WEST PALM BEACH, July 20, 2013 – Less than 24 hours after Panamanian officials detained former CIA Milan base chief Robert Seldon Lady, he was on a plane returning to the United States.
According to U.S. State Department officials, Panamanian authorities released Lady and he boarded a US-bound flight on Friday. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirmed Lady was returning to the US. She said she was unaware of any conversations between U.S. officials and Panamanian officials concerning Lady.
On Thursday, Panamanian authorities detained Lady near Panama’s border with Costa Rica. Details of his detention have not been released.
The Italian government has issued an international arrest warrant in connection with his conviction his 2009 conviction for his role in the “extraordinary rendition” of an Egyptian cleric in Milan, but it is also unclear whether Italy requested his extradition from Panama.
In 2009, an Italian court convicted Lady and 22 other Americans – all but one CIA officers or contractors – in abstentia for their role in the 2003 abduction of Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr from Milan. According to court documents, CIA officers and Italian officials picked Abu Omar off the Milan streets on his way to noon prayers, threw him into a CIA van and drove him to the U.S. Air Force base in Italy. He then was flown to several other U.S. military bases, ultimately ending in Egypt, where he claims he was tortured.
The U.S. considered Omar a terrorism suspect and alleged he had information on terrorist activities and plots. They suspected him of recruiting militants and involvement in terrorist plots.
The 22 Americans appealed the conviction last year, and the sentences were upheld. The Americans did not appear in court and only two of them ever communicated with their attorneys.
Italian Courts found that Italy’s secret services were complicit in the operation, and sentenced former intelligence chief, Nicolo Pollari, to 10 years in prison. His deputy was sentenced to nine years, ad three other officials received six years. However, they are free pending an appeal.
The Italians argue that the security services, and the CIA, received approval from the government of then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
In April, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano pardoned U.S. Air Force Colonel Joseph L. Romano for his involvement in the case.
Italian officials also reportedly offered Lady a plea deal if he agreed to provide details on the operation. Lady refused to hand over classified information.
Lady has, however, stated that he opposed the operation because, he said, it was “superfluous.” The Italians were already surveilling Abu Omar, and Lady believed they would collect needed information on their own.
Critics say Lady and his colleagues need to be held responsible for their actions.
Others, however, note that the CIA appeared to have followed protocol in the case, receiving approval from both U.S. and Italian officials.
“This was not a rogue CIA operation,” says one former Agency officer familiar with the operation, “These guys had a finding and had approval. They weren’t acting on their own.”
An article by Matthew Cole in GQ last year appears to support that view. According to Cole, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice personally approved the operation when she served as President George Bush’s National Security Advisor.
Lady, a 24-year CIA veteran, had planned to retire in Italy at the end of his Milan tour. He had purchased a farm in Penango, a small town in northern Italy, and lovingly restored it and decorated it with antiques and family heirlooms.
Currently, however, he cannot return to Italy or will face arrest. He does, however, continue to pay his $4,000 a month mortgage on the property in hopes that one day he can return.
Sources close to Lady say he desperately misses his farm and Italy, and continues to believe he did nothing wrong. He says the CIA was “…the greatest job I ever had” although he is reportedly bitter over lack of government support during the trial.
He still reportedly hopes to return to Italy, although his arrest this week highlights just how unlikely that is.
The CIA officially had no comment on Lady’s arrest in Panama or his return to the United States.
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