Now You See Him, Now You Don't
Living in a One-Superpower World (or Edward Snowden vs. Robert Seldon Lady)
By Tom Engelhardt
He came and he went: that was the joke that circulated in 1979 when 70-year-old former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had a heart attack and died in his Manhattan townhouse in the presence of his evening-gown-clad 25-year-old assistant. In a sense, the same might be said of retired CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.
Recently, Lady proved a one-day wonder. After years in absentia -- poof! -- he reappeared out of nowhere on the border between Panama and Costa Rica, and made the news when Panamanian officials took him into custody on an Interpol warrant. The CIA's station chief in Milan back in 2003, he had achieved brief notoriety for overseeing a la dolce vita version of extraordinary rendition as part of Washington's Global War on Terror. His colleagues kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical Muslim cleric and terror suspect, off the streets of Milan, and rendered him via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to the torture chambers of Hosni Mubarak's Egypt. Lady evidently rode shotgun on that transfer.
His Agency associates proved to be the crew that couldn't spook straight. They left behind such a traceable trail of five-star-hotel and restaurant bills, charges on false credit cards, and unencrypted cell phone calls that the Italian government tracked them down, identified them, and charged 23 of them, Lady included, with kidnapping.
Lady fled Italy, leaving behind a multimillion-dollar villa near Turin meant for his retirement. (It was later confiscated and sold to make restitution payments to Nasr.) Convicted in absentia in 2009, Lady received a nine-year sentence (later reduced to six). He had by then essentially vanished after admitting to an Italian newspaper, "Of course it was an illegal operation. But that's our job. We're at war against terrorism."
Last week, the Panamanians picked him up. It was the real world equivalent of a magician's trick. He was nowhere, then suddenly in custody and in the news, and then -- poof again! -- he wasn't. Just 24 hours after the retired CIA official found himself under lock and key, he was flown out of Panama, evidently under the protection of Washington, and in mid-air, heading back to the United States, vanished a second time.
State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on July 19th, "It's my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States." So there he was, possibly in mid-air heading for the homeland and, as far as we know, as far as reporting goes, nothing more. Consider it the CIA version of a miracle. Instead of landing, he just evaporated.
And that was that. Not another news story here in the U.S.; no further information from government spokespeople on what happened to him, or why the administration decided to extricate him from Panama and protect him from Italian justice. Nor, as far as I can tell, were there any further questions from the media. When TomDispatch inquired of the State Department, all it got was this bit of stonewallese: "We understand that a U.S citizen was detained by Panamanian authorities, and that Panamanian immigration officials expelled him from Panama on July 19. Panama's actions are consistent with its rights to determine whether to admit or expel non-citizens from its territory."
In other words, he came and he went.
Edward Snowden: The Opposite of a Magician's Trick
When Lady was first detained, there was a little flurry of news stories and a little frisson of tension. Would a retired CIA agent convicted of a serious crime involving kidnapping and torture be extradited to Italy to serve his sentence? But that tension had no chance to build because (as anyone might have predicted) luck was a Lady that week.
After all, the country that took him into custody on that Interpol warrant was a genuine rarity in a changing Latin America. It was still an ally of the United States, which had once built a canal across its territory, controlled its politics for years, and in 1989 sent in the U.S. military to forcefully sort out those politics once again. Italy wanted Lady back and evidently requested that Panama hand him over (though the countries had no extradition treaty). But could anyone be surprised by what happened or by the role Washington clearly played in settling Lady's fate? If you had paid any attention to the global pressure Washington was exerting in an "international manhunt" to get Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower it had already charged under the draconian Espionage Act, back to its shores, you knew which direction Robert Seldon Lady would be heading when he hit the nearest plane out of Panama -- and I don't mean Italy.
But here was the curious thing: when Panama sent him north, not east, there wasn't the slightest ripple of U.S. media curiosity about the act or what lay behind it. Lady simply disappeared. While the Italian minister of justice "deeply regretted" Panama's decision, there was not, as far as I can tell, a single editorial, outraged or otherwise, anywhere in this country questioning the Obama administration's decision not to allow a convicted criminal to be brought to justice in the courts of a democratic ally or even praising Washington's role in protecting him. And we're not talking about a media with no interest in trials in Italy. Who doesn't remember the wall-to-wall coverage of the murder trial (and retrial) of American student Amanda Knox there? For the American media, however, Lady clearly lacked Knox's sex appeal (nor would he make millions off a future account of his Italian sojourn).
In this same period, there was, of course, another man who almost magically disappeared. In a transit area of Moscow's international airport, Edward Snowden discovered that the U.S. government had deprived him of his passport and was determined to bring him back to Washington by just about any means to stand trial. That included forcing the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales, returning from Moscow, to make an unscheduled landing in Austria and be searched for Snowden.
The NSA whistleblower was trapped in a kind of no-man's-land by an Obama administration demanding that the Russians turn him over or face the consequences. After which, for days, he disappeared from sight. In his case, unlike Lady's, however, Washington never stopped talking about him and the media never stopped speculating on his fate. It hasn't yet.