Italians Arrested for Allegedly Aiding CIA Abduction

Two Italian intelligence operatives were arrested Wednesday on suspicion of helping U.S. agents abduct a terrorism suspect in Milan in 2003. An Italian judge also issued arrest warrants for four Americans allegedly involved in the kidnapping. Steve Inskeep talks to BBC Rome Correspondent David Willey.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

A criminal case in Italy may lead to scrutiny of an American tactic in the war on terror. Italy's government has arrested two of its own intelligence agents. They were in custody for the kidnapping of a radical Egyptian cleric in Milan three years ago. Yesterday's arrests are the first official acknowledgement that the Italian intelligence agency may have been involved in an operation known as Rendition - that's the secret seizure and transfer of international terrorism suspects. Italian prosecutors are also seeking the arrest of three CIA agents and a fourth American who worked at a US military base in northern Italy.

BBC reporter David Willey is in Rome, and he's been following this story. And Mr. Willey, first off, what was the underlying act that's led to this investigation?

Mr. DAVID WILLEY (Rome Correspondent, British Broadcasting Company): Well, the act took place in February 2003, when a Muslim cleric, an Egyptian, was abducted from the streets of Milan. He was walking along the street and suddenly he was pounced on by people the Italian press are calling CIA agents. He was spirited away to the - according to the newspaper reports - to the American base at Aviano, not far from Venice, and from there he was flown to Egypt where, allegedly, he was tortured and imprisoned.

INSKEEP: And, how big an issue has this become in Italy?

Mr. WILLEY: This is past history. This is 2003. More than three years have gone by since this event. It was only of sporadic interest until now. There was a brief flurry of interest - it must be three months ago - when the magistrates in Milan issued arrest warrants for 22 purported CIA agents. But this never led to anything, because the prosecutors in Milan, have - under Italian law - to get permission from the Ministry of Justice in Rome before they can serve any of these notices. And, the Ministry of Justice in Rome at that time was under the control of Silvio Berlosconi, whose great friend, of course, is George Bush, George W. Bush.

INSKEEP: And now there's been a change in government in Italy.

Mr. WILLEY: There's been a change in government. And so, the new Italian prime minister clearly has a different sense of priorities. And, uh, the magistrates in Milan are going ahead with their inquiries, once again. They were particularly annoyed, because apparently, reading between the lines - what happened was - a political order was given not to continue the investigations. And the magistrates, in my opinion, quite rightly said - well, look this isn't on. We are the judiciary in Italy - is independent of the executive, and we intend to continue these inquiries.

INSKEEP: Is there any indication about whether the Italian government can and will seriously seek the extradition of these purported CIA agents?

Mr. WILLEY: It's difficult to know. There's a lot that the general public, and even policymakers in Italy, don't know, because the Italian government has still not come absolutely clean, as to whether they knew or did not know, about the - this extraordinary rendition. They're being very, very careful, and cagey in what they're putting out in public.

INSKEEP: Has any part of the Italian government made any effort to defend its own intelligence agents, who are now in trouble for allegedly cooperating with the Americans?

Mr. Willey: I think there are many Italians who are very uneasy about this. Several of the Italian MPs have tabled questions - which eventually will have to be answered in the Italian parliament - about the truth behind this. Because of course, as they say - particularly the agent who's been named - is a very senior anti-terrorism official who has been working behind the scenes, in secret, for the liberation of Italian hostages kidnapped in Iraq. And what these politicians are saying, is that it's unfair that these people who have been loyal servants of the Italian state, should suddenly find themselves now in jail, or at least under house arrest.

INSKEEP: Mr. Willey, thanks very much. That's BBC reporter David Willey in Rome, talking about yesterday's arrest of two Italian intelligence agents over a CIA Rendition - a capture of a suspect that took place more than three years ago.

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