The perils of extraordinary rendition.

Military analysis.
June 30 2005 5:16 PM

Milan Snatch

Extraordinary rendition comes back to bite the Bush administration.

A generation ago, during the Reagan administration, the United States abducted its first fugitive overseas in an FBI-CIA operation codenamed Goldenrod. No foreign government was involved in the September 1987 snatching of Fawaz Yunis, who was wanted in the U.S. courts for his role in the hijacking of a Jordanian airliner that had American citizens onboard. Yunis was lured onto a boat off the coast of Cyprus and taken to the high seas, where he was arrested in international waters.

The Reagan administration did not undertake this kidnapping lightly. Then-FBI Director William Webster had opposed an earlier bid to snatch Yunis, arguing that the United States should not adopt the tactics of Israel, which had abducted Adolf Eichmann on a residential street in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1960. But after years of ineffective counterterrorism operations, the U.S. government was eager to strike back. In 1984 and 1986, during a wave of terrorist attacks, Congress passed laws making air piracy and attacks on Americans abroad federal crimes. Ronald Reagan added teeth to these laws by signing a secret covert-action directive in 1986 that authorized the CIA to kidnap, anywhere abroad, foreigners wanted for terrorism. A new word entered the dictionary of U.S. foreign relations: rendition.

The goal of the early renditions was to ensure that terrorists understood that they could not escape their day in U.S. court. But since launching its war on terror, the administration of George W. Bush has expanded the practice to "extraordinary rendition," which includes kidnappings of foreign suspects so they can be turned over to authoritarian allies like Egypt for interrogation sessions that likely involve torture. Last week, when 13 CIA agents were charged with kidnapping by an Italian court, it became clear that an extraordinary rendition had taken place in a democracy in defiance of its independent judiciary—a development that undermines the U.S. crusade for democracy worldwide.

The court proceedings in Milan involve a CIA team that allegedly participated in the kidnapping of a Muslim cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr. In February 2003, Nasr was drugged while walking to a Milan mosque and spirited away to Cairo via a U.S. base in Northern Italy. Since the Reagan-era renditions began, the CIA agents are the first American operatives to be charged by a foreign court with kidnapping. Usually, as a matter of smart tradecraft and diplomacy, the CIA and the FBI involve a country's local intelligence services in a rendition operation, especially if the country is an ally. The CIA operates through a web of relationships with foreign intelligence services, some decades old. A snatch that is not cleared with a friendly local service threatens that web.

The declassified record of the estimated 100 to 200 renditions that have taken place since 1987 is too incomplete to indicate whether U.S. agents obtained cooperation in every instance. But the best-known cases—the snatches of Ramzi Yousef and Mahmud Abouhalima, co-conspirators in the first bombing of the World Trade Center, and Mir Amal Kansi, who attacked CIA agents commuting to work in Virginia—all involved the secret service of the country where the fugitive was located.

Were the Italian secret service and the government kept out of the loop by the CIA this time? That's the impression given by the Italian judge who signed the warrant for the arrest of the 13 CIA agents. Yet as this report in today's Washington Post confirms, it's a safe bet that the CIA snatch of Nasr involved the Italian services and probably the top tier of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government (never mind the government's denial). In early 2003, when the Nasr operation was being prepared and executed, the Bush administration was straining to find European allies for its Iraq invasion, and Italy was one of its few backers. For the CIA to have conducted a kidnapping without high-level Italian approval would have violated Italian sovereignty and created a scandal—at a terrible time to embarrass Berlusconi. Moreover, the CIA and its predecessors have maintained close relations with Italian prime ministers, military intelligence services, and state police (the carabinieri) since the reconstruction of Italy following World War II. Italian intelligence chiefs have acted as our informants or at least regular conversation partners.

The Nasr snatch fits this pattern. For whatever reason, the Berlusconi government wanted Washington to take this man off their hands. The problem was that the Italian judiciary and local police had already begun investigating Nasr and were not going to be told by Italian intelligence that he would be removed from the country. As a result, the U.S. found itself embroiled in a turf battle between Italy's intelligence service and its courts—and came out looking bad. In its enthusiasm for action, the Bush administration has undercut the above-board institutions of a democratic ally to spirit one alleged bad guy off to Egypt. The Milan operation is another sign of the tunnel vision limiting the Bush administration's success in defusing Islamic extremism. The challenge is to destroy the center of al-Qaida and its affiliates and to discourage other centers from forming. The latter goal involves consistently showing that we are the good guys—in other words, that we respect self-determination, democracy, and civil liberties.

Tim Naftali, currently a national security fellow at the New America Foundation and a former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, is writing a book on the Kennedy presidency for publication in 2013.