The Italian Job

November 5, 2009

Earlier today an Italian court convicted in absentia twenty-two CIA officers and a colonel in the US Air Force of charges relating to the February 2003 kidnapping of Muslim cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr aka Abu Omar.

Abu Omar was a victim of the extraordinary rendition program established by the Clinton administration and greatly expanded under President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

He was snatched off the street in Milan and flown secretly to Cairo where he was handed off to Egyptian security officials. Abu Omar was tortured extensively in Egyptian custody. He was finally released without charge in 2007.

The Italian decision is a graphic illustration of just how damaging practices such as kidnapping and torture are to America’s national security.

Armando Spataro, the deputy Milan public prosecutor, told reporters:

“This decision sends a clear message to all governments that even in the fight against terrorism you can’t forsake the basic rights of our democracies.”

Yet, the Obama administration has given no commitment to end the practice of extraordinary rendition. Indeed, the administration has asserted that this is an option that it plans to retain as part of its counterterrorism strategy.

This is a terrible mistake. Continuing these practices will inevitably have a chilling effect on other countries’ willingness to work with the United States until they can be sure that America will no longer operate as a rogue nation outside the law.

Two Italian intelligence officers were also convicted for their roles in the Abu Omar abduction and it is hard to imagine that this lesson has been lost on counterterrorism officials in other western countries.

These policies are toxic. We gain nothing but shame from them. There is no upside. Extraordinary rendition famously produced the false intelligence that linked Iraq to Al Qaeda and helped precipitate the rush to war in Iraq perhaps the biggest counterterrorism blunder of this, or any, decade.

The United States shouldn’t need a foreign court to distinguish right from wrong. The Obama administration must repudiate the unlawful practice of extraordinary rendition – and hold accountable those responsible for having put this system in place — or his administration will end up as tarnished as his predecessor’s.