This article originally appeared in


     
10 July, 2006
   
  Italy's American shift

Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome for ISN Security Watch (10/07/06)

ROME -- Italy's decision to seek the arrest of four Americans in connection with the
illegal 2003 kidnapping of an Egyptian cleric in Milan is the first of what will likely be
many signs that ties between Italy and the United States are becoming more critical
under the leadership of new Italian premier Romano Prodi.

Nobody believes Prodi is anti-American. After his razor-thin defeat of Silvio Berlusconi
in April, Prodi in a one-on-one interview went out of his way to promote his
pro-Washington credentials. But he concluded by explaining that he intended to "hold
the United States close, but Europe closer."

Now he is backing up his words with action.

That's a significant change in tact compared to Berlusconi. The former prime minister
often strained Italy's relations with Brussels by keeping at least one foot in the U.S.
camp on a series of divisive issues -- most notably the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which
Berlusconi backed despite public opinion.

The case of the abduction of cleric Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr by a group of
purported CIA agents is a less visible example.

If CIA agents did indeed abduct Nasr -- who is believed to have ties to al Qaeda -- off a
Milan street on Feb. 17, 2003 it would be a serious affront to Italian sovereignty.

Berlusconi, who was prime minister from 2001 until Prodi took over in May, repeatedly
denied having been informed of the plan ahead of time, and he said that the Italian
secret service played no role in the abduction. Yet when Italian magistrates sought
permission to question some of the agents allegedly involved in the operation,
Berlusconi declined to give it the political backing needed for it to be taken seriously.

Under Prodi, that has changed. Not only is the prime minister backing the judicial
requests with political might, but he is even allowing prosecutors to actually seek the
arrest of four U.S. citizens. Under Berlusconi, prosecutors only sought permission to
interview the agents.

"There is no doubt that these requests for arrests represent a strong shift in Italian
policy," says Antonio Antinori, a Florence-based author specializing in international
relations. "It is not anti-Washington as much as it is signaling that Washington will be
treated the same as every other capital."

Of the four U.S. citizens named in the probe, three were CIA agents in 2003, and one
worked as a military advisor at the joint U.S.-Italian air base in Aviano, where Nasr --
who is believed to now be either at a military base in Egypt or perhaps in Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba -- was reportedly taken after his apprehension. More arrest requests
involving as many as two dozen additional U.S. nationals could come later, according to
Italian media reports.

Adding credibility to the prosecutors' case, they also arrested two officials with the
SISMI intelligence agency. They are believed to be the first Italians implicated in the
probe, though the alleged roles the SISMI agents played was not revealed.

Law enforcement officials reportedly learned the identity of the Americans involved by
tracing cellular phone calls used to organize the kidnapping, linking some of them to
phones at the base in Aviano. But other calls were supposedly tied to the Italian agents
arrested for their part in the plot.

To be sure, Prodi's government has not rushed to strain ties with its traditional ally in
Washington. Statements from ranking government officials in regard to the case
involving Nasr have been measured and in some cases overly tentative. But the
government has nonetheless the given enough support to the investigation for it to be
taken seriously on both sides of the Atlantic.

The response from Washington has so far been cautiously cooperative. Officials have
said the government would "collaborate fully" with the Italian probe, but they also
expressed the hope that their "trust in the institutional loyalty" of the respective secret
services would be honored. There is no indication yet whether the U.S. would hand
over the four named in the investigation to the Italians to stand trial in Italian courts.

Still, the reaction represents a significant shift from the past, when the government had
denied any knowledge or involvement in the kidnapping, and interview requests from
Italian magistrates reportedly went unanswered.

There are many other important areas where views held in Washington and Rome
differ, including several important issues related to Iraq, plus the establishment of an
international criminal court, environmental topics, the spread of genetically modified
crops, and trade-related issues -- differences Italy has mostly brushed under the rug in
recent years. But if early indications from the current Italian leadership are an
indication, the U.S. may no longer be able to count on Italy pulling out its broom.


Eric J. Lyman is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Rome.