Our Debt to Italy

By David Swanson

The United States of America owes much of the hope it has right now of remaining what John Adams called “a nation of laws, not men” to Italian law enforcement. Were it not for the fact that Italian prosecutors, unlike their American counterparts, answer to the law rather than a president, the enforcement of laws against a massive crime spree by U.S. officials (and their Italian accomplices) would not have begun.

In 2003, the CIA and the United States military kidnapped a man, a political refugee, in Italy. His name was Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar. Our CIA agents spied on him from their luxury hotels and gourmet-meal lives in Milano (all paid for by U.S. tax payers). They were told to kidnap Nasr and send him to Egypt to be tortured, and they did so. According to recent statements by two of them, they knew perfectly well they were violating the law. But they were not worried enough at the time to refrain from discussing the matter on their cell phones as they enjoyed the dolce vita and racked up credit card bills wasting the same currency our government claims it has a moral duty not to waste on healthcare.

Nasr was indeed kidnapped, flown to Egypt, and tortured. His wife, Ghali Nabila, testified in Italian court for over six hours. In October 2004, she had been able to see him, briefly out of Egyptian prison. (He was eventually released years later.) Nabila said in court:

“I found him wasted, skinny – so skinny his hair had turned white, he had a hearing aid.”

Ordered, against her will, to describe his torture, she said:

“He was tied up like he was being crucified. He was beaten up, especially around his ears. He was subject to electroshocks to many body parts.”

Asked if that included genitals, she replied “Yes.”

Nasr himself wrote in a letter smuggled out of prison and printed in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera:

“I was hung by my feet from the ceiling, my head down, my hands tied to my back, my feet tied up. I was subjected to electric shocks all over my body, especially in my head, nipples, testicles, and penis. My testicles where also beaten with a stick and squeezed tightly if I refused to answer their questions or was suspected of telling lies. They fixed my body to an iron door and on a wooden instrument they call the bride, where my hands where tied over my head from behind and my legs tied together or sometimes each leg on different sides. The torture that takes place during this is electric shocks, and beating with a shoe and cables.”

Presidents Barack Obama and Silvio Berlusconi oppose prosecuting Americans or Italians for kidnapping this man and transporting him to his torturers. The U.S. Department of Justice will, therefore, not prosecute. In Italy, on the other hand, there is still some measure of law, law as a standard applied to all equally, without immunity for those with the power to commit the greatest crimes.

Last Wednesday, an Italian court convicted 22 CIA agents, including the CIA’s current second ranking official Stephen Kappes, and one member of the U.S. Air Force. The prosecutor Armando Spataro has repeatedly asked the Italian government to issue an international arrest warrant and request extradition by the United States. It has not yet done so.

One of the convicted CIA agents, Sabrina De Sousa, openly admits that the kidnapping was illegal, but says that she feels betrayed by those who authorized the operation and failed to protect its participants from prosecution. De Sousa ignores Nuremberg Principle IV, which requires noncompliance with illegal orders or instructions:

“The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

But De Sousa also has a point, one well exemplified at Nuremberg: Those at the bottom are not the most responsible. Those who must be held accountable first and foremost are the decision-makers at the top. And who authorized the policy of kidnapping people and shipping them off to be tortured? Three top U.S. officials have authorized rendition: Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. And in this case, the presidents responsible were Bush and, almost certainly, Berlusconi.

For justice to reach to those highest levels and thereby deter the practice of kidnapping, under the name rendition, in the years ahead, justice must be permitted to proceed on the paths it has blazed thus far. Americans must make Italians aware of our gratitude for their efforts to save us from ourselves. And Italy must be compelled to obey its laws rather than its president on the question of issuing international arrest warrants and a demand for extradition. The 23 fugitives already can expect arrest if they visit any nation of Europe. They should not be free to roam the rest of the world.

By U.S. standards, Italy would be justified in kidnapping these fugitives and “rendering” them to Italian prisons. An extradition request would be a generous favor of a sort that the United States does not grant to others. Failure to take that step on behalf of the rule of law will put the blood of future rendition victims on the hands of the Italian as well as the American people.

Vi prego, i miei carissimi fratelli e sorelli, salvateci da noi stessi.


PS: One opportunity for Americans to force this issue in our own country will occur when Attorney General Eric Holder testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 10 a.m. on November 18th in Dirksen room 226. We should ask Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who claims to oppose torture, and Senator Patrick Leahy who chairs the committee, as well as Senator Russ Feingold and the rest of them to raise these issues, and be there to raise them ourselves.

Does Holder consider rendition legal. How does he distinguish it from kidnapping?

Will Holder extradite 23 figitives to Italy? Would he expect Italy to do the same?

Holder has accepted the instructions of the president not to prosecute top officials for known crimes. He needs to be grilled on that and informed that Congress will step up where he fails.

Holder is burying the OPR report (his departments own, years-old report on its authorization of torture), providing Congress with an excuse for inaction. He needs to be told to release it or watch it be subpoenaed and watch Congress proceed without using its delay as an excuse any longer.

In April Leahy asked top torture lawyer Jay Bybee to come in. He hasn’t. Leahy needs to tell Holder that Bybee is being subpoenaed.

In April Holder testified on the House side and told me I’d be proud of my government — When might I?


PPS: Speaking of the House side, Rep. Jay Inslee introduced this bill two years ago. This is the full text:

Directing the Committee on the Judiciary to investigate whether Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General of the United States, should be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Resolved, That the Committee on the Judiciary shall investigate fully whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to impeach Alberto R. Gonzales, Attorney General of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors.

The momentum of cosponsors signing onto this bill was almost certainly a large factor in the decision to have Gonzales resign.

A similar resolution that would be of use now might read as follows:

Directing the Committee on the Judiciary to investigate whether Jay Bybee, former assistant Attorney General of the United States, should be impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Resolved, That the Committee on the Judiciary shall investigate fully whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to impeach Jay Bybee, former assistant Attorney General of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Reasons to get this introduced:

The DOJ (and White House) have made clear they will not enforce the law.
We have very limited ability to influence them.
People all over the country who want a sign of hope and somewhere to put their energies that might have an actual impact could lobby for cosponsorship.
Cosponsorship of such a resolution would constitute a threat to expose secrets through a privileged impeachment hearing.
Such a threat would open up the possibility of committees using the power of subpoena as a lesser step.
A nation without laws cannot last.


David Swanson is the author of the new book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press. You can order it and find out when tour will be in your town: https://davidswanson.org/book.

CORRECTION: They did not prosecute Kappes.

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