Italian authorities have ordered the arrests of a former U.S. Embassy official here and two other people in connection with a “rendition” case in which CIA operatives allegedly kidnapped a radical Muslim cleric from Milan and flew him to Egypt, where, he has said, he was tortured.
The new arrest warrants bring to 22 the number of people sought on suspicion of planning and executing the plot and apparently are the first direct connection to the U.S. Embassy in Rome. U.S. intelligence officials in Washington, though refusing to acknowledge the operation publicly, have sought to portray it as conducted by the spy-world equivalent of contractors.
The warrants were signed by a judge this week in response to a petition from prosecutors Armando Spataro and Ferdinando Pomarici, an Italian judicial official said Thursday. Details are contained in court documents reviewed by the Los Angeles Times.
As with earlier orders in the same case, the named Americans are believed to have long since departed Italy, and no arrests appeared imminent.
An imam known as Abu Omar was seized in February 2003 in a so-called extraordinary rendition, a controversial practice in which the U.S. snatches suspected terrorists and transports them to other countries without judicial permission.
Italy, however, stunned Washington during the summer by attempting to prosecute 19 people, including a man identified in arrest warrants as the former CIA station chief in Milan, who are alleged to have taken part in the abduction. It is believed to be the first time that an ally has attempted to bring U.S. operatives to justice in such a case.
Italian investigators said their review of telephone traffic among those who abducted the imam in Milan 2 1/2 years ago led them to the former U.S. Embassy employee. She is believed to have made or received a number of calls aimed at coordinating and organizing the abduction and to have participated directly in the operation, according to papers filed in court by prosecutors.
Investigators found evidence that she checked into a Milan hotel 24 days before the kidnapping and traveled with the other suspects to the U.S.-run Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, where Abu Omar was bundled onto a private jet bound for Egypt via the U.S. military’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Italian prosecutors said.
The prosecutors maintain that the participation of the woman is especially egregious given the diplomatic position she held at the embassy. According to public records, she served in the U.S. Embassy in Rome until this year, when she was transferred to Latin America.
The Italian court file does not identify her as a CIA officer, though previous Italian court documents have said the team of agents worked under the former CIA station chief in Milan.
The Times is not naming the former Rome embassy official. The paper generally avoids naming undercover intelligence operatives unless their names are put into public record.
CIA officers often work overseas as U.S. Embassy officials with the status of diplomats, even though they do not work for the State Department.
Asked whether the former embassy employee was a CIA officer, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise said: “We are not going to comment on this story.”
Efforts to speak to the former Rome embassy worker at her posting in Latin America were not successful. In a brief conversation, a person answering the phone initially identified herself as the woman; when told she was speaking to a reporter, however, she immediately said she had no idea who the woman was and refused to respond further.
At the request of the prosecutors, Italian police asked the domestic secret service to detain her in March, but the agency reported that it could not find her, the court documents state.
In Rome, the U.S. Embassy said it had no comment on the matter, the position it has taken since the scandal erupted early this year.
Two men are also named in the new warrants, but those names appear to be aliases.
The imam’s suspected captors appear to have been sloppy, leaving behind copies of their passports and credit card numbers and speaking openly on cellphones that can be easily tracked by law enforcement officers, which is how Italian authorities identified their suspects and built their case.
The names of the former embassy official and the former Milan station chief thus far are the only apparently authentic names to have emerged in the investigation.
The former station chief named was Robert Seldon Lady, who has since retired. Lady, a 51-year-old American born in Honduras, served in the Milan consulate and, by Italian accounts, directed Abu Omar’s abduction and transfer to Egypt. His name has been widely reported in connection with this case.
When he vanished, the Egyptian-born Abu Omar, whose real name is Hassan Osama Nasr and who had been granted political asylum by Italy, was being investigated by Italian police, who suspected him of organizing a network of Islamic fighters being dispatched to Iraq. Italian authorities were furious at the Americans for allegedly snatching him under their nose, contending that it hurt their broader efforts to prosecute terrorism cases.
Abu Omar eventually was able to make contact with his wife in Milan, whom he telephoned during a brief period out of prison. He told her he had been tortured and beaten. Italian authorities believe that Lady was present in Egypt at the time and may have known what was happening.
At last report, Abu Omar remained jailed in Egypt without charge. He has told associates that Egyptian authorities tried to persuade him to spy on Islamic radicals for them, but he refused.
Since retiring, Lady has bought a home near the northern Italian city of Turin. Italian police raided the home in June after the first warrants were executed.
New details emerged in court papers this week about what the inspectors found in the raid. In addition to a surveillance photo of Abu Omar taken a month before his disappearance, police found on Lady’s computer hard disk information indicating he traveled to Cairo four days after the abduction last year. He left Cairo on March 7. Investigators also discovered research for determining the best way to travel from Milan to the Aviano base.
The decision of the Italian judiciary to attempt to prosecute alleged CIA operatives was previously unheard of in the world of renditions, a tactic in which the U.S. government sends suspected terrorists to nations that use coercive interrogation methods that would not be available otherwise. The practice, which has grown in use since the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S., has been denounced as illegal by human rights groups.
Italy’s judiciary is highly independent of the central government of conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch ally of the Bush administration. He has denied advance knowledge of the Abu Omar capture. But many Italians presume that the government secretly approved the operation, and former agents in the U.S. have also said it could not have been conducted without official Italian permission. Thinking they had Italian government approval may also explain the evidently reckless nature of the actions by the purported CIA operatives.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus in Washington contributed to this report.