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Former CIA officer could go to jail for a notorious 'rendition' case

Former CIA officer could go to jail for a notorious 'rendition' case
Sabrina De Sousa, shown here in Virginia in July 2012, is now in Portugal fighting extradition to Italy for her role in the CIA's kidnapping of a radical Egyptian cleric 13 years ago. (Nikki Khan / Washington Post)

A retired CIA officer may become the first American to go to prison for her role in one of the most controversial counterterrorism practices of the post-Sept. 11 period.

Sabrina De Sousa was one of 23 Americans convicted in absentia in an Italian court in 2009 for kidnapping a radical Muslim cleric in Milan, Italy, in 2003 and spiriting him to Egypt, where he later said he was tortured.

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De Sousa, now 60, has been fighting extradition to Italy since she was detained on a warrant last October at an airport in Portugal. She has lost her legal appeals and said in an interview that she expects to be sent to Italy, where she faces four years in prison.

During the George W. Bush administration, CIA teams secretly captured terror suspects around the globe and handed them to other countries for interrogation and imprisonment. The practice was known as extraordinary rendition.

The trial in Italy opened a rare window into the CIA trade craft and revealed a network of clandestine activities by U.S. spy agencies in Italy and elsewhere. It also exposed a pattern of embarrassing CIA foul-ups.

Two senior CIA officers convicted in the case, including the former CIA station chief, received pardons from Italian President Sergio Mattarella last year before a scheduled meeting with President Obama. The pardons followed long negotiations with the U.S. Embassy in Italy.

De Sousa, who retired in 2009, said she had expected to be pardoned as well because she had worked undercover as a U.S. diplomat in Italy and contends she had a minor role in the case. She believes the CIA is punishing her for speaking out and criticizing the rendition policy.

"I felt abandoned by the agency awhile ago," De Sousa said in a telephone interview from Lisbon, Portugal's capital. "I and others were left holding the bag for decisions made by senior officials in Washington."

None of the 23 Americans convicted in Italy has gone to jail. Most were using aliases during the rendition, and their identities remain uncertain.

The CIA declined to confirm or deny De Sousa's former employment.

"Thanks for your query. We have no comment for you," Dean Boyd, a CIA spokesman, wrote in response to questions about what the CIA is doing to assist her.

Evidence presented at trial showed that a joint operation between the CIA and Italy's intelligence service, known as SISMI, snatched an Egyptian-born cleric known as Abu Omar as he walked to a mosque in Milan on Feb. 17, 2003. He had been granted political asylum in Italy in 2001.

The cleric was bundled into a van, whisked to a joint U.S.-Italian air base in northern Italy and flown by Learjet to Cairo, where he was imprisoned until 2007.

De Sousa says she was involved marginally in the planning but did not participate in the kidnapping.

The investigation and trial drew headlines not just because it exposed a government-sanctioned abduction without due process, but because the CIA officers were so sloppy.

Some left credit card receipts and airline mileage card numbers at hotels where they stayed, and discussed the case on traceable cellular telephones.

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"It was a huge mess-up," said De Sousa.

She said the operation was especially reckless because Abu Omar, whose full name is Hassan Osama Nasr, could supply little actionable information. She insists that she had argued against targeting him.

"Abu Omar never met the threshold of rendition," she said. "He was low-hanging fruit."

Italian prosecutors handed down indictments against 26 Americans in early 2007. Aware of the investigation, they all had left the country.

The trial featured 26 empty chairs for the absent Americans. A judge issued guilty verdicts for 23 of the 26 in 2009.

The judgments meant that the convicted no longer could travel to Europe without risk of arrest.

In April 2015, however, De Sousa traveled to Portugal to visit family. Last October, when she attempted to fly from Lisbon to Goa, in India, to see her 90-year-old mother, she was intercepted by Portuguese police.

She was barred from traveling but was not jailed while she sought to appeal her conviction or secure a pardon.

Her Italian lawyer, Dario Bolognesi, has petitioned Italy's president for a pardon and is trying to fight the extradition on a technicality. On July 8, an Italian judge will hear arguments on the validity of the extradition request, Bolognesi said.

De Sousa's U.S. attorney, Abbe Lowell, said he was in contact with U.S. officials to put together evidence for a new trial.

"Her role, whatever that role was, was not sufficient to have supported her conviction in absentia or otherwise," Lowell said. "Her role should have merited a pardon, given the other pardons that were granted. To single her out is extraordinary and unfair."

Born in India, De Sousa is a naturalized U.S. citizen who says she was recruited into the CIA in the mid-1990s and was stationed in Italy from 1998 until 2004.

The State Department, in response to a query from The Times, did not address why De Sousa had not received a pardon, but said: "It's fair to say that this is a matter that U.S. officials have raised with our European counterparts, but we are not in a position to detail those discussions."

Peter Hoekstra, a former Republican member of Congress who served on the House Intelligence Committee from 2004 to 2011, called the De Sousa case a "black eye" for the CIA.

By definition, spying requires breaking other countries' laws, Hoekstra said.

"If you are going to ask people to do that and … they do exactly what you ask, you need to back them up as fully as you can," he said.

The Obama administration should be "working feverishly to reach some kind of accommodation with the Italians to leave this person alone," Hoekstra said.

Hoekstra was reached last week during a vacation in Italy — the country that wants to put De Sousa behind bars.

Special correspondent Tom Kington contributed to this report from Rome.

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