WASHINGTON -- A former CIA officer has broken the U.S. silence around the 2003 abduction of a radical Islamist cleric in Italy, charging that the agency inflated the threat the preacher posed and that the United States then allowed Italy to prosecute her and other Americans to shield President George W. Bush and other U.S. officials from responsibility for approving the operation.
Confirming for the first time that she worked undercover for the CIA in Milan when the operation took place, Sabrina De Sousa provided new details about the “extraordinary rendition” that led to the only criminal prosecution stemming from the secret Bush administration rendition and detention program launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The cleric, Osama Mustapha Hassan Nasr, was snatched from a Milan street by a team of CIA operatives and flown to Egypt, where he was held for the better part of four years without charges and allegedly tortured. An Egyptian court in 2007 ruled that his imprisonment was “unfounded” and ordered him released.
Among the allegations made by De Sousa in a series of interviews with McClatchy:
• The former CIA station chief in Rome, Jeffrey Castelli, whom she called the mastermind of the operation, exaggerated Nasr’s terrorist threat to win approval for the rendition and misled his superiors that Italian military intelligence had agreed to the operation.
• Senior CIA officials, including then-CIA Director George Tenet, approved the operation even though there were doubts about Castelli’s case – Nasr wasn’t wanted in Egypt and wasn’t on the U.S. list of top al Qaida terrorists.
• Condoleezza Rice, then the White House national security adviser, also had concerns about the case, especially what Italy would do if the CIA were caught, but she eventually agreed to it and recommended that Bush approve the abduction.
De Sousa said her assertions are based on classified CIA cables that she read before resigning from the agency in February 2009, as well as on Italian legal documents and Italian news reports. She denies that she was involved in the operation, though she acknowledges that she served as the interpreter for a CIA “snatch” team that visited Milan in 2002 to plan the abduction.
“I was being held accountable for decisions that someone else took and I wanted to see on what basis the decisions were made,” she said, explaining why she had delved into the CIA archives. “And especially because I was willing to talk to the Hill [Congress] about this because I knew that the CIA would not be upfront with them.”
“I don’t have any of the cables with me. Please put that down,” De Sousa added with a nervous laugh, her unease reflecting the Obama administration’s unprecedented crackdown on leaks of classified information to journalists.
De Sousa is one of only a handful of former CIA officers who have spoken openly about the secret renditions in which suspected terrorists overseas were abducted without legal proceedings and then interrogated by other nations’ security services.
More than 130 people were “rendered” in this way, according to a February 2013 study by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a U.S.-based group that promotes the rule of law. Many were tortured and abused, and many, including Nasr, were freed for lack of proof that they were hatching terrorist plots, said Amrit Singh, the study’s author.
The Bush and Obama administrations have never acknowledged U.S. involvement in the Nasr rendition, which makes De Sousa’s decision to speak publicly about it significant, Singh said.
“Any public account of what happened and who was ultimately responsible is of considerable interest,” she said. “Despite the scale of the human rights violations associated with the rendition program, the United States hasn’t held a single individual accountable.”
The CIA declined to comment, but a former senior U.S. intelligence official called De Sousa’s narrative “fairly consistent” with the recollections of other former CIA officials with knowledge of the operation. He asked not to be further identified because the matter remains classified.
De Sousa, 57, a naturalized U.S. citizen from India’s state of Goa, was one of 23 Americans convicted in absentia in 2009 by a Milan court for Nasr’s abduction. She received a five-year sentence. An appeals court in 2011 added two more years, and Italy’s Supreme Court upheld the sentence. Nineteen of the Americans, De Sousa said, “don’t exist,” because they were aliases used by the CIA snatch team.
The case drew fresh attention last month when Panama detained Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA’s former Milan station chief, whom the Italian court had sentenced to nine years in prison. But Panama released him within 24 hours and allowed him to fly to the United States rather than wait for Italy to request his extradition.
Another convicted American, Air Force Col. Joseph Romano, who oversaw security at Aviano, the U.S. base from which Nasr was flown out of Italy, received a seven-year term. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano pardoned him in April under U.S. pressure.
The Bush and the Obama administrations, however, have refused to ask Italy to do the same for De Sousa, who insists that she qualified for diplomatic immunity as a second secretary accredited to the U.S. Embassy in Rome.
“It’s always the minions of the federal government who are thrown under the bus by officials who consistently violate international law and sometimes domestic law and who are all immune from prosecution,” De Sousa said. “Their lives are fine. They’re making millions of dollars sitting on [corporate] boards.”
A cleric who preached holy war against the West, Nasr was living in Italy under a grant of political asylum when he was accosted Feb. 17, 2003, by black-suited men on a Milan street as he walked to his mosque. He was bundled into a white van and driven to Aviano, from which he was flown to Germany and then to Egypt.
A member of a banned Egyptian Islamist group, Nasr was being investigated at the time by an Italian anti-terrorist police unit known as DIGOS, which had a warrant to eavesdrop on him. He allegedly had close ties to al Qaida and other Islamist groups and arranged for militants to travel to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
But DIGOS made no move to arrest Nasr, De Sousa said, because it had no evidence that he was plotting any attacks. He knew that he was being monitored, she said.
Castelli, however, was eager to pull off a rendition, she said, explaining that after 9/11, “everyone around the world” was being pressed by CIA headquarters to “do something” against al Qaida. Castelli, she said, was ambitious and saw a rendition as a ticket to promotion.
“Castelli went to SISMi to ask them to work on the rendition program, and SISMi says no,” De Sousa recounted. That, however, “didn’t stop Jeff,” she said.
Castelli did not respond to a request for comment.
Castelli “was hell-bent on doing a rendition,” she said, and he pressed the director of SISMi at the time, Nicollo Pollari, throughout 2002 to agree, according to cables De Sousa found between Castelli and CIA headquarters.
“This is very important, because there is a written trail of what was going on,” she said.
Pollari refused to budge, telling Castelli that the rendition would be “an illegal operation … unless the magistrates approved it,” De Sousa said. Pollari, she said, wanted to wait until the Italian Parliament passed intelligence reform legislation that would have allowed SISMi broader counterterrorism powers.
Castelli’s superiors at Langley insisted that SISMi and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had to agree to the operation, or “they couldn’t go to Condoleezza Rice and the president of the United States” for authorization, De Sousa said.
“So what does Castelli say? Castelli says, ‘Well, I talked to Pollari and he’s not going to put anything in writing. But wink, wink, nod, nod. You know, wink, wink, he’s provided a tacit sort of approval. They are not going to put anything in writing,’” she said.
The rendition had another problem: There was no outstanding arrest warrant for Nasr from Egypt, she said. To resolve the issue, Castelli asked the CIA’s Cairo station to request one from Omar Suleiman, the powerful intelligence czar for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The warrant was issued. Later, after Nasr had been turned over to the Egyptians, the CIA station in Cairo asked Castelli for the evidence the Egyptians needed to prosecute.
“Castelli wrote back and said, ‘I thought you had the information. That’s why you issued the arrest warrant,’ ” De Sousa said. Cairo replied that Egypt had issued the warrant only “because you needed an arrest warrant.”
Of her CIA superiors, De Sousa said, “They knew this [the rendition] was bull----, but they were just allowing it. These guys approved it based on what Castelli was saying even though they knew it never met the threshold for rendition.”
An Italian prosecutor began investigating the CIA’s role in Nasr’s disappearance in 2004, carefully building a case based on the CIA rendition team’s sloppy use of cellular telephones and credit cards. By then De Sousa had returned to the United States and had assumed a new CIA position at headquarters.
She was charged by Italian authorities in 2006 in the last of three sets of indictments.
De Sousa said that she has tried for years to report what she said was the baseless case for Nasr’s abduction and her shoddy treatment by the CIA and two administrations.
Her pleas and letters, however, were ignored by successive U.S. intelligence leaders, the CIA inspector general’s office, members and staff of the House and Senate intelligence committees, Rice, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder, said De Sousa.
She briefly made headlines when she sued the CIA, the State Department and Clinton in 2009 in a bid to secure her diplomatic immunity, but lost. U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell, however, declared herself troubled by the government’s treatment of De Sousa, which she said sent a “potentially demoralizing” message to U.S. employees serving overseas.
“My life has been hell,” De Sousa said, explaining that her Italian conviction left her career in ruins, crippled her ability to find a good paying private-sector job and left her liable to arrest abroad. Her resignation, which she submitted after the CIA barred her from visiting her ailing, elderly mother in Goa for Christmas, and then refused to fly her mother to the United States, left her without a pension.
Asked why she’d agreed to be interviewed, De Sousa replied, “I find this coverup so egregious. That’s why I find it really important to talk about this. Look at the lives ruined, including that of Abu Omar. And I was caught in the crossfire of anger directed at U.S. policy.”
Now, she noted, she also could face prosecution in the United States for revealing what she has. “You’ve seen what’s happened lately to anyone who has tried to disclose anything,” she said.
But her treatment, she said, provides a warning to U.S. employees serving around the world. If they get prosecuted while doing their jobs, she said, “You have no protection whatsoever. Zero.”