Robert Seldon Lady didn’t want to do the operation, but the veteran CIA station chief – only months from filing his retirement papers – wasn’t going to disobey orders.
But, after following CIA directives to abduct a Muslim cleric from a Milan side street in 2003, he was not only forced to retire but it led to a kidnapping conviction in Italy, a life of the run and finally his detention Thursday on the steamy border between Panama and Costa Rica.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Friday that Lady was being returned to the United States, but she declined to disclose other details about his case.
Lady, the former Milan CIA station chief, was sentenced by an Italian appeals court in Milan earlier this year. He is expected to serve nine years in prison after being tried in absentia in Italy for the kidnapping of the Muslim cleric Osama Mustafa Hasan Nasr – better known as Abu Omar.
His detention by Panamanian authorities ends not only Italy’s search for the former CIA agent but a chapter in the life of a man who has spent most of his life in foreign land.
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Born in 1954 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras to American parents, Lady spent his youth living in a Central America constantly threatened by civil uprisings and the threat of Communism, thanks to Fidel Castro’s successful 1959 overthrow of the Batista government in Cuba. Not much is known about his youth in Central America, but it was there where his anti-communism, which served him well early in his career, took root.
After a stint with the New Orleans Police Department, Lady joined Bill Casey’s CIA at a time when the Reagan-appointed Director of Central Intelligence focused a large part of the agency’s efforts on combating the waning power of the Soviet Union. Lady worked his way up through the CIA, until he was ultimately appointed to station chief post in Milan in 2001.
“Bob was an excellent liaison officer,” a former senior CIA official told GQ magazine in 2007. “He was an ex-cop, could get along with anyone, and had terrific language skills. He served the agency well.”
Lady’s Milan posting coincided with the U.S.’s escalation in the so-called War on Terror following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and, by all accounts, he turned the northern Italian city’s station into one of the most dynamic in Europe. Under his guidance, the station took down a number of terrorist cells operating in the region and forged string ties with Italian police and intelligence.
Then came the case of Abu Omar.
A middle-class, college educated Egyptian cleric living in Italy, Omar was suspected to have close ties to terrorists groups such as al-Qaida, Ansar al-Islam and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. The CIA believed he was the European connection for Islamic terrorists who were sent off to Kashmir, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
When orders came down from Langley to nab Omar, Lady disagreed on the basis that evidence they had would ensure his arrest in a few months and risky daylight operation on the street’s of a major European city was unnecessary. But the “good solider” never voiced his disagreement with the CIA top brass and the mission took place on a February day in 2003.
While on his way to midday prayers, Omar was kidnapped by CIA operatives, thrown into a white van and driven five hours to an American airbase north of Venice. From there he was boarded onto an awaiting Learjet and flown to his native Egypt.
What followed was a brief interrogation by American officials – including what is believed to be Lady – and a long bout of torture by former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat.
After the CIA retrieved what information it needed from Omar, Lady believed his involvement in the affair was over. He retired about a year later and, with his then-wife, moved into a villa they purchased in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy
An investigation by the chief of Milan’s antiterrorism unit in the rendition of Omar, however, dredged up the dirty details and mistakes of the kidnapping – including sloppy cellphone use, hotel records and phone calls – that led to an indictment on kidnapping charges for Lady and 22 other CIA employees that led to the 2009 conviction and an eight-year prison sentence.
The New York Times called it a “landmark” case, but Lady has maintained that he was only following orders and that he did nothing wrong.
"I'm not guilty. I'm only responsible for carrying out orders that I received from my superiors,” he said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Giornale. “When you work in intelligence, you do things in the country in which you work that are not legal.”
Lady has remained quiet on criticizing his former employer for not supporting him in the case, but other members of the intelligence agency have privately expressed anger over Lady’s treatment.
A spokesperson for the CIA told Fox News Latino that the agency declined to comment on the matter. The widespread revelations by national Security leaker Edward Snowden of international surveillance by the U.S. in Europe and Latin America could explain the renewed interest by Italy and Interpol in the Lady case, but it appears for the time being that the former CIA station chief will not be visiting an Italian prison.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.