The history of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), according to those pessimistic enough to have studied it, is one dominated by incompetence. In Legacy of Ashes, a major reference in Steve Hendricks' latest, Tim Weinar claims that the only successful operation the CIA ever pulled off without ineptitude was the assassination of Che Guevera. Every other known coup undertaken by the agency has been an effortlessly traced shambles of bought elections, dead leftist heads-of-state and cash in suitcases. From questionably noble beginnings the CIA has become nearly hyperbolic in its obviousness. Hendricks, an investigative journalist and part-time Helena resident, explores from several revealing angles another of the CIA's dumb exploits: The explosive rise of Islamic terrorist activity in Italy and the role of espionage and the judicial system in an age consumed by both terror and human rights.
A Kidnapping in Milan tells the muddled story of the capture and illegal rendition of suspected terrorist plotter Abu Omar from the streets of Milan by the CIA. The city that he depicts ("an international capital in search of a country") is overflowing with Islamic radicals preparing mass destruction, and trigger-happy American agents surveilling suspects who are already wiretapped by Italy's intelligence services. In the twisted world of espionage, Hendricks points out, "Trust spies not at all, and one learns nothing. Trust them too much, and one might as well have learned nothing,"—advice that applies to nearly every person in this book, from an entry-level police officer tasked with diverting Abu Omar's attention, to the American CIA station chief. Milan—one of the world's hubs of fashion trends, suggestive advertising and agitated politics—is a fitting backdrop for the book's events, which took place in February 2003.
While recounting the kidnapping of the cleric near his mosque on Viale Jenner ("the main al-Queda station house in Europe," according to the book), Hendricks addresses an impressive array of topical digressions. He capitalizes on the cosmopolitanism of Milan as though it were a protagonist, traces the roots of radicalism in Egypt by way of a biography of Abu Omar, then gives a tutorial on the CIA's distressing operations in Italy (coincidentally, the maiden subversion undertaken by the agency, in 1948, was its meddling in Italy's political races to ensure that right-wing politicians were always chosen in democratic elections).
Chapter 5, "Torment," is restricted to the idea and practice of torture—Abu Omar's horrifyingly detailed suffering included—and follows a chronology of organized brutality dating from the Greeks and continuing in a long tradition of finding ingenious methods of hurting people for information. Hendricks investigates the birth of extradition in 1883, when a larcenist was plucked from Peru by Pinkertons, and the unprecedented measure the Supreme Court has upheld ever since with its incongruous Ker-Frisbie ruling. Frequently discursive, the book delves into the CIA's training and financing of lunatic Italian nobles in anticipation of a fascist uprising, archives some strange transcripts of terrorists in conversation, and shows the often violent interplay between Italy's Carabinieri, intelligence bureaus and the law.
Hendricks' writing is propulsive, even when he backtracks into historical footnotes to provide a well-rounded purview, and voraciously readable in a Graham Greene-ish sort of way. His assemblage of characters act so stereotypically like spies and informers that they could be mistaken for fictional caricatures; it differs, however, from many other poli-thrillers because of its unconstrained cynicism and smug handling of otherwise disturbing material. His "liberal" slant might bother those who would defend agendas and freakish politics or religion, but that slant establishes his human perspective in spite of the inhumanity scattered throughout his story.
Finally, Hendricks follows the investigation of Armando Spataro, an incorruptible magistrate, along with Italy's chief intelligence network, to uncover the identities of the kidnappers and the double-agent stooges used to support them. More troubling to the author, however, is the ease with which the operatives were discovered, leading him to a series of meetings with those involved. He learns very little outside of the fact that the CIA either thinks itself immune from justice or is indiscriminately stupid. Spataro manages to bring the spies to trial in absentia—the first time that the CIA's actions would be lawfully condemned by one of America's allies.
A Kidnapping in Milan is white-knuckle intrigue, exemplary journalism and capricious history disguised as yet another true-crime spy tale. Certain sections are darkly funny, others understatedly gut-wrenching. While chronicling a single event in the "War on Terror" it illuminates the horrors and false starts of that borderless conflict. Hendricks renders a cinematic fugue of international proportions composed of reckless spies, unhinged religious excess and one man who would make a dominant country account for its brashness and egoism. Both cynical of and despairing over the world it examines, Hendricks' book delights in drama, yet remains appalled at the contemporary saga it describes. Maybe, at the conclusion, we wish it were a little less true.