Italian authorities arrested the No. 2 man in the country's Intelligence and Military Security Service (SISMI) along with a predecessor July 5 in connection with the 2003 CIA rendition of an Egyptian Muslim cleric. Authorities also issued four new warrants for U.S. citizens suspected of taking part in the CIA's rendition program in Italy. Although the actions revive the controversy over the incident, the overall impact to U.S./Italian counterterrorism cooperation will be minimal, especially at the operational level.
The arrests of Marco Mancini, SISMI director of anti-terrorism and counterespionage, and Gustavo Pignero, the department's director in 2003, stem from the February 2003 rendition of Milan resident Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, aka Abu Omar, who allegedly was snatched from a Milan street by CIA operatives. In June 2005, Chiara Nobili, prosecutor for the Milan Prefecture, issued arrest warrants for 13 U.S. citizens believed to have participated in the operation. Mancini and Pignero are the first Italians to be arrested in connection with the investigation, and are charged with complicity in a kidnapping and abuse of power. The controversy over the rendition had been idling for several months, while the question of U.S. rendition operations in the rest of Europe had pretty much died down since the start of 2006. The recent change of government in Italy, however, could have led to the issue's revival. Because of Italy's good relations and strong cooperative arrangements with the United States, it is extremely unlikely that the CIA or any other U.S. intelligence organization would have carried out rendition operations without the knowledge of at least SISMI's top official. Because of the politically sensitive nature of such operations and the potential for damage if they are made public, however, official knowledge is rarely recorded. If responsibility for the rendition can be assigned to the counterterrorism department, then SISMI's top official since 2001, Gen. Nicolo Pollari, might be able to deny knowledge of it, thereby minimizing damage to his position. The victory of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi over staunch U.S. ally Silvio Berlusconi in the April elections could be the reason the scandal is resurfacing. Before returning as prime minister, Prodi served as Italy's representative to the European Union, where he served as president of the European Commission. Unlike Berlusconi, whose government always denied any Italian involvement in the affair, Prodi is considered a Eurocrat, a staunch supporter of Italy's increased integration into the European Union. Whereas Berlusconi had no problem turning a blind eye to the scandal, Prodi sees the rendition as a violation of EU law and authority. Under his government, those in Italian politics wishing to revive the issue have found a friendlier climate. Milan Prosecutor Armando Spataro, who is leading the investigation, could elevate the issue even higher by asking Prodi to seek the extradition of U.S. citizens named in the investigation. Previous requests to the Berlusconi government were denied. Prodi's center-left government, however, could grant Spataro's request. Although it will cause some hand-wringing at higher levels, the revival of the rendition controversy will not adversely affect U.S.-Italian counterterrorism cooperation in the field. The controversy has more to do with internal Italian politics and EU authority and jurisdiction than with actual counterterrorism issues.