Robert Seldon Lady: fugitive CIA spy, hostage of Italian politics

Suspected terrorist Abu Omar (right), Silvio Berlusconi (lower center), Italian President Giorgio Napolitano (top left) and Judge Sergio Silocchi (top center), who added to Mr Lady's sentence. Suspected terrorist Abu Omar (right), Silvio Berlusconi (lower center), Italian President Giorgio Napolitano (top left) and Judge Sergio Silocchi (top center), who added to Mr Lady's sentence.

This was supposed to be Robert Seldon Lady’s time to sit back, sip the wine at his restored northern Italian farmhouse and make some extra money as a consultant after retiring as a decorated CIA officer.

Instead, the 24-year U.S. intelligence veteran lost the farm in the small Italian town of Penango when it was seized by the Italian government, and he is essentially living as an international fugitive trapped in the U.S.

SEE RELATED: New questions on CIA programs after Lady’s arrest, release

His crime, a court in Italy declares, is that he carried out orders from top Bush administration officials to capture an Egyptian cleric on the streets of Milan in 2003 and transport that terrorist suspect to another country, a practice known in the intelligence community as rendition.

Mr. Lady was convicted in absentia by an Italian court, which concluded that the rendition operation — though approved under the Silvio Berlusconi administration — was an illegal kidnapping under Italian law.

Nothing has been the same since for Mr. Lady, 59. His marriage of 30 years has fallen apart under the strain of the ordeal, and his ability to work as an international consultant is hampered. When he tried to take a simple business trip this summer to Panama, local authorities arrested him because Interpol lists him as a fugitive. He was detained for days before U.S. officials managed to get him freed.

U.S. efforts to relieve Mr. Lady of his burden have been unsuccessful, in part because Berlusconi is now so unpopular inside Italy after years of scandal that punishing U.S. officials involved in the rendition is viewed as a way to repudiate the former prime minister.

SEE RELATED: President Obama’s sound and fury on Syria signifies nothing

‘A good soldier’

Six years into the ordeal, life as a fugitive no longer suits the former CIA base chief. So he and his attorney have launched an offensive designed to win Mr. Lady a pardon that essentially would negate his prison sentence in Italy. It’s a long-shot strategy that carries plenty of diplomatic and political intrigue.

“Bob has been a good soldier,” Mr. Lady’s attorney, Thomas Spencer, told The Washington Times. “But now it’s time to fight this.”

The lawyer added that the case has implications for intelligence recruitment beyond Mr. Lady’s personal struggle.

SEE RELATED: As America celebrates independence, Egypt fights for democracy

“How can you recruit people to work in government if they are subject to arrest even when they are acting under the auspices of the U.S. government, with the permission of the country where they are operating?” he asked.

Mr. Lady’s story has all the elements of a great spy novel. Mr. Lady hitchhiked as a 19-year-old from his native Honduras to New York City, found his first job in Miami and then made his way to New Orleans, where a handyman’s job installing a gas range at the police academy inspired him to pursue a career in law enforcement.

He passed the police test and soared through the academy, then became a beat officer on the New Orleans Police Department. He wasn’t even 21, so he couldn’t buy a gun legally, and he said he had to have his elder sister make the purchase.

Mr. Lady took advantage of a federal educational grant program called the Law Enforcement Assistance Program to earn a college degree at Loyola University, and then scored a coup when the huge Chiquita food conglomerate offered him a job as a security chief in charge of its South American divisions.

Sometime into his private career, the CIA came calling and he joined America’s premier spy agency, where he eventually rose to become the Milan base chief. He used the official cover of a State Department consular officer.

The Islamic Group

His troubles began with the case of the Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar and a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), a U.S.-designated terrorist group.

The Islamist organization, the largest anti-government group in Egypt, advocates Shariah law and violence as a means to that end. The group was linked to the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and the 1997 Luxor massacre that killed 62 people, mostly foreign tourists.

Al-Gama’a fought an insurgency against the Egyptian government from 1992 to 1998 that was aided by Iran, Sudan and al Qaeda and resulted in the deaths of at least 800 Egyptians, according to the Egyptian government.

The group also targeted Western sites. Omar Abdel-Rahman, the group’s spiritual leader also known as “the blind sheik,” was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. for seditious conspiracy for his vocal support of bombing landmarks in New York City, including the United Nations and FBI offices. U.S. authorities also accused Abdel-Rahman of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombings.

The group later renounced violence, but U.S. officials suspect it could re-emerge as a threat in the aftermath of the turmoil in Egypt, said a former congressional counterterrorism analyst familiar with U.S. thinking.

Italian justice

After Egypt declared the group illegal, Abu Omar and several others sought asylum in Italy.

According to Abu Omar and Italian courts, CIA officers abducted him off a street in Milan on Feb. 7, 2003. They transported him to several U.S. facilities and ultimately to Egypt. Abu Omar said the Egyptian officers tortured him for information.

Italian officials began an investigation into the case and charged Mr. Lady and other Americans with kidnapping Abu Omar.

Mr. Lady appealed on the grounds that he was protected from prosecution by diplomatic immunity, but an Italian judge in 2005 rejected that claim. He ruled that Mr. Lady’s immunity ended when he retired from the CIA, even though the purported crime took place while he was an accredited U.S. diplomat. He also ruled that the seriousness of the charges nullified his immunity anyway.

Italian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Lady on Feb. 16, 2007. Later that year, Italian officials tried 23 Americans in absentia for the rendition of Abu Omar. The judge sentenced Mr. Lady to nine years in prison and ordered him to pay about $2 million to Abu Omar and his wife.

“Lady became the poster boy for the prosecution,” Mr. Spencer said. “He had tremendous contacts in the Italian police and intelligence services and he was the Milan base chief. More important, unlike Edward Snowden, Lady upheld his oath and refused to testify and divulge state secrets.”

Last year, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano — once dubbed “my favorite communist” by Henry Kissinger — pardoned Air Force Col. Joseph L. Romano, the only American convicted in the case who was not a CIA member. The Ministry of Justice also reduced the sentences of the other Americans by three years, cutting Mr. Lady’s sentence to six years.

Italian politics

U.S. officials believe Mr. Lady, the only defendant for whom Italy formally issued an arrest warrant, is caught in internal Italian politics.

“Unfortunately, this is really about the scandal involving Berlusconi and his political rivals. It’s not so much about Lady,” said a State Department employee in the European division who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Added a former U.S. intelligence officer familiar with CIA policy: “Berlusconi and his government had to approve the rendition. It might have been a wink and a nod approval, but there definitely was an approval. They’re mad at Berlusconi, but who takes the fall? Bob Lady.”

Mr. Spencer said the U.S. government “has been as helpful as it can be.” He said President Obama and Mr. Napolitano have a close relationship, as did Mr. Napolitano and President George W. Bush, but the U.S. has limited power in this case.

“The U.S. just doesn’t carry the same clout it used to,” the State Department officer said. “We can’t force the Italians to make this go away.”

Mr. Spencer said the best case scenario is for Mr. Napolitano to pardon Mr. Lady. The U.S. has approached Italy saying it made a mistake, and Mr. Obama has implemented measures to make sure such a situation never happens again. With the recent evacuation of the U.S. Consulate in Milan because of a bomb threat and increasing counterterrorism coordination between the countries, a pardon would show good faith and the importance of the Italian-U.S. relationship.

“Maybe the stars are aligned now to get this done,” Mr. Spencer said.

Some advise Mr. Lady to wait. Diplomats say Mr. Napolitano likely wants to help, but he has to tread carefully and is probably waiting for the appeals process in the case of former CIA Rome station chief Jeffrey Castelli to conclude before making any decisions.

Mr. Castelli was granted diplomatic immunity in the case and acquitted in 2009, but an appeals court vacated the acquittal and convicted him.

Authorities estimate that the appeals process could take two years.

For now, Mr. Lady is working, relying on a strong group of supporters and friends and hoping for a change in the situation. He is separated from his wife, but has three grown children and three grandchildren.

Throughout his ordeal, he continues to uphold his promise of keeping classified information secret, but he does not want to wait another two years for resolution.

“Two years would be devastating for Bob, both personally and in terms of his business. He can’t sit around for two years waiting to see what might happen in Italy. What if Napolitano is no longer in power and an anti-U.S. administration comes in? We just can’t keep waiting,” Mr. Spencer said.

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Lisa M. Ruth

Lisa M. Ruth started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service and analysis.  After leaving the government, she joined a private intelligence firm in South Florida as President, where she oversaw all research, analysis and reporting.

Lisa joined CDN as a journalist in 2009 and writes extensively on intelligence, world affairs, and breaking news. She also provides investigative reporting and news analysis. Lisa continues to write both for her own columns and as a guest writer on a wide variety of subjects, and is now Executive Editor for CDN and edits the Global, Family and Health sections.  She is also a regular contributor to Newsmax and other publications.

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