Video: Italy v. American CIA

updated 6/29/2005 4:41:58 PM ET 2005-06-29T20:41:58

It is an all-points alert in the war on terror.  But this case doesn't target suspected terrorists, it seeks CIA agents instead. 

At the request of an Italian judge, Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, is looking to arrest 13 alleged CIA agents.  If they can't be grabbed in Europe, Italian authorities want the alleged agents picked up in the U.S. and sent to Italy for trial. 

The case starts in Milan.  According to the Italians, CIA agents kidnapped terror suspect Osama Nasr in February 2003.  An eyewitness says they sprayed chemicals in his face and forced him into a van.  Prosecutors say the agents brought Nasr to Aviano Air Force Base, flew him to Germany and, then to Egypt for interrogation and, according to some, tortured him. 

It's believed to be the first time ever that a foreign government has filed charges against American agents involved in alleged anti-terror actions. 

Antonio Mendez, a veteran CIA agent, honored as one of the agency's 50 trailblazers and author of several books including “Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA,” joined The Abrams Report.  Andrew Visconti, a correspondent with Italy's “L'Espresso” news magazine, also joined the panel.

DAN ABRAMS: All right, Mr. Visconti, let me start with you.  Are the Italians serious about this? 

ANDREW VISCONTI, “L'ESPRESSO” CORRESPONDENT:  Well, let me put it this way, I don't think that for those 13 it would be a good idea to be tourists in Italy anytime soon or in the rest of Europe for that matter, because it could be problematic.  Now are the Italians serious?  It looks pretty serious because the case is really developing in three different directions.  It is a judicial case, it is a diplomatic case, and it is a political case.  So there is a lot of ramifications here. 

ABRAMS:  I get the sense, Mr. Visconti, that they are particularly upset about the fact that they had their own investigation going on this guy, and then their sense is we‘re investigating this guy, we're doing surveillance on this guy, and then the CIA agents basically snatch him off the street.  Because I think everyone agrees that this guy is a very, very bad guy. 

VISCONTI:  Absolutely.  Nobody in Italy believes that this is a nice guy.  This is someone who in 1997 was granted political asylum in Italy, but that still doesn‘t mean that there was not an investigation trying to find out what were his connections to terrorist organizations.  He is an Egyptian national, but he was legal in Italy. 

And that is where the Italian authorities now, the Italian judges now are trying to find out what happened.  Who gave permission?  Who authorized this action?  Because as long as this person was legal in Italy, the Italian system will not allow anyone to just snatch someone off the street and just make them disappear. 

ABRAMS:  Well Mr. Mendez, does that happen?  I mean is it that unusual for American operatives to snatch someone? 

ANTONIO MENDEZ, FORMER CIA AGENT:  Well you've heard about these extraordinary renditions a lot since 9/11.  It doesn't mean they hadn't happened before, but it's one of those wrinkles that's come along with the so-called war on terrorism.  I think during my time in the '70s and '80s we had a problem with terrorism and I think there are probably one or two cases.  One that comes to mind readily is the Mark Conzi case where he was finally lured out of the place that bin Laden is probably hiding right now and he was arrested in Pakistan.  But I think those were all joint operations.  This one sounds a little bit like there's a lot of interesting squalid kind of detail that sounds a little unusual... 

ABRAMS:  So this is not ordinary course of business stuff? 

MENDEZ: Maybe you can chalk it up to exuberance of being, 2003, I guess it when it happened and maybe people were out doing these sort of things, but certainly the profile is way beyond what you would expect for any operation.  You have to know that there are thousands of operations going on every day, and I'm sure the Italians there in Washington, D.C. doing whatever they have to do. 

ABRAMS:  You know what troubled me, Mr. Mendez, if you look at the judge, he is basically saying that they were able to trace these guys' cell phones, their hotel bills.  They verified some false addresses.  The Italian judge's report mentions by name the person who is believed to be the CIA Milan bureau chief.  I mean if this were some sort of undercover operation that is very disturbing. 

MENDEZ:  Yes it is.  It is disturbing and I say, let's hope that a lot of this is overblown because you know you don't want to leave a trail, you don't want to even have a mark that you have been there and to have that kind of profile would be an extraordinary case. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  Bottom line, though, Mr. Mendez, you'd agree that the U.S. isn't going to be sending any of these guys anywhere, right? 

MENDEZ: As our friend said, you wouldn't want to be vacationing in Italy in the near future.  Of course, I wouldn‘t want to be vacationing in some of the places that I operated, either.  So you know that goes with the territory. 

ABRAMS:  Yes.  All right, Mr. Visconti, final question.  How much pressure are the Italians going to put on the Americans?  My guess is not that much.  That this is going to be a big sort of statement.  They‘'e going to make a cause out of it, but they're not really going do that much behind the scenes.  Do you agree with me? 

VISCONTI:  I think you are correct.  Especially because let's not forget that when this investigation started to surface, it was also while in Italy there was the case of the Italian journalist who was abducted in Iraq and then freed and there was another diplomatic case between Washington and Rome back then.  Therefore, this does not seem to be a good idea for the Italian government to cause another diplomatic problem with the U.S. 

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.


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