ROME – The Italian government denied Thursday it had prior knowledge of the alleged CIA (search) kidnapping of a radical Egyptian cleric in 2003, an operation that has led prosecutors to seek the arrest of 13 purported CIA operatives.
Carlo Giovanardi (search), minister for relations with parliament, addressed the Senate in response to opposition demands that Italy say whether authorities knew of plans to kidnap the Egyptian, considered an Islamic terrorist.
Italian prosecutors have accused the 13 CIA officials of kidnapping Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr (search), known as Abu Omar, on a Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003, and sending him to Egypt, where he reportedly was tortured.
The Egyptian preacher purportedly was seized as part of the CIA's "extraordinary rendition" program in which suspected terrorists are transferred to third countries without court approval, where they face interrogation and possible torture.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government has summoned the U.S. ambassador who was expected to meet with Italian officials Friday on the matter, Giovanardi said.
He said the reported operation was never "brought to the attention of the government of the republic or national institutions," often a term used to refer to Italy's intelligence agencies.
Therefore, he said, "it is not even possible" that Italy ever authorized such an operation.
Prosecutors have said they are preparing extradition requests for the 13 CIA operatives and have asked Interpol help in tracing the suspects, all identified as U.S. citizens.
Nasr told his wife in an intercepted cell phone call from Egypt that he was tortured, the Milan prosecutor's office has said. He reportedly was hung upside down and subjected to extreme temperatures and loud noise that damaged his hearing.
The U.S. Embassy in Rome, the CIA in Washington and Egyptian officials have declined to comment.
The Milan prosecutor's office called the imam's disappearance a blow to Italy's own fight against terrorism. He had been under investigation for alleged terrorist activity in Italy at the time of his disappearance.
Responding to Giovanardi, opposition Sen. Tana De Zulueta referred to a report Thursday by The Washington Post that said the CIA station chief in Rome had briefed and sought approval from an Italian official before the purported operation, citing three unidentified CIA veterans said to have had knowledge of the operation and a fourth said to have reviewed it after it took place.
One of the veterans claimed in the report that the CIA "told a tiny number of people" about the action. The report said it was unclear how high in the Italian intelligence service the information was shared or whether Berlusconi was made aware.
At De Zulueta's reference to the article, Giovanardi shouted out: "It's false."
Repeating his address later Thursday in the Chamber of Deputies, Italy's lower house, Giovanardi called the Post article "a report without any foundation, a false report, which the Italian government is able to deny with great calm."
The 13 alleged CIA officers have been listed by name in a judge's report explaining the need for their arrest, although some might be aliases, as is often a practice of such operatives overseas. Several gave U.S. post office boxes as their addresses.
One person described as playing a key role was identified as former Milan CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady, 51. The order said he had been listed as a diplomat, but he was retired and living near Turin.
The report said the cell phone records show Lady was in Egypt from Feb. 22 to March 15, which likely were the first days Nasr was being tortured during interrogations.
It also describes how investigators traced the purported officers through a trail of credit card information and U.S. addresses they gave to five-star hotels in Milan around the time of Nasr's alleged abduction, as well as their use of Italian cell phones.
It is the second time Italy has summoned the U.S. ambassador in less than four months. In March, Ambassador Mel Sembler was called to explain the death of Italian agent Nicola Calipari, shot at a U.S. checkpoint in Iraq after helping free Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena.
Calipari's death was a blow to relations between the two countries, and Italian officials participating in a joint investigation of the shooting refused to sign off on U.S. findings clearing American troops of any blame.