Criminal convictions of 22 CIA agents in Italy

The accountability imposed by another country for the CIA's kidnapping and torture reveals much about our own.

Published November 5, 2009 11:06AM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

The criminal conviction of 22 CIA agents (and 2 Italian intelligence officers) by an Italian court yesterday -- for the 2003 kidnapping of an Islamic cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, off the street in Italy and his "rendition" to Egypt to be tortured -- highlights several vital points:

First, illustrating how these matters are typically distorted by the U.S. establishment media, note that CNN -- in the very first paragraph of its story -- claims that the CIA agents were convicted "for their role in the seizing of a suspected terrorist in Italy in 2003."  What did Nasr allegedly do that warrants that "terrorist" label?  Did he participate in the 9/11 attacks, or plan attacks on "the American homeland" or U.S. civilians?  No.  According to CNN, this is what makes him a "suspected terrorist":

He was suspected of recruiting men to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So the West invades, bombs and occupies Muslim countries, and when Muslims attempt to find people to fight against the West's invading armies, those individuals are deemed "terrorists."  Or consider this quite informative 2005 Washington Post article, which details how the CIA's kidnapping derailed the Italians' criminal (i.e., legal) investigation of Nasr; that article explains:

Nasr was wanted by the Egyptian authorities for his involvement in Jemaah Islamiah, a network of Islamic extremists that had sought the overthrow of the government.  The network was dispersed during a government crackdown in the early 1990s, and many leaders escaped abroad to avoid arrest.

The Egyptian government, long propped up by the U.S., is one of the most tyrannical and brutal in the world.  But Egyptians who work to overthrow that government are deemed "terrorists" by the U.S., and we're apparently willing to kidnap them from around the world -- including from countries where they've received asylum -- and ship them back to our Egyptian friends to be imprisoned and tortured. 

For many Americans -- probably most -- the word "terrorist" conjures up images of the people responsible for the 9/11 attack.  For that reason, labeling someone a "suspected terrorist" can justify doing anything and everything to those individuals (after all, other than civil liberties extremists, who could object to the "seizing of a suspected terrorist" -- or their indefinite detention or torture?).  It's therefore unsurprising that the U.S. Government would use the term "terrorist" so promiscuously and selectively (see John Cole's excellent contrast between what we deem to be "terrorism" when it happens to the U.S. versus what we deny is "terrorism" when done by the U.S.).  It's a powerful term that can justify almost any government action.

But the U.S. media's willingness to mindlessly apply the term "terrorist" in exactly the subjective, self-serving way the U.S. Government dictates -- starkly contrasted with their refusal to use the far more objective term "torture" on the ground that the term is in dispute (i.e., disputed by the U.S. Government torturers) -- illustrates the establishment media's principal function:  to serve American political power and justify whatever our government does.  That's a major reason -- perhaps the primary one -- why the U.S. Government has been able to get away with everything it's done over the last decade.  Those unseen victims of torture, rendition, indefinite detention and other government crimes are all just "terrorists," so who cares?  In reporting on these convictions, CNN immediately and helpfully proclaims Nasr to be a "suspected terrorist" in a way that guts any meaningful definition of that term and -- in many minds -- justifies whatever was done to him, no matter how illegal.

It's worth asking this question:  which sounds more like actual "terrorism":  (a) kidnapping people literally off the street and shipping them thousands of miles away to be tortured with no legal process, or (b) what Nasr is "suspected" of having done?


Second, this incident underscores -- yet again -- that our political and media elite simply do not believe in the rule of law or accountability for high government officials.  To the contrary, they explicitly believe that such officials should be entitled to break the law and be exempt from consequences.  As but one example, here's a discussion on CNN last night about this matter between Wolf Blitzer and Jeffrey Toobin:

TOOBIN:  This is a real criminal conviction in a country where we tend to honor reciprocal legal arrangements. So they are in a -- they are in no jeopardy as long as they are inside the United States, but, if they were to leave, they are potentially at risk for being jailed and brought to Italy.

BLITZER: Because even if they went to a third country, like England, let's say, or France, Interpol could have a warrant out for their arrest. They have been convicted by an Italian court.

TOOBIN: That's why this is such -- so troubling. It would one thing if they only had to stay out of Italy, but, because of Interpol, because of the reciprocal nature of these agreements, they are potentially at risk almost anywhere they go. 

So according to Toobin, this is all "so troubling."  Why?  Because the people who were found by a duly constituted court to have committed a serious crime are faced with the risk that there might actually be consequences.  After all, these are Americans who were part of the U.S. Government, and consequences for lawbreaking are simply not meant for them.  Echoing Joe Klein's infamous Orwellian claim that torture shouldn't be prosecuted because the CIA is "asked to behave extra-legally for the greater good of the nation," Toobin added that "one of the things you do when you are a CIA agent, at least in part, is break the law of other countries" -- Toobin says that as though they have the right to do that without accountability, and without mentioning that causing people to be tortured is also a violation of U.S. law (after Nasr's kidnapping, the chief of the CIA's Milan office traveled to Egypt for three weeks to participate in his "interrogation").


Third, the glaring contrast between (a) the United States and (b) countries that (at least partially) adhere to the rule of law and precepts of accountability continues to grow.  As we saw earlier this week, a U.S. appellate court ruled that American government officials are immune from consequences even when they abduct an innocent man and knowingly cause him to be tortured -- even after the Canadian government publicly disclosed its detailed investigation of that matter, publicly apologized to the victim, and paid him $9 million.  Spain continues to pursue the possibility of criminal prosecution of our high government officials for war crimes even as our own government insists that our war criminals (at least all those but the lowest-level ones) should be immunized and we should look forward, not backwards.  Our attempt to compile a "hit list" of Afghan citizens we intend to murder because we suspect them of drug trafficking prompted angry objections from Afghan officials that our plan violated due process and the rule of law.  

And now an Italian court demonstrates actual judicial independence and adherence to equality under the law by holding American and Italian government kidnappers liable for their complicity in torture -- something our own government institutions have repeatedly failed and/or refused to do (Harper's Scott Horton has much more on the glaring contrast between U.S. and Italian political values that is reflected here).


Finally, this isn't about the past -- at least not exclusively.  The U.S. Government continues to refuse even to comment on what it did here.  The State Department yesterday expressed "disappointment" with the Italian court ruling -- just as it did when a British High Court recently ordered the disclosure of evidence of American torture.  The DOJ continues to insist that no American courts can examine past rendition and torture cases on the grounds of secrecy.  The Obama administration has explicitly decided to continue the "rendition" policy which led to Nasr's illegal kidnapping, albeit with the addition of  anti-torture "safeguards" similar in language if not effect when compared to those in place under Bush (it remains to be seen to which countries these "rendered" suspects will be sent, and whether the renditions will be the illegal kind practiced by Bush/Cheney or the arguably "legalized" form that took place before that, beginning with Reagan through Clinton).  And most notably of all, we continue to be a country which -- in the name of secrecy and national security -- insists that the rule of law and accountability simply do not apply to our highest government officials when they break the law.  Fortunately, other countries -- slowly and incrementally -- are rejecting that pernicious view.


UPDATE:  One of the convicted CIA agents admits to ABC News that they "broke the law" when kidnapping Nasr and claims, credibly, that everything they did was approved back in Washington.

This is as good a time as any to post this new and important 9-minute video from the ACLU (with whom I consult), in which you hear from numerous individuals who were abducted and held for years at Guantanamo with no charges or trial of any kind -- only to be released with no explanation, apology or accountability.  This is really worth watching; like the absence of civilian deaths caused by our wars, it's the key missing piece from typical media coverage that really illustrates what we've been doing:


UPDATE II:  Peter Bergen traveled to Italy to review all the court documents in this case and then to Egypt to interview Nasr.  For the March/April 2008 issue of Mother Jones, he wrote an excellent and very detailed account of what was done to Nasr, who was responsible, and what lead the Italian prosecutors (who had been investigating Nasr) to pursue the case against the CIA agents (h/t Adam Serwer).  It is well worth reading.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------