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Kidnap drama chills U.S.-Italian relations

The scandal over the alleged kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric by CIA agents on Italian soil, which has resulted in an arrest warrant for 13 purported CIA operatives, is growing day by day into a bigger embarrassment for Italy’s government. NBC News Stephen Weeke reports from Rome.
US ambassador to Italy Mel Sembler leave
U.S. Ambassador to Italy Mel Sembler leaves Rome's Chigi Palace after meeting Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday.Andreas Solaro / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

The scandal over the alleged kidnapping of a radical Muslim cleric by CIA agents on Italian soil, which has resulted in an arrest warrant for 13 purported CIA operatives, is growing into a bigger and bigger embarrassment for Italy’s government.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media magnate and the richest man in the country, is a self-proclaimed “close friend” of President Bush. 

But Berlusconi now finds himself stuck between his most important ally and accusations of incompetence at best and subservience at worst.

So far the prime minister has chosen to “play dumb” rather than admit to active or passive complicity in what would be a clear violation of sovereignty in the kidnapping of the cleric in Milan.

On Thursday he sent a low-level minister, the minister of relations with Parliament, to address a near-empty house on the government’s position. 

Minister Carlo Giovanardi was given the unenviable task of telling the nation that the government never had any information on the matter and therefore could not have had any involvement whatsoever. 

In a speech that never mentioned the United States or the CIA by name, Giovanardi came across as the loser who drew the short straw to go to the principal’s office.

Diplomatic strains
In an attempt to salvage some dignity the minister announced that U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler was summoned by the prime minister for a meeting on Friday. 

Summoning an ambassador is diplomatically strong stuff, and for Sembler it’s the second time in four months.

The first time was over the shooting of just-released Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena and the killing of lead secret service negotiator Nicola Calipari when their car was fired upon by a U.S. military roadblock patrol on the way to the airport in Baghdad.

That incident caused a deep strain in Italian-American relations. A joint investigation ended up with a very public disagreement in which the Italians refused to co-sign the American conclusions that its soldiers had done nothing wrong.

That situation was also thick with controversy over who knew what and when. 

The Italians say they had notified their counterparts in American military intelligence of their presence on the road. The United States denied it. 

Odd timing in Milan
In the Milan kidnapping it was the reverse. 

Unnamed CIA sources told the Washington Post and the New York Times that they had meetings with Italian secret service agents to discuss the planning of what they apparently refer to in the spy business as an “extraordinary rendition.” The term refers to a clandestine kidnap of a suspected terrorist on foreign soil to be transferred without court approval to third country, where they face interrogation and possible torture.

The Italians, these sources say, gave their consent with the understanding that if something should go wrong [i.e. the plot was discovered] everyone would deny any knowledge.

The kidnap happened more than two years ago, in February of 2003, just weeks before the invasion of Iraq.

Interestingly enough, the timing of these CIA leaks also has stirred darker speculation that the United States was seeking to embarrass the Italian authorities.

Some analysts here think this may be deliberate American payback for Italy giving them such a hard time over the hostage shooting.

If that is the case, it’s certainly no way to treat a “close ally” that has provided the third-largest military contingent in Iraq.

‘Full respect of Italian sovereignty’
Berlusconi’s meeting with Ambassador Sembler lasted an hour on Friday afternoon. Sembler left Palazzo Chigi without saying a word to the media, leaving details of the meeting to a one-paragraph press release from the prime minister’s office. 

The statement said Berlusconi had expressed the necessity that the U.S. show “full respect of Italian sovereignty,” and that the ambassador had assured the prime minister that that respect is “full and total and will not be any less so in the future.”

The final sentence says that the strong and lasting alliance between Italy and the United States is based on these foundations of reciprocal respect.

Opposition leader Luciano Violante was quick to point out that the meeting “clarified nothing.”

Unanswered questions
There are too many unanswered questions for this scandal to go away anytime soon. Imam Abu Omar operated out of a mosque in Milan that was described by U.S. intelligence as one of Europe’s hottest “crossroads of terrorism.” 

After the 9/11 attack, that mosque, the streets around it and everyone involved with it, came under constant surveillance by Italy’s anti-terrorism service known as “DIGOS.”  

Critics say the government would have known if a pin dropped in that neighborhood, and that the imam was watched constantly. So how could they not notice a team of foreign agents stalking the man, and then kidnapping him?

Meantime, Berlusconi will see Bush next week at the very public G8 summit in Edinburgh next week. 

The Italian leader has always posed proudly for his photo-ops with the American president. 

It will be interesting to see how much enthusiasm he will allow himself to show, when the headlines back home still question whether the price of friendship with America is subservience and political irrelevance.