Abu Omar, the Muslim cleric who was kidnapped in Italy by CIA agents in 2003… (Tara Todras-Whitehill…)
Reporting from Washington — It stands among the most public American foul-ups in the war on terrorism: A 2003 CIA operation to snatch an Islamic cleric from the streets of Milan and secretly deliver him to an Egyptian prison was exposed in embarrassing detail by an Italian prosecutor, who won convictions against 23 Americans on kidnapping and related offenses.
The cleric, known as Abu Omar, said he was tortured in Egypt almost daily for seven months. Some of the CIA officers who had arranged the kidnapping spent thousands of dollars afterward staying at luxurious Italian resorts, according to Italian investigators who pieced together their movements using cellphone and hotel records.
On Thursday, the notorious case continued to haunt the U.S. government, this time in federal district court.
Sabrina De Sousa, one of the alleged CIA operatives who was convicted in Italy, appeared in a Washington courtroom at a hearing on a lawsuit in which she alleges that the U.S. government had abandoned her by not asserting diplomatic immunity on her behalf. Officially listed as a State Department diplomat, she was convicted in absentia in Italy and sentenced to seven years in prison. She risks arrest if she travels to Europe, where a sister lives in Germany, she said.
De Sousa's civil suit seeks to force the U.S. to shield her with diplomatic protection as the Italian case wends its way through a lengthy appeals process. She didn't testify at Thursday's procedural hearing, but in an interview afterward she offered new details about her view of an operation that few American participants have discussed.
She said she believed that what the U.S. called an "extraordinary rendition" of Abu Omar was "unnecessary" because he did not pose a sufficient threat and had been under investigation by Italian authorities. She said she had raised her concerns with the House and Senate intelligence committees, and had called on Congress to hold top U.S. decision-makers accountable.
"Why was there an approval for Abu Omar to be rendered when he didn't meet the threshold?" said De Sousa, who resigned from the government in February 2009.
A Senate Intelligence Committee aide said the committee met with De Sousa and questioned the CIA about her allegations, but he would not discuss the agency's responses. A CIA spokeswoman declined to comment.
De Sousa said she knew before the rendition that Abu Omar was suspected of involvement in terrorism, though she offered no details and declined to confirm she worked for the CIA. But she played no direct role in the kidnapping and was traveling on the day it happened, she said. Matthew Cole, a journalist writing a book about the case, has said De Sousa was involved in planning and logistics leading up to the operation, a characterization De Sousa has not disputed.
De Sousa called it unfair that the U.S. asserted diplomatic immunity for some of those involved, including Jeffrey Castelli, who the Italians said was the CIA's station chief in Rome. Acquitted by an Italian appeals court in the case, Castelli has retired and now works for Phase One Communications in Los Angeles. Castelli declined to comment Thursday.
Omar was briefly released in 2004, when he told friends he had been tortured, and was permanently freed by Egyptian authorities in 2007.
The Abu Omar operation was among several so-called extraordinary renditions that occurred after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the CIA was under pressure to take action against those plotting to harm Americans. Italian counter-terrorism authorities concluded Abu Omar was recruiting people to be suicide bombers in Iraq, and they were monitoring him to learn more about his network.
But the U.S. opted for a more aggressive option, in an operation that involved some elements of the Italian government but not others, according to the investigation. Omar was forced into a van on a Milan street, taken to a U.S. base at Aviano, then drugged and flown to Egypt, the investigation found.
Omar has said in interviews that his captors beat him and used electric shocks on his genitals.
Thursday's hearing delved into the issue of whether De Sousa's lawyer, Mark Zaid, could brief the judge on certain classified information behind closed doors before the judge rules on the government's motion to dismiss the case.
The Justice Department, representing the CIA and the State Department, argued that only the executive branch could decide whether the judge had a "need to know" the classified information.
Judge Beryl A. Howell, who did not rule on the dismissal motion Thursday, wondered aloud how the government could be both a defendant in a lawsuit and a referee of how its information is used in that litigation.
"You are overstepping your bounds," she told government attorney Brigham Bowen.