Like most other CIA operatives, Sabrina De Sousa used to smile at Hollywood portrayals of spy work, until she became one of them
All those dire television warnings that the agency would hang CIA operatives out to dry and deny any knowledge of their involvement in the dark trade. In reality, De Sousa and most of her fellow spies worked safely undercover as American diplomats around the world, cruising embassy cocktail parties in search of Soviet bloc or Chinese officials to recruit. If they were caught stealing a host country’s secrets, they’d be in and out of jail and on a jet home within days, if not hours, courtesy of the diplomatic immunity they enjoyed as phony State Department officers.
But then came the CIA’s 2003 rendition fiasco in Italy, in which three CIA officers accredited as State Department officers ended up being convicted of kidnapping, and the whole idea of diplomatic cover was thrown into question. De Sousa, a CIA veteran, was one of 23 Americans eventually convicted in absentia in the case. A native of the former Portuguese-controlled Indian colony of Goa, she was posted under cover to the U.S. Consulate in Milan when a CIA team carried out the “extraordinary rendition” of an Al Qaeda suspect and whisked him off to Egypt for interrogation. When he was allowed to phone home a few months later, Italian counterterrorism police eavesdropping on the call learned he had been kidnapped by Americans. It wasn’t long before they traced the snatch to CIA operatives who had booked rooms at local hotels, as well as to De Sousa and her boss, the spy agency’s Milan base chief, Robert Seldon Lady. Both fled before they could be arrested, but when charges were filed, the State Department disowned them. Life had imitated art.
Embittered and unemployed—and vulnerable to a six-year prison term and a $2.4 million fine in Italy—De Sousa, is now campaigning to warn new CIA recruits and low-level military spies of their new occupational hazard: that if they’re caught, they might not be protected. CIA higher-ups, like the one who concocted the Milan kidnapping from the U.S. embassy in Rome, are likely to get off. But employees under cover in lesser diplomatic outposts like consulates may not. They don’t enjoy the same diplomatic immunity as those at a U.S. Embassy—especially if they’re engaged in illegal activities like kidnapping. De Sousa, who spent 16 years with the CIA before resigning prior to the Milan verdicts, says agency lawyers told her and others caught up in the fiasco in 2008 that “intelligence activities are not covered under diplomatic immunity.” It was a “shocking reversal” of what she and other CIA employees had always been told, she says. And the spy agency’s trainees are worried.
Five years after the verdict, she’s still waiting for top U.S. intelligence officials to clarify the cover situation. In 2008, Jonathan C. Rose, her lawyer at the powerful Jones Day firm in Washington, wrote to Adm. John McConnell, director of National Intelligence, asking whether he planned “to make the disclosure of this startling information to those thousands of men and women who…all believe that they have those protections when executing sanctioned intelligence activities?”
Likewise, Rose asked McConnell whether then-CIA Director Michael Hayden had any “plans…to inform his employees” working abroad “that these activities are not protected by diplomatic immunity.” He asked a similar question of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, about whether he had any plans to “inform his troops that supporting intelligence activities is not covered” by diplomatic immunity. They’re still waiting for an answer. Through a spokesman, the CIA declined to comment.
“They don’t tell you the State Department won’t protect you, but guess who’s going to be left holding the bag?”
Sabrina De Sousa
Although agency officials intimate that they are no longer snatching bad guys off the streets of European allies, the CIA is still involved in operations that friendly governments would object to—like recruiting spies in their military and intelligence services—leaving then vulnerable to arrest. In dangerous, anti-American places like Pakistan, the risk is far greater. Only after the U.S. government reportedly paid more than $2 million in “blood money” was CIA contractor Raymond Davis, arrested for fatally shooting two men in a traffic incident, allowed to leave the country. But the Milan fiasco sent a message that a zealous local prosecutor can ignore arrangements the CIA has worked out with friendly officials at higher levels.
Strangely enough, Italy itself got a taste of that last March, when local prosecutors in India won a court order forbidding the Italian ambassador to leave the country until two Italian sailors were delivered to stand trial on murder charges. (The travel ban was later overturned by India’s Supreme Court.) But that’s of little consolation to De Sousa. She is outraged that top CIA officials who ordered and planned the Milan fiasco got off the hook while she and Robert Lady, who was briefly detained on an Italian arrest warrant in Panama recently, were turned into international pariahs, their names on watch lists around the world. “They don’t tell you the State Department won’t protect you,” De Sousa said. “But guess who’s going to be left holding the bag?”