THE BLOG

CIA Operative Demands Spy Agency Protect Her Cover

What good is a cover story if the U.S. government won't back it up?

That's essentially the question former CIA officer Sabrina DeSousa is asking a federal court to decide, in a lawsuit against the Departments of State and Justice and the CIA, accusing three of its operatives of incompetence and neglect for exposing her to criminal charges of kidnapping in Italy.

De Sousa, 53, was listed as an American diplomat in Milan on Feb. 17, 2003, when U.S. agents snatched an al Qaeda suspect, known as Abu Omar, off a local street and secretly flew him out of the country for interrogation.

Omar was taken to Egypt and tortured during an interrogation where he said an American was nearby.

The operation was plagued by miscues.

Because of lax CIA security, Italian police easily cracked the missing person case and charged over two dozen Americans, all but one CIA agents, with kidnapping.

In November, following a long, off-again, on-again trial in absentia, an Italian court convicted DeSousa and 22 other Americans, all but one alleged to be CIA personnel, on kidnapping charges.

The verdict means DeSousa (and the others) risk detention and prison in Italy if she travels outside the United States, but particularly in Europe, where a Europol warrant has been issued for her arrest.

DeSousa's suit -- technically a petition to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for permission to amend a suit filed in May -- maintains that because she was listed as a State Department political officer, first in the American embassy in Rome and later the U.S. consulate in Milan, the department should have shielded her from criminal charges by invoking her diplomatic immunity.

The Justice Department should have paid for her defense from the days she was named a defendant, she also says.

The suit also names Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, accusing her of ignoring DeSousa's pleas for help.

"By July 2006, having exhausted all available internal mechanisms, De Sousa began seeking assistance from then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by way of written letters," says her suit, filed by the Washington, D.C., law firm of Mark S. Zaid, which specializes in representing CIA personnel with beefs against the spy agency.

"Specifically, [DeSousa] requested that the [U.S. government] formally invoke diplomatic/consular immunity with respect to De Sousa's alleged involvement in the kidnapping of Abu Omar and provide her with legal representation to counter the charges in the Italian criminal proceedings," the suit adds.

"She never received a response," the suit says, from either Rice or Clinton, when she became Secretary of State in January.

DeSousa says three former CIA officials share blame for her plight: Jeffrey Castelli, the spy agency's Rome station chief in 2003, Robert Seldon Lady, its Milan base chief, and Susan Czaska, listed as a "consulate official" in Milan.

Italian police discovered a treasure trove of CIA documents related to the Abu Omar rendition when they raided Lady's home.

"A reasonable official would have not have engaged in conduct which allegedly included maintaining classified files on a personal home computer and failing to maintain pre- or post-operation secrecy," DeSousa's suit says of Lady, now retired from the CIA.

"Castelli's alleged authorization of the alleged operation and alleged failure to maintain pre or post-operation secrecy ... subsequently resulted in the Italian criminal and civil proceedings implicating De Sousa," the suit also says.

DeSousa also blames her former colleague Susan Czaska for careless security, "sending an e-mail from an unclassified email account to another unclassified e-mail account in which an allegedly classified CIA operation is referenced and alleged CIA employees' identities and involvement are revealed" -- including DeSousa's.

"The lawsuit is designed to force the State Department to provide the protection Sabrina was deprived of when it failed to invoke diplomatic immunity for her when she was charged (and later convicted) in the Abu Omar case," says her lawyer, Zaid.

"It also seeks to clear her good name and hopefully restore her ability to serve this country again overseas. The suit also seeks an unstated amount of restitution for her legal costs."

Italian authorities maintained that they had obtained extensive evidence of DeSousa's ties to the CIA.

Zaid emphasized, however, that DeSousa nowhere admits to being a CIA employee, nor working under diplomatic cover, which is a routine arrangement between the spy agency and State Department.

"The proposed Amended Complaint says nothing about protecting her 'cover' as a spy. She explicitly denies being an employee of the Agency and seeks protection of diplomatic immunity, which was afforded to her as part of her [foreign service officer] responsibilities," Zaid said.

The CIA has consistently refused to comment on the Milan case.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In August the Justice Department informed DeSousa that it would pay her legal costs, following her initial suit in May, after years of unsuccessfully pressing her case in private.

"Unbelievable! The United States Department of Justice just 'approved' an attorney to defend me, a month after the trial ended, knowing full well that an attorney at this stage will make little or no difference to the outcome or verdict," DeSousa said then.