By NSJ Staff Writer
On November 4th, an Italian court convicted in absentia 23 Americans–twenty-two purported CIA agents and one Air Force Officer–for their role in the kidnapping and rendition of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, better known as Abu Omar. Twenty-two Americans were given sentences of five years in prison, and the former CIA Milan station chief, Robert Seldon Lady, was sentenced to eight years. Three Americans were acquitted on the grounds of diplomatic immunity. These convictions are the first handed down in relation to the United States’ alleged “extraordinary rendition” program.
In addition to these Americans, five Italians were also indicted in 2007 for their alleged roles in the rendition. There is significant evidence, however, that this trial was opposed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government. For example, Italy did not file an extradition request with the United States. Further, three of the Italians were acquitted after Berlusconi persuaded the Italian Constitutional Court that some of the prosecution’s evidence should be classified as state secrets, preventing its use at trial.
None of the Americans were present for trial; their court-appointed defenders acknowledge having no contact with their clients. However, one of the attorneys maintained that she was able to “fully argue the case.” The Pentagon asserted jurisdiction under the NATO Status-of-Forces Agreement over the claims against the Air Force service-member, Col. Joseph Romano III, a move supported by the Italian minister of justice. The Italian court, however, denied the assertion and moved the trial forward. Another of the Americans convicted, Sabrina De Sousa, maintains that she had no involvement in the matter and is a career State Department employee, not a CIA officer operating under cover as the Italian prosecutors argued. De Sousa has brought suit against the United States to invoke diplomatic immunity on her behalf, provide her with counsel, and cover her legal expenses.
This case represents the danger to intelligence operations posed by increasingly politicized prosecutions. The CIA offers were allegedly discovered through “sloppy” tradecraft, such as using email or speaking openly on cell phones, leading some to suspect that they had cleared the operation with Italian intelligence officials. That such an operation was illegal–even with host government permission and possibly support–is not surprising. Robert Seldon Lady, discussing the case, stated:
I worked in intelligence for 25 years and almost no activity I did in those 25 years was legal in the country where it happened. . . . When you work in intelligence, you do things in the country in which you work that are not legal. It’s a life of illegality. . . . But state institutions in the whole world have professionals in my sector, and it’s up to us to do our duty.