Comment: Why the Italian Convictions of CIA Officers Matter

Sabrina DeSousa

Sabrina De Sousa

An Italian court has convicted 22 CIA officers and a US Air Force officer involved in the abduction of a Muslim cleric from Milan in 2003. All but three Americans tried in the case received jail sentences ranging from five to eight years, for kidnapping Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr in broad daylight and for illegally renditioning him to Egypt, where he says he was brutally tortured before being released without charge. As intelNews has previously reported, it is extremely unlikely that the US will agree to extradite the convicted abductors to Italy. Washington has formally invoked the NATO Status of Forces Agreement, arguing that the offenders were operating “in the course of official duty” and fall therefore under US, not Italian, jurisdiction. But the convictions are important nonetheless, for three reasons.

First, because the 23 convicted Americans are now international fugitives, who risk arrest by Interpol, among other law enforcement agencies, upon exiting US territory. Second, because the convictions marked the conclusion of “the world’s first trial involving the CIA’s extraordinary renditions program since 9/11”, and may serve as precedent for a wave of similar court cases around the world. Third, because the convictions put pressure on the Barack Obama Administration to reconsider its intelligence procedures, in light of the fact that the US President has authorized the CIA to continue its policy on renditions under new CIA director Leon Panetta.

From an intelligence point of view, it is noteworthy that at least two of the Americans involved in Nasr’s abduction have publicly admitted that the CIA operation broke Italian law. Speaking yesterday to ABC News, Sabrina De Sousa (photo), who was listed as a “diplomat” at the US consulate in Milan at the time of the kidnapping, said the CIA operation “broke the law”, but was authorized by Washington, which then proceeded to “abandon and betray” those who carried it out, leaving them “to fend for themselves”. Last July, Robert Seldon Lady, who was the CIA’s station chief in Milan at the time of Nasr’s kidnapping, acknowledged that the abduction broke Italian law, but argued against the zeal with which Italian prosecutors went after the abductors, because “most covert activity abroad is illegal and still every country authorizes it […]. I worked in intelligence for 25 years”, said Lady, “and almost no activity I did in those 25 years was legal in the country where it happened”.

Lady’s statement represents a rare public confession by a member of an Agency not known for its moral introspection. Perhaps because of this crucial flaw in its institutional character, the CIA has been placed –often unwillingly– at the forefront of the intelligence side of Washington’s “global war on terrorism”. Like all wars, this conflict involves some very difficult policy choices, ranging from kidnapping and rendition, to torture and the blackmailing of informants. When the reality of these ugly practices seeps to the surface of “civilized” politics, Washington will tend to deny involvement, leaving its CIA operatives to “fend for themselves”. It is one of the advantages of covert paramilitary campaigns. It is also one of their drawbacks, as clearly reflected in the 23 US government officers, who have now joined countless Islamist terrorists on Interpol’s international fugitives list.

About intelNews
Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

5 Responses to Comment: Why the Italian Convictions of CIA Officers Matter

  1. Nick says:

    This is the same Italia brutalized and massacred by the same CIA and their buddies in the mafia during Operation Gladio.

    Viva Aldo Moro!

    Poetic justice and even that is far too little.

  2. intelNews says:

    More on Operation GLADIO (stay-behind CIA cells in post-WWII Europe) here. [JF]

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am loving your posts. Found you on Twitter.
    Very interesting posts and well written.
    Yours Sincerly

  4. AlbertE. says:

    Article 5 of the NATO charter had been invoked by the U.S. This was an operation in furtherance of the pursuit of a man who was acting in no way other than as a spy or an enemy agent, a jihadist or thought to be and trying to recruit persons to attack the U.S.! Those undercover operatives were no different than any other soldier doing their duty in combat with an enemy. Italy was obliged by treaty arrangement to aid abet and assist the U.S. in the hunt for this man. Italy is a signatory to the NATO charter, are they not? That is a treaty and overrides any Italian law, is this not so? I might even suggest that those Italian prosecutors and judges face the risk of arrest if they ever set foot in the U.S.

  5. soumyakambhampati says:

    One question that I have regarding the CIA’s RDI operation in Italy is why it was so poorly planned and executed. Generally a covert operation like this in a “friendly” country would be done by a small group of operatives (say a core team of 4, like kidon squads in Mossad), not with 23 operatives. Additionally, it has come to light that the CIA’s kidnapping team wasn’t using secure lines, a serious tradecraft flaw that is probably most of the reason the Italian Prosecutors had enough evidence to put CIA officers on the Interpol wanted list. The Agency, in the end of the day, is simply not capable of dangerous kidnap/kill operations like Mossad’s kidons, and should refrain from trying to be. Having SAD/SOG officers murdering people in cold blood or kidnapping them is no way for an intelligence outfit to operate.

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