“You expect to be protected, that the organization you work for tries everything to help you,” De Sousa says. “Officially, I was a diplomat, that’s all I can say. But when diplomats or troops take risks, you expect your own government to help. To me, being quiet means you’re guilty.”
Able to blend into crowds
Around noon on Monday, Feb. 17, 2003, Abu Omar left his apartment on Via Guerzoni in Milan for his daily walk to his mosque. Some at the CIA believed he had been plotting a 2002 attack against a bus full of students headed to an American school in Milan, Italian court records say.
A small car purred alongside him. Then a big white van. An Italian law enforcement official, who was collaborating with the CIA team, stepped out of the car and asked to see Omar’s identification. Moments later, two men burst out of the van. Omar, a hefty man, then about 40, was forced into the back. His mouth was taped shut. His feet and hands were bound. He was blindfolded, according to Italian court documents.
Hours later, the van sped onto Aviano Air Base in northeast Italy. From there, Omar was flown to a U.S. air base in Germany, then on to Egypt, where he was thrown into a Cairo prison. He was beaten, his wife told Italian investigators, according to the court documents. His genitals, she said, were subjected to electric shocks.
While Omar was being kidnapped, De Sousa was chaperoning her son’s high school trip at Madonna Di Campiglio, a popular ski area in northern Italy. De Sousa, a political and military specialist, says she had heard of Omar the previous year. But she had no clue he was being abducted while she was looking after her son on the slopes.
She declines to say when she was told of the operation, who told her, and what exactly she was told.
De Sousa was an unlikely CIA operative. She grew up in Bombay, where her father groomed her to take over his company, which designed and built exhibits for corporate conferences, and once an altar for a visiting pope.
Instead she wound up meeting a U.S. Foreign Service officer posted in Bombay and marrying him in 1985. He recommended that she apply for a State Department job because she spoke so many languages.
By the 1990s, the naturalized U.S. citizen began to work for the CIA, according to a former agency officer who worked with her at the time. Her olive skin and fluency in Portuguese, French, Hindi, German and Italian enabled her to blend into crowds and easily take part in surveillance of suspects.
“She was helping man observation posts, doing photography and video work,” says the former officer, who often monitored targets with De Sousa because they looked like a couple. “I’ve been with her at the feet of targets, in whatever role we were playing, and we didn’t know the target was going to go a certain place, and she was just, like ‘Follow my lead. Let’s wing it.’ ”
By 1998, she had divorced her husband and landed in Rome, where she was listed as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy for the State Department. In the spring of 2001, not very long before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, she was transferred to the U.S. Consulate in Milan.
The real boss in Milan?
De Sousa won’t say whether she knew about plans for Omar’s rendition in advance.
“I knew he was under investigation along with many other suspects,” she says, declining to elaborate.
After Omar’s rendition in early 2003, Italian prosecutors spent the next several years investigating the CIA operatives, building a case that De Sousa says is entirely circumstantial.
The evidence against her: An Italian law enforcement officer told prosecutors he “suspected” De Sousa was the “real CIA boss in Milan.” An Italian intelligence official said the rendition was “close to the hearts” of De Sousa and the CIA chief in Rome; and, that De Sousa was sent to Milan to push the operation forward.
Phone records show calls made from De Sousa’s phone to one of the kidnappers eight months before the operation and around the time of the abduction; and, finally, a consular clerk’s e-mail was found saying that someone named “Sabrina” had warned colleagues to avoid Italy after the rendition occurred.
All of it, De Sousa maintains, is absurd. She was an underling in Milan, not a boss. Although she knows the alleged kidnapper she’s accused of calling, she doesn’t remember those conversations, and the Italians have no proof of what was said during them. Besides, she adds, she wasn’t even aware of renditions in 2003 and was certainly not able to plan one.
“I can’t just pick up the phone and call Washington and say, ‘Hey, send me a plane!” De Sousa says. “Who can order a plane like that? It’s got to be the Defense Department, the head of CIA, the head of the State Department.”
And even if she did participate in the abduction, she says, such actions would have fallen within her official duties and she would have been entitled to immunity from prosecution.