NEW YORK — The label “War on Terror” may be out of style as a description of American counterterrorism strategy, but Wednesday in Rome an Italian court served notice that some of its more controversial practices — including the abduction of alleged terrorists known as “extraordinary rendition” — would not be forgotten as quickly as some Americans might prefer.
The court convicted two Italian intelligence officials, plus 23 American intelligence agents — all of them in absentia — of aiding the 2003 abduction of an Egyptian-born cleric from the streets of Rome. Among those convicted was the CIA’s Milan station chief at the time, Robert Lady, who received an 8 year sentence and, like the other Americans, will now be considered a fugitive from justice and subject to arrest on European extradition requests if they travel abroad.
For President Obama, who may privately welcome the verdict, the case merely sharpens the dilemma facing his administration as he moves on several fronts to reverse what he has described as the overzealous policies of his predecessor. One of his first moves as president was to outlaw the transfer of detainees to countries where they might be tortured. But the executive order fell short of banning rendition, and a “special task force” created to recommend policy changes has yet to weigh in.
Beyond the rendition issue, the president’s promise to close the prison holding “enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for instance, looks likely to take a good deal longer than the one year deadline Obama imposed. Some have complained the moratorium on transfers to Guantanamo has merely shifted the problem to notorious sites like the prison at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
More broadly, his pledge as a candidate to go after Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan has led to an increased use of airstrikes in both countries, with a commensurate increase in civilian deaths.
The abducted man, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, was taken from Italy by U.S. intelligence agents and handed over to Egyptian officials, where court testimony indicates he was repeatedly tortured.
Italy, which among America’s European allies was more sympathetic than most to the broad “long war” strategy of the Bush administration, nonetheless became the first to challenge the rendition strategy when details of Nasr’s abduction became public.
Nasr, who was living in Rome in 2003, was suspected of involvement in terrorist plots in Europe. He was a known member of the Egyptian terrorist organization, Gamaat Islamiya, which had assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981 and which murdered 58 foreign tourists at the Temple of Luxor in 1997.
The details of the decision to abduct Nasr remained vague throughout the trial, in part because the Italian Constitutional Court ruled that data on coordination between Italian spy agencies and the CIA was inadmissible.
But enough evidence existed to prove the abduction happened and to broadly implicate a range of American operatives. Other testimony established that Nasr had transited through Germany (an embarrassing revelation for a government which had been openly critical of the practice), and that he was tortured repeatedly upon his arrival in Egypt.
Within Italy, meanwhile, the ruling will revive controversy over whether the government of President Silvio Berlusconi — a close Bush ally — offered tacit or direct permission for the operations, and in a broader sense, whether it is in Italy’s national interest to help in such operations.
Privately, some Italian officials have noted that Italy had a large force of troops in Iraq at the time, and, as the home to the Vatican, presents a potentially attractive target for Al Qaeda or other Islamic militant groups.
Rendition had been a tool of intelligence agencies on both sides of the Cold War, most memorably in 1987, when U.S. warplanes intercepted an Egyptian airliner carrying Palestinians who hijacked the Italian liner Achille Lauro and killed a wheelchair-bound Jewish American. The airliner was forced to land at a U.S. airbase in Sicily, and the Palestinians were sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths.
Few renditions involved such clear-cut figures, though. Since the Clinton administration, but especially since the 9/11 attacks, hundreds of people have been taken into custody without legal proceedings and transported to third countries, like Egypt, where legal guarantees are fluid and torture commonplace.
Dana Priest, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter who revealed details of the programs in a series of 2005 articles, found evidence implicating a half dozen EU countries as willing (if covert) participants in the renditions. Several others allowed flights carrying abducted prisoners to pass through their airspace. Besides Egypt, secret prisons where such “ghost detainees” were held existed in Jordan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Morocco and Pakistan.
Following Priest’s articles, President Bush acknowledged those prisons late in his term, after years in which top officials, including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, denied their existence.