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Italy, the CIA and rendition

Analysis: What Wednesday's stunning verdict in Rome means for the "War on Terror".

Journalists photograph Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen who says he was kidnapped by the United States and detained, interrogated and beaten at a prison in Afghanistan, as he talks via satellite at a news conference in Washington December 6, 2005. An Italian court is the most recent to find that the Bush administration's practice of "extraordinary rendition" is illegal. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

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.