Rendered Guilty

What the Milan conviction of 23 U.S. officials means for those on trial and the future of diplomatic immunity.

For the first time since the September 11 attacks, a court has charged and convicted former CIA officials and a military officer for their involvement in an alleged case of "rendition," a now-infamous procedure used to capture and question terrorism suspects. Following a months-long trial, for which none of the defendants were present, a Milan court today convicted 23 CIA operatives and one Air Force colonel in the kidnapping a Muslim cleric, who says he was later tortured in Egypt.

The implications of the ruling range from banal to the profound. The CIA operatives and an Air Force officer can forget about spending the summer in Provence, or any European Union country for that matter. But more fundamentally, the case raises questions about diplomatic immunity and the ability of foreign courts to try U.S. officials in cases of supposed human rights and other abuses.

The case relates to an incident that happened in February 2003, when an agency team hustled a top al Qaeda suspect known as Abu Omar into a van, rushed him to the U.S. air base at Aviano, and flew him to Cairo via Ramstein, Germany, for interrogation.

Italian police later intercepted a telephone call from Omar to his wife in Milan in which he described his abduction in detail from where he said he was captured.  The detectives, mining cell phone broadcast records on the day of Omar's disappearance, easily traced the kidnapping team to its hotels and rental cars, which eventually revealed its members' true and false names and movements all over Italy.

The question of the convicted officials' status seems relatively clear. Despite a plea for the case's prosecutor, the Italian government in Rome has decided not to press Washington for extradition. Regardless, the U.S. government would be unlikely to hand them over. However, should any of the convicted enter the European Union, they will be met with handcuffs, the Milan prosecutor, Armando Spataro, told me. A European arrest warrant has been issued, which would turn over the officials to prosecutors in Milan to serve out the five- to eight-year prison sentences handed down today.

But that's where the damage ends for the CIA, a former senior U.S. intelligence officer told me. He spoke anonymously because the case still involves a still-classified operation. "No great secrets were revealed, no sensitive equipment compromised," he said.

Nor will diplomatic relations with Rome and other governments allied with Washington in the war on Islamist terrorism be undisturbed by the case. "There will be a lot of hyperbole about how this will affect diplomatic relations and renditions," said the former intelligence officer. "[B]ut in reality, nothing will change." He maintained that Italy would remain cooperative as an ally in the war on terror. "If it's in [Italy's] interest" to collaborate on future renditions, he said, "they'll do it." 

For the CIA, "the issue is better field management and tradecraft." The Milan fiasco "shouldn't keep you from doing something -- just do it better."

Those convicted include Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA's man in Milan at the time. By some accounts, he objected to the operation. But he did his part because he was "a soldier," he told the Italian daily Il Giornale this summer. He was sentenced to an eight-year jail term today.

Another CIA operative sentenced in the case was Sabrina De Sousa, who at the time was listed as a U.S. consular official in Milan. De Sousa, 53, has maintained all along that she was a U.S. Foreign Service officer who deserved diplomatic immunity, despite voluminous records gathered by the Italian prosecutor, Armando Spataro, showing her to be a CIA officer with responsibility for liaising with Italian intelligence on the operation. The State Department does not confer diplomatic immunity on consular officials as it does embassy officials. Regardless, De Sousa also maintains that because she was on a Swiss skiing holiday at the time of the abduction, she is innocent of the kidnapping charges laid against her.

De Sousa's case raised particular questions after she persuaded the U.S. government to pay her legal expenses last summer. She, like Robert Lady, was never granted diplomatic immunity from the kidnapping charges even as the mastermind of the operation, former Italy CIA station chief Jeffrey Castelli, was. Castelli's documentation shows him as a State Department official in the Rome embassy, granting him immunity. The court also declined to sentence two lesser CIA officers stationed in Italy, Betnie Medero and Ralph Russomando, for the same reason. (Spataro plans to appeal, he told me this afternoon. "Their crime, in my opinion, is not covered by any immunity because it was not committed in the exercise of their diplomatic functions.")

De Sousa's attorney in Washington, Mark S. Zaid, expressed outrage at the U.S. government for abandoning his client and plans to sue it for monetary damages. "The Italian conviction merely confirms the U.S. government's betrayal of our diplomatic and military representatives overseas," Zaid wrote today in an e-mail. "The intentional failure of the government to protect those such as Ms. De Sousa is a travesty and an embarrassment."

Indeed, the case sends CIA operatives a reminder that they're on their own if they take the field without a cloak of full diplomatic immunity. "It's  part of the world of intelligence, working undercover," the former CIA offical said.

The final irony of the case is that the "victim," Abu Omar, who had long been the target of Milan counterterrorism investigators, could end up being awarded title to an Italian country house that  Lady bought for retirement, in compensation for Omar's pains, according to the procedures of trials in absentia. He "doesn't need to come here to collect [the deed]," Lady's erstwhile Italian lawyer, Daria Pesce, told me in a 2007 interview, explaining the procedure. "He could get it via anybody he appoints to represent him, through power of attorney." Omar, however, is unlikely to ever live in Lady's home: He's wanted for questioning on terrorism charges by the same prosecutor who convicted the Americans for kidnapping him.



Who's Really Running Iran's Green Movement

Here’s a hint: It's not Mousavi, Khatami, or Karroubi.

Nearly six months after the demonstrations that followed June's disputed presidential election, Iran's pro-democracy "green movement" is as strong as ever. Rallies took place in downtown Tehran today, having been in the works for months through Twitter, blogs, and word of mouth. Iran, it seems, is on the verge of having a new, unified opposition party.

But the solidarity on the streets hides wide -- and growing -- splits within. The ostensible leaders of the movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, and Mehdi Karroubi, are former high-ranking officials of the Islamic Republic who would likely keep much about the Islamic Revolution in place. Contrast this with the young men and women on the streets, and you see differences that go beyond the generational. The protesters are aiming to bring down the very system of which their leaders are a part.

Despite being lauded as modernizers, opposition front-runner Mousavi and his two green movement colleagues are deeply loyal to the ideals of Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and advocate a theocratic political system. Had Mousavi come into office following the June 12 presidential election, he would not have challenged the political order. He would have tried to fix the Islamic Republic's internal and external crises through slight policy tweaks. Nor would the West have seen an "opening" of the sort that some suggest. Indeed, Mousavi's rivalry with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has little to do with the current regime's foreign policy and far more to do with internal power struggles, economic policy, and, to some extent, cultural agendas. A new leader would not have fundamentally changed Iran's position on nuclear policy or its regional role. The reason is simple: Everyone who ran for president concedes that foreign-policy decisions should fall to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

So how did such moderates end up at the helm of a revolution? By accident. None of the reform candidates could have predicted that, following the mass vote-rigging during the presidential election, a popular movement would arise. These "leaders" had only a small role both in organizing and creating the movement, but they were swept into power by a spontaneous and improvised groundswell. The government had carefully vetted candidates, keeping anyone too reformist from running. So the grass-roots movement was left with a choice between two evils: Mousavi, the lesser one, and Ahmadinejad.

Mousavi reluctantly became the symbolic leader of the green movement, but he, Karroubi, and Khatami remain aloof. Today's demonstrations, for example, were imagined and promoted by bloggers and leaders of human rights and women's movements for at least two months. It was only last week, after these plans were well circulated (and the Grand Ayatollah had warned against them), that Mousavi issued a statement calling for demonstrations on Nov. 4.

So today, these three former officials find themselves at the helm of a movement whose views they do not necessarily represent. That gap -- between the green movement's leaders and the people in the streets -- is widening. Even in the midst of protests, there is growing discord. For instance, Mousavi and Karroubi have both criticized slogans like "No Gaza, no Lebanon -- I sacrifice my life for Iran" as "extremist," despite their being a widespread feature of current popular action in Iran.

But the most fundamental split comes over what the movement makes of the Iranian Revolution. Mousavi and Khatami have reiterated their desired goal of returning to the ideals of late Ayatollah Khomenei and the original principles of the Islamic Republic. But those in the streets are conscious of the failure of past reforms and have little hope that the Islamic Republic -- a system in which the supreme leader has the authority to veto both Islamic and national law -- can be saved. And the green movement remains motivated by the notion of human rights and citizenship, both absent in Iran's Constitution. Hence, the part of the movement that first began to peacefully protest against the vote manipulation in this summer's election finds itself diametrically opposed to Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard under him.

Khatami, a former president himself, is certainly cognizant of the split; in a recent speech, he tried to distinguish between those participating in current protests, who reject the entire existing system, and his own followers, who prefer to work within the political structure of the Islamic Republic with a ruling jurist above all.

But the bulk of the movement agrees less with the so-called leaders and more with the Islamic Republic's young third generation, who form 70 percent of the Iranian population and make up most of the demonstrators. The true leaders of this movement are students, women, human rights activists, and political activists who have little desire to work in a theocratic regime or in a government within the framework of the existing Constitution. This movement is much broader than the reform movement of the 1990s, when Khatami was president. Then, the number of people demanding reform on the streets never exceeded 50,000. According to Tehran's conservative mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, more than 3 million people protested in the wake of this year's June 12 election.

If you want to know the unconventional nature of this movement -- and what the people who have bravely taken to the streets really want - don't listen to Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami.

Since the true representatives of reform owe little to them, a successful green movement would likely push them aside anyway.

This is why it is not only the regime in Tehran -- but also the reformist "leaders" who pretend to lead this movement -- that fear the success of the green movement. Democracy in Iran will emerge only through a rupture with the late Ayatollah Khomeini's ideals and Islamic ideology -- concepts to which the accidental leaders of the green movement are still loyal.

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