PARIS — An Italian judge who ordered 25 CIA operatives to stand trial June 8 – as well as the large public protest in Vicenza, Italy, last week over the expansion of a US military base – adds momentum and edge to a widening division between the US and Europe over tactics in the international "war on terror" – even if a recent upstart attitude in Europe is not expected to be a relations-wrecker with Washington.
The 25 alleged CIA agents and a US Air Force officer, along with Italy's head of intelligence, Nicolo Pollari, were indicted Feb. 16 for snatching Muslim cleric Osama Nasr off the streets of Milan in 2003 and taking him to Germany and then Egypt, where Mr. Nasr claims he was tortured. If the trial proceeds, it would be the first trial of Americans in an "extraordinary renditions" case – even if the Americans refuse to appear. Under Italian law, suspects can be tried in absentia.
In a similar case, a Munich prosecutor called two weeks ago for the extradition of 13 suspected CIA operatives, alleging the kidnapping and torture of a German resident of Lebanese descent.
In part, experts say, legal and vocal frustration in Europe over US policies have been sparked both by the length and ambiguity of the terror war, as well as the possible scale of the renditions-flights program of kidnapped suspects. An EU report issued last week in Brussels that condemns covert activity suggests "at least" 1,245 such flights in EU states occurred since 2001. It also suggests complicity between individual states and the US.
"Nobody objected to these cases at the beginning, when there were just a few of them, reported on occasionally, which was a morally ambiguous situation," says Michael Clarke at the Center for Defense Studies, King's College in London. "But in the recent atmosphere in Europe, in which the war on terror is seen as a misstep, there are starker divides between the American definition of an international war, and the European view, which is of a criminal justice issue with international ramifications."
That atmosphere in an open-ended terror war has prompted a closer look in Europe at the mechanics of cooperation with US intelligence agencies, opening the door to embarrassing questions into past behavior by EU states, including what might be called the "outsourcing of torture."
The EU report, for example, points to a legal opinion in Britain by a former adviser to the foreign ministry, Michael Wood, arguing that use of information extracted by torture does not violate UN torture conventions so long as a state does not "directly participate" in that torture.
Even so, some experts on justice and terror point out that the 77-page EU report contains more outrage than the kind of facts that could prompt serious investigations by EU states.
Few of the experts or diplomats summoned before an EU committee bothered to appear. Moreover, much of the tracking of CIA flights took place by private groups, and hobbyists known as plane spotters; such tracking has proven useful in producing journalistic reports, and putting pressure on governments, but is not considered reliable enough for formal evidence.
"I don't see the evidentiary basis for the report," says Hugo Brady of the Center for European Reform in London. "To probe this document is to see that most of the facts come from news reports. No one can warm to renditions, but this is a naming and shaming exercise without enough real facts."
Criticism of US foreign policy and the war in Iraq is escalating on other unusual fronts. On Feb.10 at a conference in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised a set of high level European and US officials with a blistering attack on the policies of the Bush administration, including Iraq, and said a missile defense shield proposal for the continent would divide Europe.
Mr. Putin's frontal attack using cold war-style rhetoric, if an attempt to isolate the US from Europe, was considered a failure among European diplomats. But it underscored the climate of a vulnerable White House, and of new fractures in the international order as seen from Moscow.
Nasr, the Milan-based cleric, was released from Egypt this week and says he plans to return to Italy, despite an arrest warrant on grounds of recruiting soldiers for terrorist cells.
The alleged CIA operation to grab Nasr took place under the government of Silvio Berlusconi, considered one of the friendlier in Europe toward the post-9/11 terror policy in Washington. But the kidnapping and a planned expansion of the Vicenza air base are a problem for the current fragile government of Romano Prodi, which is held together by nine parties, including some on the far left.
In recent days, Switzerland has agreed to investigate the flight that allegedly took Nasr through Swiss air space to Germany. Portugal and Spain are already conducting investigations into alleged cases of renditions flights.
None of the Americans indicted in either Germany or Italy are thought to be in Europe. The US government has not commented on the cases, though it has acknowledged a role in the transfer of terror suspects to third-party countries. However, it says it does not condone the torture of those suspects once they've been handed over.
On Feb. 18, an estimated 100,000 Italians marched peacefully to oppose the doubling in size of a US base in the northeast Italian city of Vicenza. The base increase would be used to house the entire 173rd Airborne Brigade, a rapid reaction force, upping the number of US forces from 2,750 to 4,500. Press reports suggest the protest was more antimilitary than anti-American in tone.
"I don't think renditions are going to be a cause célèbre in transatlantic relations," says Mr. Clarke.
"But it puts further grit in the relations. Europeans feel they want to examine the standards of the war on terror, while the Americans feel they are being misunderstood," he says.