How a CIA Officer Wanted for Kidnapping in Italy Ended Up Arrested in Panama

On Wednesday, the story of Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA station chief in Milan, Italy, took another improbable turn when he was arrested in Panama near the Costa Rican border. Lady has been living quietly in the United States since fleeing an Italian investigation that resulted in him and 22 other Americans being convicted ...

GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the story of Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA station chief in Milan, Italy, took another improbable turn when he was arrested in Panama near the Costa Rican border. Lady has been living quietly in the United States since fleeing an Italian investigation that resulted in him and 22 other Americans being convicted in absentia for their roles in the 2003 abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical cleric the CIA believed was helping recruit jihadists to fight in Iraq.

Nasr, who also went by Abu Omar, was pulled off a Milanese street during a daily noon-time walk. He was thrown into the back of a van, driven to Aviano Air Base, near Venice, and then flown to Egypt, where he was interrogated and tortured. The practice of seizing suspected terrorists and forcibly removing them to a third-party state for interrogation is often known as extraordinary rendition; in the eyes of the Italian judicial system, though, Nasr's abduction was kidnapping. After an investigation implicated a collection of CIA agents in Italy, tying their cell phones to the place and time at which Nasr was thrown into the van, the Italian government conducted a trial that sentenced 23 Americans to seven to nine years each in prison. The convictions were upheld last September by the Italian Supreme Court.

According to a 2007 investigation of the incident by Matthew Cole, published in GQ, Lady's role in the operation was to have lunch with and ease the suspicions of Bruno Megale, the head of Milan's antiterrorism police while, across town, agents seized Nasr and began driving him toward Venice. According to Cole's account, Lady had actually advised against the operation, but had been overruled by his supervisor in Rome and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Lady, who, at the time, was a 21-year CIA veteran, was planning to retire to a recently purchased Italian villa, but left Italy as the investigation began and has not been able to return. When the home was searched in 2005, Italian investigators found Lady's "flight itinerary to Egypt, an e-mail from a former colleague telling him to flee Italy, and surveillance photos -- one of which showed Omar a month before the rendition in the exact spot where he was later snatched," according to Cole.

On Wednesday, the story of Robert Seldon Lady, a former CIA station chief in Milan, Italy, took another improbable turn when he was arrested in Panama near the Costa Rican border. Lady has been living quietly in the United States since fleeing an Italian investigation that resulted in him and 22 other Americans being convicted in absentia for their roles in the 2003 abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical cleric the CIA believed was helping recruit jihadists to fight in Iraq.

Nasr, who also went by Abu Omar, was pulled off a Milanese street during a daily noon-time walk. He was thrown into the back of a van, driven to Aviano Air Base, near Venice, and then flown to Egypt, where he was interrogated and tortured. The practice of seizing suspected terrorists and forcibly removing them to a third-party state for interrogation is often known as extraordinary rendition; in the eyes of the Italian judicial system, though, Nasr’s abduction was kidnapping. After an investigation implicated a collection of CIA agents in Italy, tying their cell phones to the place and time at which Nasr was thrown into the van, the Italian government conducted a trial that sentenced 23 Americans to seven to nine years each in prison. The convictions were upheld last September by the Italian Supreme Court.

According to a 2007 investigation of the incident by Matthew Cole, published in GQ, Lady’s role in the operation was to have lunch with and ease the suspicions of Bruno Megale, the head of Milan’s antiterrorism police while, across town, agents seized Nasr and began driving him toward Venice. According to Cole’s account, Lady had actually advised against the operation, but had been overruled by his supervisor in Rome and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Lady, who, at the time, was a 21-year CIA veteran, was planning to retire to a recently purchased Italian villa, but left Italy as the investigation began and has not been able to return. When the home was searched in 2005, Italian investigators found Lady’s “flight itinerary to Egypt, an e-mail from a former colleague telling him to flee Italy, and surveillance photos — one of which showed Omar a month before the rendition in the exact spot where he was later snatched,” according to Cole.

From the United States, Lady hired an attorney and took a more active role in the case. But by the time Cole spoke to him in 2007, he had become more withdrawn. “The agency told me to keep quiet and let this blow over,” he told Cole. “But it’s not blowing over for me.” He’s not the only one of his cohort to raise concerns publicly. In July 2012, the Washington Post profiled Sabrina De Sousa, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for her role in the abduction; in the article, De Sousa criticized the U.S. government for not pushing for diplomatic immunity and worried about the potential for her arrest while traveling to India.

That seems to be what happened to Lady. According to Italian media cited by the BBC, the Italian government issued an international warrant in December 2012, which led to Lady’s arrest in Panama. The Italian government now has two months to request that Panama extradite Lady to serve his nine-year sentence.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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