A US State Department official on Monday “expressed concern” about what he called “a ‘climate of impunity’ over abuses by police and security forces” – in Egypt. The official, Michael Posner, warned that failure to investigate Egyptian state agents responsible for “cruel treatment of those in their custody” – including torture – creates “a lack of meaningful accountability for these actions”. Last week, I wrote that “I’ve become somewhat of a connoisseur of US government statements that are so drowning in obvious, glaring irony that the officials uttering them simply must have been mischievously cackling to themselves when they created them,” and this American denunciation of Egypt’s “climate of impunity” almost certainly goes to the top of the list.
After all, Michael Posner works for the very same administration that not only refused to prosecute or even investigate US officials who tortured, kidnapped and illegally eavesdropped, but actively shielded them all from all forms of accountability: criminal, civil or investigative. Indeed, Posner works for the very same State Department that actively impeded efforts by countries whose citizens were subjected to those abuses – such as Spain and Germany – to investigate them. Being lectured by the US State Department about a “culture of impunity” is like being lectured by David Cameron about supporting Arab dictators.
To see just how extreme the US “culture of impunity” is, consider the extraordinary 2003 kidnapping by the CIA of the Muslim cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (Abu Omar), from the streets of Milan. Nasr, who in 2001 had been granted asylum by Italy from persecution in Egypt, was abducted by the CIA and then shipped back to Egypt where he was imprisoned for four years without charges and, he says, brutally tortured by America’s long-standing ally, the Mubarak regime.
Der Spiegel described just what a standard kidnapping it was: Nasr “was seized in broad daylight on the open street, pushed into a white van, taken to the Aviano military airport and then flown to Egypt via the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany”. Yesterday, an Italian appellate court sentenced the country’s former intelligence chief, NiccolÃ² Pollari, to ten years in prison “for complicity” in that kidnapping:
The appeals court, in Milan, sentenced the former chief, NiccolÃ² Pollari, to 10 years and his former deputy Marco Mancini to nine years for their role in the kidnapping of the cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr . . . . Three Italian secret service officials were also sentenced to six years each.
Mr. Nasr was kidnapped under the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition‘, in which people suspected of being Islamic militants were abducted in one country and then transferred to another, often one where torture was common.
While Mr. Nasr was initially charged with membership in an illegal organization, the charges were ultimately dropped. He has since been released.
In other words, not only did the CIA kidnap Nasr and deliberately send him to an allied regime notorious for torture – a serious crime no matter who he was – but, as it turns out, he was guilty of absolutely nothing. What made him a kidnapping target was that, according to the New York Times, his “anti-American speeches and calls to jihad were resonating with young Muslim men who were attending his Islamic center”.
Despite being convicted of no crime (other than criticizing US aggression), he was imprisoned in Egypt without charges for four years until a Cairo court found his detention unfounded and ordered him released. Upon release, he said “he had been reduced to a ‘human wreck’ by torture he had undergone in a Cairo jail”. Nasr detailed the truly horrific kidnapping and torture he endured in a 2008 interview with Peter Bergen for Mother Jones, who used Italian court documents to write a comprehensive report on the case:
“A little before noon on February 17, 2003, Abu Omar was headed to his mosque, incongruously located inside a garage. He strolled down Via Guerzoni, a quiet street mostly empty of businesses and lined with high, view-blocking walls. A red Fiat pulled up beside him and a man jumped out, shouting ‘Polizia! Polizia!’ Abu Omar produced his ID. ‘Suddenly I was lifted in the air,’ he recalled. He was dragged into a white van and beaten, he said, by wordless men wearing balaclavas. After trussing him with restraints and blindfolding him, they sped away.
“Hours later, when the van stopped, Abu Omar heard airplane noise. His clothes were cut off and something was stuffed in his anus, likely a tranquilizing suppository. His head was entirely covered in tape with only small holes for his mouth and nose, and he was placed on a plane. Hours later he was hustled off the jet. He heard someone speaking Arabic in a familiar cadence; in the distance, a muezzin was calling the dawn prayer. After more than a decade in exile, he was back in Egypt. . . .
“Spreading his arms in a crucifixion position, he demonstrates how he was tied to a metal door as shocks were administered to his nipples and genitals. His legs tremble as he describes how he was twice raped. He mentions, almost casually, the hearing loss in his left ear from the beatings, and how he still wakes up at night screaming, takes tranquilizers, finds it hard to concentrate, and has unspecified ‘problems with my wife at home.’ He is, in short, a broken man.”
Yesterday’s 10-year sentence was based on a 2010 finding by an Italian judge that “the Italian secret service was most likely aware of, ‘and perhaps complicit in,’ the operation”. In 2009, an Italian criminal court found 23 individual CIA agents (including the Milan station chief, Robert Lady) guilty of kidnapping and other crimes, but was forced to try them in abstentia because the US (first under Bush and then Obama) pressured the Italian government to suppress extradition requests issued by Italian courts to compel those CIA agents to travel to Italy to stand trial.
This entire case reveals vital facts about the culture of impunity for high-level officials that prevails in the US even when they commit the most egregious crimes:
First, it is completely inconceivable that anything like what just happened in Italy could happen in the US. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the highest-level US officials had systematically committed felonies under the War on Terror rubric, both political parties, bolstered by a virtual consensus of the DC press, united to block all forms of accountability. A sacred rule in US political culture is that high-level state officials are to be shielded from all accountability, let alone criminal punishment, for how they abuse power.
In sum, US officials are not subject to the rule of law but reside above it. Neither party’s establishment nor their Adversarial Press Corps would ever tolerate the CIA Director being prosecuted for his crimes the way Italy’s just was. The defense offered to the press by Lady, the CIA’s Milan station chief – I was just following orders – is exactly what resonates in US elite circles as an excuse for all crimes: if the US government does it, then it is, by definition, shielded from legal punishment.
Second, both Bush and Obama officials continuously attempted to apply coercive pressure on Italian magistrates to obstruct this investigation, and when that failed, applied the same pressure to the Berlusconi and Prodi governments. Indeed, numerous diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks detail those efforts, and the Italian journalist Stefania Maurizi of L’Espresso described that campaign of obstruction in her book “Dossier WikiLeaks. Segreti Italiani.”
One 2006 cable describes a meeting between US Ambassador Ronald Spogli and Italy’s new Undersecretary to the Prime Minister Enrico Letta in which the US made not-so-subtle threats about the need of the Italian government to suppress extradition requests for the CIA agents:
In the context of keeping our excellent bilateral relationship on sound footing, the Ambassador explained to Letta that nothing would damage relations faster or more seriously than a decision by the GOI to forward warrants for arrests of the alleged CIA agents named in connection with the Abu Omar case. This was absolutely critical. Letta took note of this and suggested the Ambassador discuss the matter personally with Justice Minister Mastella, who Letta suggested should be invited to Washington for an early meeting with the Attorney General.
A 2007 cable describes plotting between the US and Italian governments to thwart the judicial investigation. They agreed that the US should “send something in writing to [the Italian justice official] explaining that the US would not act on extradition requests in the Abu Omar case if tendered”, which “could be used pre-emptively by the GOI to fend off action by Italian magistrates to seek the extradition of the implicated Americans”. In response, “the [US] Ambassador agreed that we should work to avoid having extradition requests forwarded.”
A 2010 cable details a meeting between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Berlusconi in which Gates “asked Berlusconi for his assistance in affirming US jurisdiction” over one of the high-level CIA defendants.” A 2011 cable noted that “Justice Minister Mastella has so far kept the lid on recurring judicial demands to extradite presumed CIA officers allegedly involved in a rendition of Muslim cleric Abu Omar.”
This US pressure campaign succeeded in quashing the efforts of the Italian judiciary to hold these CIA agents criminally accountable for their crimes in Italy. Indeed, as Maurizi told me yesterday, “five different Italian ministers of Justice refused to forward extradition requests for CIA agents.” After Italy’s highest court upheld the convictions of the CIA agents last September, the Guardian noted: “successive Italian governments denied all knowledge of the case and consistently ruled out extradition.”
Under serious pressure from two successive US administrations, the Italian justice ministers simply refused to forward their own courts’ extradition demands. The Italian courts were thus left to imprison their own officials for the ancillary role they played in the kidnapping because the US government, as usual, draped its own officials with a full-scale shield of immunity.
Third, what allowed this accountability in Italy is exactly what the US so tragically lacks: a brave and independent judiciary willing to perform its core ostensible function of applying the law equally to everyone, including those who wield the greatest power. Indeed, a 2005 US diplomatic cable complained that “Italian magistrates [prosecutors] are fiercely independent and are not answerable to any government authority/entity, including the Minister of Justice” and that “consequently, it is nearly impossible to prevent them from undertaking action in Italy that they wish to carry out.”
This prosecution was possible in the first instance only because a single Italian magistrate, Armando Spataro, insisted on pursuing it despite all sorts of attacks against him. This 2009 Der Spiegel article reports that, as a result of his pursuit of the case, “his communications were monitored, the Italian intelligence service placed him under observation and there were even investigations into whether he had betrayed state secrets. The government tried again and again to silence him.” But the magistrates ignored those repressive efforts, eventually even seizing Lady’s retirement villa in Italy to cover court costs.
Numerous cables show Italian officials, especially Berlusconi himself, attacking the Italian magistrates and assuring the US that Italian courts would eventually stop them. One 2005 US cable celebrates that Minister of Justice Roberto Castelli “took the unusual step of publicly criticizing a member of Italy’s highly independent magistracy” over this case, specifically that he “called Armando Spataro a “militant’. meaning a communist” (ironically, Spataro previously “faced accusations of right-wing bias when he led prosecutions of the Red Brigade terrorist organization in the late 1970’s and 1980’s”.) That public denunciation of the magistrate happened, recounted the US cable, after he “presented Castelli with requests for the provisional arrest in contemplation of extradition for 22 Americans involved in the alleged rendition of Egyptian Imam Abu Omar from Milan.”
Assuring Washington that the prosecution of the CIA agents was politically motivated and would be stopped, this US cable claimed:
“In the 1960s and 1970s Italian communists made a concerted effort to ‘infiltrate’ the judiciary; today, many Italian judges are considered to be sympathetic to the left and some have made decisions that undermine our shared security objectives. . . .
“Berlusconi’s government certainly believes that judicial treatment of the Abu Omar case is an example of a politically motivated action directed, not at the US, but at Berlusconi in an further attempt to embarrass the Prime Minister. Castelli’s very public criticism of Spataro is a sign he is willing to risk criticizing the judiciary in order to avoid precipitous action in this case.”
The 2010 cable describing the meeting between Gates and Berlusconi describes how “Berlusconi gave an extended rant about the Italian judicial system – which frequently targets him since it is ‘dominated
by leftists’ as the public prosecutor level.” Moreover, “Berlusconi predicted that the ‘courts will come down in our favor’ upon appeal, noting that higher-level appellate courts are significantly less politicized than local courts.”
But that did not happen. Indeed, the opposite happened: Italian appellate courts were even more aggressive and steadfast in demanding accountability than the lower courts. Just two weeks ago, an Italian appellate court vacated the acquittals of three CIA agents whom a lower court had protected on the ground of diplomatic immunity and then sentenced one of them – former CIA Rome station chief Jeffrey Castelli – to seven years in prison. Last September, it was Italy’s highest court that upheld the convictions of the 23 CIA agents. And yesterday’s 10-year sentence for Italy’s ex-intelligence chief was also imposed by an appeals court.
So what Berlucsoni predicted never happened. Italian courts exercised great independence and courage in applying the law to both the American and Italian kidnappers without regard to their power and position.
The contrast with the US federal judiciary is stark. American federal judges have proven themselves indescribably servile to the US government. It is impossible to imagine American federal judges – except in the most aberrational and quickly-overturned instances – defying the wishes of the US government when it comes to claims of national security and secrecy.
Indeed, not a single victim of the abuses of the US War on Terror – not one – has even been allowed by the US federal judiciary to have a day in court, let alone obtain accountability for what was done to them. Federal judges have obediently slammed the courthouse doors shut in the faces of War on Terror victims even when everyone recognizes that the victims were treated savagely and were guilty of nothing. Indeed, US courts have refused even to hear cases brought by rendition (kidnapping) victims. Instead, US federal judges, over and over, have meekly submitted to the decrees of US national security state officials that the mandates of secrecy and national security shield them from any form of judicial review even when they kidnap and torture innocent people.
An independent judiciary, willing to apply the law even to the most powerful political officials, is a prerequisite to a healthy political system that functions under the rule of law. As this case vividly demonstrates, Italy has that and the US does not. Of all the US institutions that have shamefully abdicated their duties in the post-9/11 era, the federal judiciary is at the top of that list. That is why even the former head of Italy’s intelligence service faces criminal punishment for kidnapping an innocent person while such accountability is inconceivable in the US. It is why the “rule of law” is a ludicrous joke when it comes to US elites.
We also see here, yet again, how monumentally important leaks are. Almost everything we know about the conduct of the US government in this case comes from diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks and allegedly disclosed by Bradley Manning. It is remarkable how often major media outlets rely on WikiLeaks documents to report to their readers what is happening in the world. For exactly that reason, it is no mystery why the US government is so eager to punish so severely those responsible for leaks generally and these disclosures specifically: precisely because nothing sheds light on their bad acts the way whistleblowing does.