AN ITALIAN judge's order to arrest 13 alleged CIA officers last week for kidnapping points to new constraints on the American government's ability to operate abroad, even in pursuit of terrorists, in the current climate of international opinion.
What the Italian court said happened was that in 2003 some 13 CIA agents snatched from a Milan street an Egyptian Muslim clergyman, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, whom they believed may have had information regarding terrorist plotting. They then trundled Mr. Nasr off to an American air base in Italy, then to an American base in Germany, and then on to Egypt, where he was presumably turned over to the Egyptian authorities.
The next public word of him came from his family and friends in Italy, who said that they had heard from him in Egypt and that he said the Egyptians were interrogating him, using torture, including electric shock.
The CIA and other U.S. security agencies have long used rendition, the practice of handing custody of prisoners over to countries such as Egypt, which do not hesitate to use torture in interrogation and whose officers are not subject to the same oversight as Americans are in principle about such things. Nor is kidnapping someone in another country's territory new to the CIA and other U.S. agencies.
What appears to have been different this time is that usually such operations have been coordinated with the host country's authorities in advance. Ideally, that country's officers either carry out the grab themselves, or are present at least, to lend legality, when it occurs.
This time it appears that the Italians either weren't on board at all, or that insufficient coordination had taken place inside the Italian government.
The more fundamental problem lies in the current attitude of countries like Italy toward the United States. Immediately after 9/11, almost every country was ready to do whatever the United States asked them to do to help fight terrorism. Now, with the Bush Administration having sought on false premises to extend the war on terrorism to include war on Iraq, the international spirit of cooperation has drained away.
The American government will certainly not extradite the accused CIA agents to Italy to face trial. At the same time, the grab of Mr. Nasr and the resulting charges against the CIA agents will have poisoned U.S.-Italian intelligence cooperation.