A former CIA counterterrorism officer who is set to be extradited to Italy where she faces a four-year prison sentence in connection with the rendition of a suspected terrorist that took place in Milan in 2003 said Hillary Clinton is partially to blame for her ordeal.
Sabrina De Sousa, two-dozen other CIA officers, and an Air Force colonel were convicted in absentia in 2009 in Italy on kidnapping and other charges in connection with the abduction of Osama Mustapha Hassan Nasr, better known as Abu Omar, a radical Egyptian cleric whose fiery anti-American speeches in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 attracted the attention of the CIA. It was the first and only prosecution and conviction involving Americans connected to the CIA's highly controversial rendition, detention, and interrogation program and the fallout has ensnared two administrations.
De Sousa, now 60, who worked under diplomatic cover while she was stationed overseas, has long maintained that she had nothing to do with the operation; for the last decade she has tried to clear her name. One of the many US government officials she reached out to for help was then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In a three-page letter dated October 22, 2012 written by De Sousa's attorney at the time, Bradley Moss, Clinton was urged to invoke diplomatic immunity for De Sousa.
"To date, neither State in particular nor the US Government as a whole has voluntarily taken any action on behalf of Ms. De Sousa," said the letter to Clinton, which was sent a month after the attacks on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya and referenced one of the victims, Ambassador Christopher Stevens. "[De Sousa] has, in effect, been abandoned by the very agency and Government she dutifully served for over a decade."
Watch VICE News' interview with De Sousa about Clinton's role in her case.
Moreover, Clinton was informed that the cleric, Abu Omar, was rendered to Egypt where he said he was brutally tortured. As such, Moss argued, Clinton was obligated to investigate the allegations under the Convention Against Torture.
"Madam Secretary, in light of your own well-documented history of working to advance the cause of human rights across the globe, I respectfully request that you authorize an inquiry into this matter at your earliest convenience," the letter said. "If this issue remains ignored, State is exposing our diplomats to overzealous and politicized prosecutions in foreign courts for actions that (if true) were properly authorized by the US Government.... I would hope you would agree with me that exposing our diplomats to further risks is something that should be avoided at all costs."
Clinton never responded to the letter. It appears that Clinton never looked into Abu Omar's claims of torture or considered De Sousa's plea for diplomatic immunity. (While she was being prosecuted in absentia in Italy in 2009, De Sousa unsuccessfully sued Clinton's State Department to force it to invoke diplomatic immunity for her and end the prosecution.)
De Sousa, who resigned from the CIA in 2009, the year she was convicted in absentia in Italy, said the letter to Clinton was the last one her legal team wrote to a US government official.
"I wrote [sic] that letter to Secretary Clinton because as secretary of state, she had the authority to be able to invoke diplomatic immunity on my behalf.... Secretary Clinton is tenacious, a fighter.... I never heard back from [Clinton] at all," De Sousa told VICE News in Lisbon, Portugal last week — days after a high court there rejected her appeal to block the extradition.
Brian Fallon, the press secretary for Clinton's campaign, did not respond to a series of questions about the letter sent to him last week via email by VICE News.
Clinton has shied away from discussing the CIA's torture program. Indeed, in a private email sent to Clinton in 2009 by her unofficial adviser Sidney Blumenthal — and released to VICE News last year, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit — Clinton was told to "avoid ever being drawn into commenting on any aspect" of the program.
"The distraction will not go away," Blumenthal wrote.
De Sousa said that if she is imprisoned when she is extradited to Italy, rather than granted an appeal or retrial, Clinton will "absolutely" bear responsibility.
"This is a really bad precedent-setting move for all federal employees, especially those assigned overseas," De Sousa said. "When you go overseas and you don't have the protections you think you need and deserve over there, it's a little bit scary."
If she is jailed in Italy, which is what a prosecutor in Milan said will happen, De Sousa will be the only person held accountable for the CIA's controversial "extraordinary rendition" program, which saw the US government kidnap suspected terrorists and transfer them to foreign countries, where they were detained incommunicado and tortured. The rendition of Abu Omar in 2003 — referred to inside the CIA as "The Italian Job" — is one of the most notorious counterterrorism operation in the history of the agency.
"If I go to jail, I will be several things," said De Sousa, a dual US-Portuguese citizen. "One, I will be the first CIA officer to go to jail. Secondly, I will be the first US diplomat to go to jail. And thirdly, I will be the one person who then has to shoulder the responsibility of a program that was designed and authorized by the president of the United States."
De Sousa in Portugal last week. (Photo by Phil Caller/VICE News)
The issue of De Sousa's imminent extradition was raised during a European Parliament hearing last week, where a non-binding resolution was passed that calls upon member states to formally investigate Europe's role in facilitating the CIA's torture and rendition program.
Ana Gomes, a member of the European Parliament who has previously investigated CIA rendition flights — including several that reportedly touched down on Portuguese soil — and Portugal's complicity in the program, said that De Sousa was a mere "scapegoat," and that the "top culprits" responsible for the rendition project were being "protected."
In 2005, after the investigation in Italy began, the CIA instituted a travel ban for the officers connected to the rendition because arrest warrants had been issued for them in Europe. But De Sousa defied the ban and traveled to Portugal last year so she could be close to her family and to enlist the help of Gomes and human rights advocates in clearing her name. De Sousa was detained at Lisbon Portela Airport while en route to see her elderly mother who lives in India days after VICE News filmed a documentary about her case.
Speaking to VICE News from Lisbon, De Sousa's Portuguese lawyer, Manuel Magalhães e Silva, said that De Sousa is being used as "a scapegoat for CIA renditions in Italy."
He also noted that Portugal's agreement to extradite De Sousa comes with several conditions, including that his client is granted either a retrial or an appeal with new evidence. But "what I am aware of, from Italian lawyers and the Italian press, is that the position of the Milan district authority is that when Sabrina arrives in Italy, it's straight to jail," Silva said. In this instance, "Italy will not be acting as a member-state of the European Union, but some state of the third world where laws are not respected."
De Sousa has acknowledged that she served as a translator between the CIA snatch team and the Italians a year before the rendition was executed. But she says she was completely cut out of the operation after that; she says she was chaperoning her son's school ski trip in northern Italy on the day the operation took place. The Italian prosecutor who won a conviction against De Sousa, Armando Spataro, told VICE News last year that even if she wasn't present for the rendition, she was still an accessory to the crime because she was aware of it early on.
But Silva countered: "As far as I know, there is no crime in knowing. There is not, in Western law, the crime of knowing something."
The CIA declined to comment about De Sousa's case. The State Department and the White House also declined to comment. But government sources said State Department officials have held discussions with Italy over the past few months about De Sousa's situation. Messages left with the Italian Embassy and the Italian Ministry of Justice were not returned.
Last week, the US government filed court papers in De Sousa's long-running FOIA case against the CIA in which she sought documents revolving around Abu Omar's rendition and internal letters and memos she wrote to officials about it. The papers state that the CIA can neither confirm nor deny De Sousa's prior employment by the agency — and that any relevant documents held by the CIA about the rendition "would unquestionably reveal the CIA's intelligence interest (or lack thereof) in the alleged rendition, a classified fact."
So how would De Sousa defend herself in Italy if everything about the Abu Omar rendition remains classified and the CIA won't even acknowledge that she worked there?
"I think there are ways to do it," she said. "I talked with my attorney. I understand that we are dealing with classified information. And I've been careful over the years not to reveal everything I know to defend myself. I can always provide evidence, even if it's classified, working with the US government to do so in a secure manner."
One of De Sousa's unlikely defenders is Abu Omar. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Italy to compensate him and his wife $127,000, having found that Italian authorities "were aware that [he] was a victim of the extraordinary rendition operation" and that an investigation and trial into his abduction "had not led to the punishment of those responsible, who had therefore ultimately been granted impunity."
In an interview with VICE News, Abu Omar said he has closely followed De Sousa's case, and believes that she should be pardoned or granted immunity because the individuals who are responsible for his abduction are far more senior than De Sousa.
De Sousa said she has not been in contact with Abu Omar.
"This came out of the blue," she said. "A former agency employee said to me: How embarrassing is it going to be for the CIA when the terrorist starts to support you in this story?"
In the meantime, De Sousa is waiting to find out when the extradition will take place, which could happen at any moment once Portugal and Italy hammer out the transfer arrangements through Interpol.
De Sousa says that at this point, it's crucial that Clinton comment on her case and acknowledge that the Abu Omar rendition took place, which, thus far, the US government has never done.
Clinton "needs to comment on why she did not invoke immunity as Secretary of State for diplomats assigned overseas," De Sousa said. "She already has the issue of Benghazi, which was diplomatic. And now we have a US diplomat going to prison, that's two things. There needs to be an explanation instead of a no comment. I think it's in the best interest to do that right now. So going in, if she becomes president, then at least everyone knows her position on it."
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