fusion GPS. The Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton Campaign (through its law firm Perkins Coie) take up the funding. Partner and co-founder of Fusion GPS Glenn Simpson approaches retired British intelligence officer Christopher Steele about gathering information about “whether candidate Donald Trump had any personal and business ties in Russia, and whether there were any ties between the Russian government and Trump and his campaign.” Steele begins gathering information for Fusion GPS soon thereafter.
May 10, 2016 – George Papadopoulos meets the Australian ambassador to the UK Alexander Downer at wine bar in London.
“I had no idea what he wanted to talk about and quite frankly, an invite by an ambassador is very peculiar,” Papadopoulos would tell Australia’s ABC in 2019 about the meeting. He would say he believed Downer was sent to spy on him. “It’s as if I was there being interrogated and profiled by an intelligence officer — and that’s exactly what I left that meeting thinking,” he said.
The next day Australian officials in London would relay to officials in Canberra that Papadopoulos told Downer the Russians have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and were helping Trump win the election.
Papadopoulos denies ever broaching the subject with Downer. “I have absolutely no memory of ever talking to him about that,” he said. Notably, Papadopoulos readily admits telling Greece’s foreign minister about the emails about two weeks after his meeting with Downer.
“There’s nothing illegal about spreading rumors…” he told ABC. “So there’s no reason for me to be hiding it if I really did tell him [Downer] that.”
May 21, 2016 – Portuguese authorities learn of a meeting between Frederico Carvalhão Gil, an officer of Portugal’s Security Information Service (SIS), and Sergey Nicolaevich Pozdnyakov, a Russian citizen believed to be a member of the SVR, a successor to the KGB. Carvalhão was accused of selling NATO documents to Pozdnyakov for 10,000 euros. Both men were arrested at the site of the meeting – Rome, Italy.
The secrets supposedly traded between the two men were widely considered to be low-level. “Banal” is how some press reports described them. The meetings between Gil and Pozdnyakov had also been monitored for some time.
But a deal would soon be struck between the two nations that would have seen Pozdnyakov sent to Portugal to face charges of espionage in return for Sabrina de Sousa being sent to Italy to serve time in prison for the Milan Rendition. It was a development that startled de Sousa considering per ECHR documents she had the authorization of the Portuguese Attorney General to travel to Portugal.
June 2016 – Portuguese newspapers report that Brennan travels to Portugal this month.
June 24, 2016 – A letter is drafted by the Italian Ministry of Justice to de Sousa and her legal team informing them that Italy has formally upheld de Sousa’s conviction. The letter stated that as far as the Italian government is concerned the sentence handed down by the Supreme Court of Justice in Rome in 2012 was “irrevocable” and that the defendant had no right to a retrial or an appeal.
Important to note is that these are stipulations that could have been made when the EAW was originally issued years earlier but weren’t. Also unusual is the letter is drafted but is neither translated nor sent to de Sousa’s team – and would not be for another three months.
July 5, 2016 – Christopher Steele provides the first report to the FBI on his eponymous dossier. His briefings with the FBI would continue through October 2016.
July 8, 2016 – Dr. Molly Macauley, an internationally renowned researcher of economics, known especially for her expertise on the economics of satellites, is killed at night while walking her dogs near her home in her Roland Park, MD, neighborhood.
It is alleged by the whistleblower, John, that Dr. Macauley was killed because she had discovered – and begun to let it be known – that satellite technology was being used to alter votes in state and national elections.
According to a police report obtained by ITN, Macauley left her home shortly before 11pm to walk her two dogs – her usual routine. She was attacked about .1 miles (a little less than two football fields) away from her home and was found collapsed on the sidewalk about 450 feet away from her home. Police say she had been cut in the throat. Just 15 minutes had elapsed between the time Macauley left her home and the time she was found collapsed on the sidewalk.
Her death was ruled a homicide. It was the first in Roland Park since 1998 and there have been zero homicides in the affluent Baltimore suburb since.
John goes on to say that as a result of the exposure many of the satellite systems had “mysteriously” ended up in the hands of overseas governments. Notably China, Iran and Italy.
July 2016 – The proposed “spy swap” of de Sousa for Russian intelligence officer Pozdnyakov arrested in Rome falls through, further delaying de Sousa’s extradition.
What warrants emphasis is the extraordinary lengths John Brennan went through (including the willingness to have a former CIA officer imprisoned overseas) to get access to a Russian intelligence officer. Having such an individual in the custody of a Western nation would undoubtedly provide a powerful contingency plan should intelligence gathered against Donald Trump, such as the Steele Dossier, be proven false.
Whatever Brennan’s precise reason the scheme was thwarted – at least for the time being. Italy decided not to cooperate and, likely due to pressure from the Russian government, backed out of the deal and released Pozdnyakov. He was allowed to return to his country and according to Portuguese authorities his whereabouts today are unknown.
July 10, 2016 – Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich is murdered in Washington, D.C. Rich was shot twice in the back. His murder was ruled a robbery but none of his personal effects are taken. Rich has long been suspected of being the true source of the DNC’s “hacked emails” the Russian government is blamed for. He reportedly kept the data on a USB drive that he carried with him at all times.
July 22, 2016 – Wikileaks begins releasing hacked emails from the DNC.
July 26, 2016 – A “friendly foreign government” (widely believed to be Australia) tells U.S. government officials that Russia is helping Donald Trump win the election.
July 31, 2016 – The FBI officially opens the investigation into Trump-Russia collusion. It is dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane.” Assistant Director for the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division (CD) Bill Priestap authorizes the investigation. The Section Chief of the CD’s Counterespionage Section, agent Peter Strzok, would take a lead role and eventually come to manage the investigation.
On the same day Strzok texts the following to Special Counsel to the Deputy Director of the FBI Lisa Page, with whom he is having an extramarital affair: “And damn this feels momentous. Because this matters. The other one did, too, but that was to ensure we didn’t F something up. This matters because this MATTERS. So super glad to be on this voyage with you.” (Emphasis in original).
August 8, 2016 – Page texts Strzok, “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok replies, “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
August 11 – September 6, 2016 – CIA Director John Brennan gives individual briefings to the “Gang of 8” on Capitol Hill (both Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders, and chairs of the intelligence committees in each chamber) on “Russian attempts to interfere with the election.”
August 25, 2016 – Brennan gives Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) a special briefing on Russian interference. In this briefing Brennan claims Russia’s hacking of the DNC was designed to help Trump, and that because it involves domestic issues the FBI would have to take the lead in the investigation.
Two days later Reid sends a letter to FBI Director James Comey imploring him to open an investigation into the Trump-Russia affair. Congressional sources say senior bureau officials were expecting Reid’s letter even before he wrote it.
Reid saw Brennan’s outreach as “a sign of urgency,” left-leaning journalists reported.
“Reid also had the impression that Brennan had an ulterior motive. He concluded the CIA chief believed the public needed to know about the Russian operation, including the information about the possible links to the Trump campaign.”
September 26, 2016 – De Sousa and her legal team receive the letter from Italy drafted in June but not sent that Italy had formally upheld her conviction. After the letter was sent, Portugal orders de Sousa’s immediate extradition, bypassing the Portuguese judicial process and refusing to let it play out.
De Sousa’s extradition would be delayed after the CIA discovered she was receiving help from former Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-MI). Hoekstra was the Trump campaign’s Michigan chair at the time.
“The optics of a CIA CT veteran serving a sentence for a joint CT operation would result in more questions about the role of the Italian government in authorizing the rendition,” de Sousa would tell ITN. “Italy sent this letter to the Portuguese to explain why there would be no trial, hoping the Portuguese would say, ‘well then we’re not sending her.’”
“No one wanted a retrial obviously with new witnesses and things like that,” she added. Her case was being reported on by media outlets from multiple countries and it was beginning to shine too bright a light on operations in Italy, especially those relating to SpyGate.
September 29, 2016 – Giulio Occhionero, a financial expert, is the victim of a cyberattack while working at his desktop in Rome, Italy. Due to the sophistication of the attack (the hackers were able to convincingly impersonate the identity of Microsoft) Occhionero suspects the cooperation of his Internet Service Provider (ISP).
October 5, 2016 – Agents with the cyber division of Italy’s Polizia Postale raid Occhionero’s home. They try, using what Occhionero calls the stolen credentials obtained days earlier, to gain control of his servers which are located in the United States but fail to do so.
October 18, 2016 – The last foreign leader to make a state visit to President Barack Obama’s White House was Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. It is during this visit that the evidence conveyed to Maria Strollo-Zack says SpyGate and ultimately ItalyGate are planned.
A luncheon held in Renzi’s honor on this day is hosted by then-vice-president Joe Biden. Among the attendees are Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan and DNI James Clapper. Also in attendance is a member of Obama’s National Security Council named Eric Ciaramella. Ciaramella would file the whistleblower report that would lead to the first impeachment of President Trump three years later.
November 8, 2016 – In one of the most stunning political upsets in history Donald Trump defeats former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
November 10, 2016 – President-Elect Trump and Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office. After making comments to the press the two meet privately for 90 minutes. Obama officials would later report that during this meeting Obama cautioned Trump against hiring General Michael Flynn. It is the only personnel “recommendation” Obama would make.
End of November 2016 – According to ECHR documents, Brennan makes a second trip to Portugal. Within days the Portuguese government doubles down on de Sousa’s extradition to Italy. She was arrested and imprisoned.
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