Ex-CIA Agent in Milan Asks for Immunity
An Italian judge rejects the request of the retired station chief, wanted in a suspect's abduction.
By Tracy Wilkinson
LA Times Staff Writer
December 5, 2005
ROME ? He has not been arrested, and he's probably nowhere near Italy, but a former CIA station chief has begun to sketch his defense against charges he led a clandestine operation that kidnapped a radical Egyptian imam from the streets of Milan.
Robert Seldon Lady, identified by Italian prosecutors and law enforcement officials as the retired station chief in Milan, is one of 22 current or former CIA operatives for whom Italian prosecutors have issued arrest warrants in connection with the 2003 abduction. The cleric was seized on his way to a mosque and bundled off to an Egyptian jail, where he later said he was tortured.
The case is being watched closely because it threatens to expose in the greatest detail yet the Bush administration's practice of "extraordinary rendition," the transport of a suspect seized abroad by American agents to another country for interrogation without judicial approval. Renditions are an especially controversial element in a network of murky CIA counter-terrorism operations that is coming to light, including secret prisons and mysterious flights in Europe and beyond.
The practices are expected to be a major issue of discussion this week when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits several European capitals.
"One of the things she will be saying is, 'Look, we are all threatened by terror. We need to cooperate in its solution,' " national security advisor Stephen Hadley told "Fox News Sunday."
"As part of that cooperation for our part, we comply with U.S. law," he added. "We respect the sovereignty of the countries with which we deal. And we do not move people around the world so that they can be tortured."
In seeking to squash the arrest warrant that names him, Lady, 51, makes essentially two arguments, according to court documents provided to the Los Angeles Times. As an accredited consular officer at the U.S. Consulate in Milan, he enjoyed diplomatic immunity, Lady's attorneys argue. And without acknowledging the kidnapping, the attorneys argue that any such activity would have been carried out under the orders of the U.S. government and with the knowledge and permission of Italian officials. Italian law protecting state security shields Lady from having to answer to judicial authorities about such activities, the attorneys say.
But an Italian judge, Enrico Manzi, last week rejected the arguments and denied Lady's request for immunity. Manzi said Lady lost his immunity when he retired from the agency, and that immunity need not always apply if the alleged crimes are sufficiently serious.
Although Lady's attorney, Daria Pesce, said she planned to appeal, the ruling was a significant setback to defense efforts to make the case go away.
Although Lady had retired to northern Italy, he left the country ahead of the indictments, the first batch of which was issued in June. Manzi said evidence confiscated from Lady's home in the north was particularly compelling. This included surveillance photos of the abducted cleric, known as Abu Omar, and computer records mapping out the route from the Milan neighborhood where he was snatched to the U.S.-run Aviano Air Base, where he was placed on board a jet. Abu Omar is suspected by Italian law enforcement of helping to recruit militants and supporting terrorist attacks.
Publicly, the CIA has neither confirmed nor denied Lady's affiliation with the agency or any aspect of the Milan operation. Privately, some CIA officers have sought to portray it as the work of contractors. But the Italian court papers did not shy away from describing Lady's former job; and if he was involved, then the mission probably was directed at a top level.
In his role in American intelligence, Lady, "far from representing a serious threat ? should be considered an important ally in the fight against international terrorism, which is highly destabilizing for the entire Western Hemisphere," attorney Pesce wrote in her court filing.
"Mr. Lady, in carrying out the duties typical of a supervisor of the American intelligence agency CIA, could well have assumed the role of a member of a special diplomatic mission, sent by the U.S.A. to Italy with, we reiterate, the indispensable authorization of our state," she added.
Members of such "special diplomatic missions" normally enjoy "absolute immunity" for acts performed on behalf of the state, she said.
The last claim is proving especially embarrassing for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a loyal ally of President Bush. Berlusconi has repeatedly denied that his government knew about or approved the Milan abduction.
Pesce, in an interview last week, said she was attempting to present a "hypothetical" scenario that shows Lady could not have acted without authorization. She emphasized that she did not have direct knowledge of Italian government complicity.
Armando Spataro, the lead prosecutor attempting to bring the CIA operatives to trial, issued the arrest warrants over the summer and, following protocol, last month asked the Italian Justice Ministry to demand the extradition of the agents from the United States.
But Justice Minister Roberto Castelli, who answers to Berlusconi, has so far refused to act and may have sought to undermine the case by calling Spataro a leftist militant. On Friday, Castelli again said he was still "studying" the matter.