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.