ROME — A former CIA agent on trial for the alleged kidnapping of a Muslim cleric and terror suspect in Milan acknowledged in an interview published Tuesday that he had a role in the operation but insisted he was only following orders.
Italy's Il Giornale daily published a rare interview with Robert Seldon Lady, the CIA Milan station chief at the time of the 2003 disappearance of Egyptian cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from a street in the northern city.
"I am not guilty. I am only responsible for following an order I received from my superiors," Lady was quoted as saying by Il Giornale. "It was not a criminal act. It was a state affair."
Lady and 25 other Americans, all but one identified as CIA agents by Italian prosecutors, are being tried in absentia in Milan charged with kidnapping Nasr as part of the agency's extraordinary rendition program of transferring suspects overseas for interrogation. It is the first trial in any country involving the CIA program.
Prosecutors say Nasr was transported in a van to a joint U.S.-Italian base in northern Italy, flown to a U.S. air base in Germany and onward to Egypt where he said he was tortured. Nasr has since been released without charge.
The CIA has declined to comment on the case.
Five Italian intelligence officers also are on trial accused of taking part in the joint operation with the Americans. The Italian government has denied any involvement, and all defendants, or their lawyers, have denied the charges.
However, in Tuesday's interview, Lady appeared to acknowledged the kidnapping, though he sought to play down his role.
"I was not on the spot and I didn't organize the thing, the rendition, the arrest, the kidnapping, whatever we want to call it," he was quoted as saying. "Milan is a small station, I was not a big cheese. It happened in my jurisdiction but it was absolutely not under my control."
Il Giornale, which is owned by the brother of Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, said Lady spoke by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Daria Pesce, a former lawyer for the American, said she had not read the article, but expressed surprise and skepticism over the interview, saying that CIA rules would normally bar employees, even retired ones like Lady, from talking to the media.
Pesce withdrew from the case as the trial started, and Lady has since been defended by a court-appointed lawyer.
Lady was still in Italy when the case broke, and his villa in the Asti wine region was searched by police.
In the interview he said he was disappointed that the Italians had gone ahead with the prosecution and was sorry he could not return to a country he loves and had hoped to live in for the rest of his life.
"I find consolation in reminding myself that I was a soldier, that I was at war with terrorism, and that I could not discuss the orders I received," he was quoted as saying.
He defended the use of illegal methods in covert operations.
"I have worked in intelligence for 25 years, and almost none of my activities in these 25 years were legal in the country in which I was carrying them out," he was quoted as saying.
Lady also addressed reported mistakes in the Nasr operation, including cell phone traces and other evidence that the spies left behind, allowing Italian police to piece together what had happened.
"There is no possible excuse, too many mistakes were made," he said. "I don't really know how it could have been possible because I didn't organize the thing."