CIA Agent on the Run: 'I've Got Nothing to Lose'

By Georg Mascolo in Washington

Robert Lady, the former CIA chief in Milan, has gone into hiding. He is the subject of an extradition order from Italian authorities for the role he played in the kidnapping of radical Muslim cleric Abu Omar in Milan. Washington is seeking to derail the trial -- perhaps because Condoleezza Rice may have given the operation the green light.

CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia: A total of 26 agency operatives are believed to have participated in the kidnapping of Abu Omar.
Getty Images

CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia: A total of 26 agency operatives are believed to have participated in the kidnapping of Abu Omar.

Robert Seldon Lady has reason for hope again. Maybe he will see farm again -- nestled as it is in the soft hills of Penango, a small town in northern Italy. He's had to leave everything there: his antique furniture, his books, the wine and the family photos. To this day, he continues to pay his $4,000 mortgage.

Lady is CIA's former Milan bureau chief. After 24 years with the agency, he had planned to retire in Penango. But now he's become a bit of a vagabond instead. He was in Florida last, but he reportedly moved on already. The only place the former agent can feel truly safe is the United States, now that an Italian court has issued an arrest warrant for him -- just as it has done for 25 of his colleagues, who are said to have been involved in the Feb. 17, 2003 abduction of radical Muslim cleric Abu Omar along Via Guerzoni in downtown Milan.

The suspects are expected to be tried, in absentia, in June at Milan's Palace of Justice in what will amount to the world's first-ever trial against CIA agents accused of kidnapping. Until very recently, it seemed certain that the case would move ahead. But last week the Italian government asked the country's highest justices at the constitutional court to determine whether the trial could proceed. This has fueled hope for Seldon and, indeed, the entire US administration, that a legal drama might still be prevented.

The lawyer representing Marco Mancini, an important behind-the-scenes figure in Italy's SISMI military intelligence agency, argues that state secrets need to be protected. Prior to the operation, the CIA apparently informed SISMI leaders of its plans to kidnap Omar. The lawyer's reference to state secrets implies that the green light for the operation was given not only by Italy's intelligence agencies, but also by members of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government.

When the persistent public prosecutor's office began investigating, the entire government in Rome claimed to have known nothing whatsoever about the operation. In the meantime, it has become known that the CIA asked Gianfranco Battelli, then SISMI's director, what he thought of abductions of radical Muslims in Italy just a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Battelli, whose retirement was imminent, didn't even register any form of protest. He simply recommended having a word with his successor.

Threats from Washington

Lady's Italian lawyer already suggested declaring the case a matter of national security, thereby burying it for good. And such a decision would suit the Bush administration perfectly. The White House has used all available diplomatic channels to pressure Rome into preventing a public trial. State Department legal advisor John Bellinger, known for his engaging manner, even admonished the Italians that such legal investigations threatened to seriously damage cooperation between US and European intelligence agencies. Besides, Bellinger added, the accused CIA agents would never be extradited.

But according to recent findings brought to light by American journalist Matthew Cole, writing in the March issue of GQ, it's not just the agents involved in the abduction who need to be protected. Those truly responsible are to be found in the higher echelons of the US administration, according to Cole, who claims that current US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice personally approved the operation when she served as President George W. Bush's National Security Advisor. She apparently OKed Abu Omar's abduction and then, according to Cole's report, "fretted" during her meeting with the CIA over how she would inform Bush about the operation.

No official denial has been issued over Cole's allegations -- perhaps in part because there is much to suggest they are true: All truly sensitive CIA operations conducted in the context of the "war on terror" had to be approved by the White House.

Cole is a persevering investigative reporter, who even succeeded in tracking Lady down and talking to him. They've met outside Miami half a dozen times. But even though he would probably have much to reveal, the former CIA agent is reluctant to come forward with the full story -- despite the fact that Italian prosecutors have apparently offered him a deal in return for reporting the details of the CIA operation.

High-tech from Langley

But Lady has said this much: He didn't beleive in the operation from the outset, because it was simply superfluous. Lady knew how doggedly the Italian authorities were already pursuing Abu Omar, having helped them in their investigations himself. He even arranged for the high-tech microphones used during Abu Omar's surveillance to be shipped from Langley. The Italians were at the same time impressed and grateful.

Both the Italians and the CIA considered Abu Omar to be one of the key figures in the Muslim fundamentalist milieu of northern Italy. The CIA thought of him as a kind of recruiting officer for the battlefields of jihad, agitating people to fight first in Kashmir, then in Chechnya and Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

Lady seems to have bet on the Italians getting a grip on Omar by themselves. The generous technological support from Langley was intended to assure the Italian investigations would progress rapidly. The CIA's Rome bureau chief, Jeff Castelli, is reported to have insisted that Omar should be abducted. In the end, his position won out.

So if Lady really thought the operation was a mistake, then why didn't he protest? "The CIA is the vanguard of democracy," he explained in the GQ interview. "It was the greatest job I ever had." Indeed, he wasn't about to disobey his orders -- especially one that might be his last, coming as it did just one year before his planned retirement.

When the kidnappers seized Abu Omar on his way to noontime prayers in Via Guerzoni, Lady met the director of Italy's anti-terrorism police for coffee. In contrast to the Italian intelligence agency, the police director knew nothing about the operation. Lady's job was that of keeping a watchful eye on him while his colleagues seized Abu Omar -- just to make sure nothing went wrong. Five days after Abu Omar had been flown to Egypt via the US Air Base at Ramstein, Germany, Lady arrived in Cairo, too.

Lady has a lot at stake in this case. If the Italian constitutional court doesn't put a halt on the trial, the state prosecutor could confiscate Lady's beloved farm. "I'll probably be convicted. But I won't go to trial, and I'll never see Italy again," he lamented to journalist Cole. But other plausible scenarios remain, too: Perhaps the former CIA agent will testify after all. He is said to be bitter about the lack of support he has received from the CIA. The only ones protected by Washington these days are the ones who give orders, and not people like him, who do the dirty work, he is said to have complained.

Indeed, Robert Lady's comments to Cole seem as threatening as they do disillusioned, and they were likely meant to sound that way. "No one's called me for support," he said. "No one has helped. I keep thinking, Fuck it, I've got nothing to lose."

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