A bus passes by a poster of Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), displayed by his supporters at Hong Kong's financial district during the midnight hours of June 18, 2013. (REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
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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 US 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 twenty-three 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 twenty-four 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 19, “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 United States; 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.