Exclusive: Scapegoating the whistleblower

How a former CIA officer’s efforts to get Congress to investigate the rendition and torture of a CIA captive failed

CIA operative Sabrina De Sousa, who has been convicted in absentia in Italy of the kidnapping of Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, in Milan in 2003. De Sousa says she did not know about the incident, and even if she did, she says she should be given immunity because she was a diplomat.
Barbara L. Salisbury / MCT / Landov

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama made many promises. One notable pledge was that, as president, he would strengthen whistleblower-protection laws to make it easier for federal employees to report waste, fraud and abuse in government.

“Often the best source of information … is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out,” Obama said, in a campaign fact sheet entitled “The Change We Need in Washington.” “We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance.”

Since then, Obama has signed an executive order and a bill strengthening the rights of whistleblowers. But the new law does not provide the same protections to government employees who work in the intelligence community and want to report wrongdoing. Former undercover CIA officer Sabrina De Sousa found that out the hard way.

In 2005, De Sousa, who was officially listed as a State Department diplomat assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Milan, was implicated in the rendition of a radical Egyptian cleric in Italy named Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, better known as Abu Omar. Italy had granted him political asylum in 2001 after the Egyptian government alleged that he was part of a terrorist group. While in Italy, Abu Omar spoke out publicly and vehemently against U.S. military action in Iraq prior to the March 2003 invasion. Italy responded by placing him under surveillance.

Abu Omar at an Amnesty International press conference in 2007. He was kidnapped in Milan in February 2003 and taken to a high-security prison outside Cairo, where, he says, he was subjected to torture.
Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

On Feb. 17, 2003, while walking to his local mosque, Abu Omar was approached by an Italian police officer and longtime CIA informant named Luciano Ludwig Pironi, who asked to see his passport. Moments later, a white van pulled up and Abu Omar was shoved inside. He was then flown to Egypt, where, he said, he was subjected to brutal torture techniques, such as electric shocks, for four years. When Italian authorities tried to locate Abu Omar, U.S. officials told them he had disappeared into the Balkans.

Italy launched an investigation into Abu Omar’s abduction in 2005, and in 2007 more than two dozen Americans suspected of being involved in the rendition, including De Sousa, who Italian law enforcement officials alleged was one of the masterminds of the operation, were indicted. Nineteen of the Americans whom Italy indicted and convicted, De Sousa says, were not working under their true identities. This meant she was one of the few “real” operatives accountable for the rendition.

But De Sousa insists she never played an active role in the execution of the rendition. She says she worked as a translator between the CIA rendition team and the Italian military-intelligence-and-security service, which was involved in the early stages of planning the rendition. In November 2009, she was sentenced in absentia to a five-year prison term in Italy.

Abu Omar was released from detention in Egypt in 2007 and remains there with his family. He has filed a civil claim against De Sousa. Last year, Italy convicted him in absentia on terrorism charges in what appears to be an attempt to cover up the Italian government’s own role in his rendition.

Last year, for the first time, De Sousa revealed that she was a CIA operative working for the National Clandestine Service (NCS). For nearly a decade, she had been working behind-the-scenes firing off letters to members of Congress and executive branch officials, informing them that the U.S. violated international laws when the CIA decided to kidnap Abu Omar.

De Sousa has never publicly discussed all the efforts she undertook to alert government officials and lawmakers that the Abu Omar’s kidnapping was a “colossal mistake” and convince them to investigate her claims of wrongdoing, which implicate top CIA officials. She told Al Jazeera that she first contacted top Bush administration officials, but received no response. In 2009, hoping the response would be different under Obama, she disclosed to then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton what she says are troubling details about her treatment by the U.S. government in the aftermath of her whistleblowing. But, like the Bush administration officials before them, they also ignored her pleas, De Sousa says, and the CIA turned her into a “scapegoat” while the executive branch looked away. 

Blowing the whistle

Though she was aware of the plans to capture Abu Omar, De Sousa says, she was eventually “cut out” because she did not get along with the CIA station chief in Milan, Robert Lady, and that on the day of the operation she was skiing with her family.

There was nothing definitive in the classified cables, De Sousa says, about the threat the CIA said Abu Omar posed to national security as the rendition operation was being planned. “The cable was full of ‘suspected of,’ ‘alleged to.’ Nothing that said ‘he was responsible for.’ Nothing definitive,” De Sousa says.

De Sousa describes her CIA colleagues in Rome and Cairo as acting like keystone cops in the aftermath of Abu Omar’s rendition, trying to figure out who had the evidence against him to present to Egypt so he could be prosecuted.

“The CIA station chief in Cairo said to Jeffrey Castelli [CIA station chief in Rome] ‘Where’s the evidence?’ Castelli said, ‘I thought you had the information.’ And Cairo said, ‘We don’t have it. We thought you had it.’ Castelli says, ‘We don’t have it.’ Then Cairo says, “We issued this arrest warrant on your behalf. So where is the evidence?" The blunder ultimately forced Egypt to set Abu Omar free.

“This is exactly when the whole cover-up started,” she says. “It turns out there was a big miscommunication between Cairo Station and Rome Station. There wasn’t any prosecutable evidence against Abu Omar. It’s why he was never picked up by the Italians. But Castelli decided he wanted a rendition and he got one.”

De Sousa alleges that Castelli was gunning for a promotion to a coveted CIA position in New York City and to land it someone had to be subjected to extraordinary rendition. “Who could he pick out from this target list of 10 people he had. Abu Omar because it was the easiest. Why was it the easiest? Because he was already under surveillance by the Italians and they were sharing information [with the CIA],” De Sousa says.

Castelli, who now works at a private security firm in Arlington, Virginia, called Endgame, did not respond to requests for comment.

“Abu Omar was a nobody,” De Sousa says. “The renditions are meant for imminent, very dangerous threats and [are meant to be used in]countries that are incapable of laws that would allow them to pick up people who pose threats to national security. They’re not meant for a country like Italy already following the guy around.”

De Sousa says that, based on her reading of classified CIA cables, there were “four people responsible for this thing”: the CIA's chief of counterterrorism in Rome who was responsible for coming up with a target list; Castelli; a shadowy figure identified as “Agent X,” whom De Sousa would not discuss further and who told Lady to make sure the Abu Omar rendition was executed; and Pironi, the CIA informant and Italian police officer.

But De Sousa says Italy demanded that people be held accountable for the embarrassing mistake and the CIA chose her and several of her colleagues. “Despite the circumstantial charges against me, the CIA scapegoated me to deflect attention from those who authorized the rendition and also prevent further investigations into the operation,” De Sousa says. “Also, I believe I was left out of the initial immunity deal [Italy agreed to for other, more senior officers] in retaliation for my interaction with Congress.”

The first trial over the secret U.S. "extraordinary rendition" program, in Milan in 2007, with 25 CIA agents among the defendants charged with the kidnapping of Abu Omar.
Giuseppe Cacace / AFP / Getty Images

In 2005, after the investigation in Italy began, the CIA instituted a travel ban for the officers connected to the rendition because arrest warrants had been issued for them in Europe. De Sousa, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born and raised in India and whose family still lives there, was concerned she would not be able to see her elderly parents. She was able to make one trip back home in September 2005 (the CIA approved it as long as she could avoid traveling through Europe) to see her father, who was hospitalized and later passed away. The following year, she asked the agency if it would pay for her mother to the U.S. for Christmas. But CIA officials balked. (De Sousa’s family was unaware of her employment with the CIA).

“They said, ‘You don’t qualify for the funds.’ They told my attorney they didn’t want to set a precedent,” she recalls. “We’re talking about $6,000. They were spending millions on this cover-up.” De Sousa says she saw the writing on the wall. “They wanted me out,” she says. “They knew what my limit was. They knew that the minute they tried to force me to sign memos saying I wouldn’t travel overseas they knew I would resign.”

But it didn’t happen as quickly as the agency would have liked. De Sousa spent three years trying to work through internal channels to bring a resolution to her case, at first raising questions about why the agency had not invoked diplomatic immunity for her and then calling attention to the rendition and alleged torture of Abu Omar by the Egyptians.

“I went through the whole thing internally,” De Sousa says. “I started off by approaching my supervisor, and then I went to the ombudsman at CIA. He was a great guy. He tried to go to bat for me and he was told to lay off. He said, ‘I can’t communicate with you anymore due to a seventh-floor edict [at the agency’s Langley headquarters where the director and other top officials work].’ I then went to the inspector general. The IG said, ‘It’s not part of our charter or mission to deal with this.”

Yet after she approached the watchdog’s office, the inspector general at the time, John Helgerson, said he wanted to launch an investigation into the rendition, De Sousa says, an assertion confirmed in a 2008 report published byThe New York Times. But the head of the NCS, Jose Rodriguez, who would later come under federal investigation for his role in ordering the destruction of nearly 100 interrogation videotapes of two high-value detainees held at black-site CIA prisons, said no. NCS would conduct its own review, Rodriguez said. In other words, the division of the CIA that De Sousa says screwed up would investigate itself.

Then-CIA Director Michael Hayden also convened an accountability-review board to look into the rendition. De Sousa asked to see the results but was told she was not authorized because she wasn’t involved in the rendition, despite the fact that she had been indicted and convicted for it.

“So I went to Congress informally,” De Sousa says. “I went to Linda Cohen, the liaison with CIA [for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence]. I said, ‘Linda, did you see this review-board report?’ She said, ‘Oh, they’re smart. They sent this to committee. They put a such a high classification on it none of the staffers could see it.’” Cohen did not respond to requests for comment.

De Sousa wrote to Rodriguez and Hayden. But they did not respond to her inquiries either. “So then I started sending letters to Congress,” she says. De Sousa sent letters to members of Congress who sat on the House and Senate intelligence committees, including Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Kit Bond and Reps. Pete Hoekstra, Silvestre Reyes and Jan Schakowsky. But she says Rockefeller, Bond, Hoekstra and Reyes did not respond and Schakowsky, whose staff she met with, did not help her.

In February 2009, De Sousa resigned from the CIA, forfeiting her retirement. “I get up every morning and say, ‘Why?’ In 16 years I never saw anything like this,” she says. “I didn’t sign up for this. If they told me when I signed up ‘By the way, just to let you know, it’s possible if something happens we’re going to disavow and you may not see your family again,’ I would have said, ‘I’m not doing this.’”

She continued firing off letters. On May 18, 2009, she wrote to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. “For three years, I tried every option for resolution available to me, both with my employer and in letters to the heads of several Departments and Agencies, as well as Congress and the Senate in both administrations without success,” she wrote.

Powell was Secretary of State when the Abu Omar rendition took place. He responded a couple of weeks later. “Thank you for your letter. I regret the situation you are in, but since the matter is in litigation, I am unable to be of any help,” Powell wrote. “Further, I have no knowledge about any of these matters that would give me a basis to comment or intercede.”

De Sousa says Powell’s State Department would have had to have authorized Abu Omar’s rendition, because Italy is a NATO member and the rendition took place on Italian soil.

In 2009, De Sousa sued the State Department for failing to invoke diplomatic immunity, which she argued she was entitled to as a State Department diplomat. The U.S. government retorted during a federal court hearing that it was not responsible for the actions of a foreign court. A federal district-court judge dismissed De Sousa’s case but the judge described her treatment by government officials in the Obama administration as “appalling.”

A year after she wrote to Powell, however, De Sousa secured two important meetings: one with Schakowsky’s staff and another with Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s staff. 

The intelligence committees

Schakowsky is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI). She had initially expressed interest in attending the meeting, but never showed up, De Sousa says. Prior to the meeting, Adam Lurie, the staff director and counsel for HPSCI’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, asked De Sousa’s attorney, Mark Zaid, if she would be invoking the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act. Zaid replied that she wouldn’t.

When De Sousa met with Schakowsky’s staffers, she says, they did not believe her claims. “They asked how did I know [about the mistakes the CIA made in rendering Abu Omar]? I said I read the cables,” De Sousa recalls. She says Schakowsky’s office never followed up. Lee Whack, a spokesman for Schakowsky, told Al Jazeera, “We are unable to comment on this issue. The congresswoman takes very seriously the privacy of anyone who brings issues to the committee. That said, we cannot discuss classified work conducted by the committee.”

De Sousa also met with Feinstein’s staff. The powerful chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), has publicly proclaimed her support for whistleblowers and urged intelligence-community employees to air their grievances with select members of Congress. De Sousa enlisted the human rights organization Human Rights First to help set up the meeting. The organization sent a letter to David Grannis, the staff director for SSCI.

De Sousa communicated via email with Grannis in August 2010 after he expressed interest in hearing what she could disclose about Abu Omar’s rendition. Grannis told her the best way for her to share the information with him “is either by hard-copy delivery” or “via secure fax.” De Sousa prepared a memo and hand delivered it to the SSCI’s security director, Jim Wolfe. She never heard from Grannis or anyone else on the intelligence committee again, she says.

An SSCI staffer, however, denies that the panel did not investigate De Sousa’s claims. The staffer says De Sousa met with “SSCI staff multiple times on subjects that I cannot confirm openly but that she was raising at the time as concerns with CIA actions.”

“Committee staff followed up with CIA independently to seek CIA’s views and explanations,” the staffer says. “Any contention that the SSCI did nothing is simply factually untrue.” De Sousa says she was never informed about any inquiries the committee made about her with the CIA.

At the time De Sousa disclosed details about the Abu Omar rendition to Grannis, the SSCI was one year into a review of the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation program. The committee prepared a voluminous report on the program, the executive summary of which is currently undergoing a declassification review, and concluded that the approximately two dozen “war on terror” suspects were illegally rendered and secretly held by the CIA.

For years, De Sousa believed Abu Omar’s case would be included in the committee’s report. “It has to be,” she says. “It’s such a bungled case and it also involves torture by proxy governments [Egypt].” But the SSCI staffer told Al Jazeera in an email that the “executive summary and findings and conclusions of the committee’s report,” that is the portions due to be declassified, “do not reference Abu Omar.”

“There are passing references to him elsewhere in the report, but I wouldn’t want you to have the impression that the report focuses on him or alleged CIA actions involving him to any significant degree,” the aide said.

The CIA would not comment on the allegations De Sousa leveled against the agency or respond to questions about the Abu Omar rendition.

False promises

Recently, Feinstein said that former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden could have and should have come to her with evidence of the agency’s mass surveillance of Americans instead of handing over a trove of highly classified documents to journalists.

De Sousa believes Feinstein would have ignored Snowden, just as her staff did, according to De Sousa, when she came to them with evidence of alleged wrongdoing by the CIA in the Abu Omar case.

And former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told NPR’s Terry Gross that Snowden could have “expressed his concerns” in other ways, such as “reaching out to some of the senators” about the legality of NSA spy programs.

But when De Sousa’s attorney, Mark Zaid, wrote to Clinton at the State Department to raise concerns about her treatment and Abu Omar’s rendition and torture he never received a reply.

Earlier this month, the Senate passed an intelligence-spending bill that included new whistleblower protections for intelligence personnel that are supposed to codify Obama’s 2012 policy directive that strengthened whistleblower laws for federal workers. But the bill comes too late for De Sousa. She is now using the Freedom of Information Act in an effort to clear her name. She says she will aggressively try to pry loose government documents to reveal internal discussions about the Abu Omar rendition, whose case is pending before the European Court of Human Rights. In the meantime, there is still an international arrest warrant out for her. That makes traveling to visit her mother and siblings difficult.

CIA operative Sabrina De Sousa, photographed in her home in Washington, D.C., in July 2013.
Barbara L. Salisbury / MCT / Landov

She hasn’t given up on trying to hold government officials and her former colleagues accountable. “Castelli’s chain of command who approved the rendition — James Pavitt [former CIA deputy director of operations], Stephen Kappes, [a close confidante of Feinstein who was the agency’s deputy director], Tenet, [former chief of CIA covert operations in Europe Tyler] Drumheller, Rodriguez and Rizzo [former CIA general counsel]. Here are the guys I wish to hold accountable,” she says. “Hayden, Rice, Feinstein and Schakowsky also have to be held accountable for the subsequent cover-up and refusal to investigate an issue that is a violation of international law and torture.”

Zaid says that during one of the oversight committee meetings he attended with De Sousa to discuss the Abu Omar case, she had told congressional staffers that she had been unable to secure a job because of the conviction. “One of the staffers actually told her to go back to India and get a job there,” Zaid says. “Can you believe that?”

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