Sabrina de Sousa poses for a portrait in Pentagon Row in northern Virginia in July. De Sousa has been convicted for her role in the abduction of Abu Omar in Milan in 2003. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The ex-CIA operative knew she was taking a risk when she booked her flight from Washington to India. Sabrina De Sousa was still getting used to the idea that she was an international fugitive, with a European arrest warrant issued in her name.

She figured she’d be safe, as long as the plane didn’t make an emergency stop anywhere in Europe. Anyway, she had to go. She needed to see her aging mother and tell her for the first time about all of it: The kidnapping of a radical Egyptian Muslim cleric from the streets of Milan in 2003. Her indictment in Italy in 2007 alleging that she had been involved in his disappearance. Her resignation from what she carefully describes as a “U.S. government job” in 2009.

“I have a problem. It’s a bit of a political thing,” De Sousa remembers explaining to her mom three years ago, as they sat in the family’s cliffside villa, with views of the ocean, in Goa. “There was an incident in Italy. It involved what the Italians consider a crime.”

Her mother, Julia De Sousa, asked: “What kind of crime?”

“It was kidnapping” the daughter said. “Don’t worry. I am not a criminal.”

Egyptian cleric Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar, speaks to a journalist at an Amnesty International press conference in Cairo in 2007. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Her mother, then 82, looked perplexed. She placed her hand on her daughter’s knee and asked: “How did it come to this?”

Expectation of protection

At 56, Sabrina De Sousa’s life has come to be defined by a landmark criminal case that has been playing out in Italy for much of the past decade, ever since prosecutors began investigating the disappearance of an Egyptian cleric, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, known as Abu Omar.

Their conclusion in 2005: A sprawling cast of CIA operatives and senior Italian intelligence officials were the culprits. In a startling turn of events, a foreign country — an ally, no less — had charged a group of U.S. officials for the practice of rendition, in which a terrorist suspect is flown against his will to another country for interrogation.

In 2009, 23 Americans — nearly all alleged CIA officers, many using aliases, all of them long gone from Italy — were convicted in an Italian court on charges of aggravated kidnapping. Most were sentenced to several years in prison. None has ever been extradited to Italy.

Among those charged, one name stands out: De Sousa, a D.C. resident who Italian prosecutors say helped orchestrate the kidnapping but did not actually participate. De Sousa insists that she played no role in the rendition. Unlike the other Americans caught up in the case, she refuses to retreat into anonymity.

This week, De Sousa faces what could be her final chance at exoneration. On Friday, the Supreme Court of Cassation in Rome will convene a two-day hearing to decide whether to uphold or overturn all the Americans’ convictions. The judges could also kick their cases back to a lower court or schedule another hearing before a fuller panel of Supreme Court justices in the fall.

De Sousa, who was registered in Italy as a State Department officer at the U.S. consulate in Milan, denies that she worked for the CIA, even as she has sued the agency for failing to invoke diplomatic immunity on her behalf. In Italian court papers, prosecutors call De Sousa a “CIA agent attached to the U.S. Consulate in Milan.” The CIA declined to comment on the specifics of her case.

More than anything, De Sousa’s legal battles reveal the cascading personal toll on a CIA officer when a secret intelligence operation’s cover is blown. She said she’s lost friends and her high-level security clearances. She resigned from her job just a few years shy of earning retirement benefits because, she says, she could not abide by her employers’ orders not to travel overseas, where much of her family lives. Although she has landed some consulting contracts, she has struggled to find full-time work. Her name does not exactly churn out the most positive Google results.

Some in the intelligence community sympathize with De Sousa, but only to a point.

“There is an inherent risk in working for the CIA, which people don’t always think about,” says a former U.S. intelligence official, who described De Sousa as a relatively junior officer. “I knew many guys who just one day had to get out of the country and lost everything they owned. Had to leave their pets behind. That’s part of the job.”

De Sousa is bitter about the way her career has unraveled, because she has tried so many ways to salvage it: In 2009, she sued the CIA and the State and Justice departments for not invoking diplomatic immunity on her behalf. A federal judge dismissed her case in January. (She’s appealing.) Her case, she argues, poses a broader problem: If she’s fair game for international prosecution, isn’t everyone else posted abroad for the U.S. military and foreign service?

“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.

Armando Spataro, the Italian public prosecutor who brought the case, disagrees. The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations does not protect consular officials who commit serious crimes, such as aggravated kidnapping, worth five or more years in prison, Spataro says.

The accumulation of evidence against De Sousa, although circumstantial, convinces him that she was one of the rendition’s “principal organizers.”

“To pass a sentence, the court doesn’t need the smoking gun!” Spataro says. “According to my opinion, Sabrina should be in prison.”

Convicted in absentia

De Sousa has never understood why she didn’t get immunity, and why others did.

In November 2009, De Sousa and numerous Americans were convicted in absentia in Italy on aggravated-kidnapping charges. But the judge also ruled that three CIA officials in Rome, among them Jeffrey Castelli — who, court documents allege, was the operation’s mastermind and planned it with CIA headquarters — were entitled to diplomatic immunity.

The United States invoked immunity for Col. Joseph L. Romano III, a former Air Force commander who allegedly helped smuggle the kidnapping team onto Aviano Air Base, from which Omar was flown out of Italy.

Just last month, national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon wrote Romano a letter on White House stationery, assuring him that his case “remains a high priority” for the president, and that John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, recently “pressed your case with the Italian ambassador in a meeting at the White House.”

But it turns out that the Italian judge disregarded the Air Force’s assertion of immunity for Romano and convicted him. And, in October, prosecutors will appeal the ruling that gave diplomatic immunity to Castelli and his two CIA counterparts in Rome.

Still, De Sousa wonders: Why them, not me?

Well before her conviction, she lobbied hard for immunity. In May 2008, Jonathan C. Rose, now the chief of the rules support office in the U.S. court system, wrote an angry letter on her behalf to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rose called Rice out for allegedly approving Omar’s rendition at the CIA’s behest. Then, he ticked off his client’s complaints, including the fact she wasn’t even allowed to speak with her court-appointed attorney in Italy.

Rice never responded, Rose said in an interview.

Through a spokeswoman, Rice declined to comment.

In fall 2008, the CIA told De Sousa that “intelligence activities are not covered by diplomatic immunity,” according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post that Rose wrote to Rice’s legal adviser, John B. Bellinger III.

Bellinger, now an attorney at Arnold & Porter, declined to comment.

In early 2009, De Sousa marked her last day at work.
“ ‘Are you sure you want to leave?’ ” De Sousa recalls colleagues asking. “I said, ‘I have to. Not seeing my mother in India was not an option.’ ”

Later that year, she sued the State and Justice departments and the CIA for, among other grievances, failing to give her immunity. De Sousa said in her lawsuit that Rice and later Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton pushed for immunity, but former CIA directors Michael Hayden and Leon Panetta objected. De Sousa thinks she would have gotten immunity had the CIA not interfered.

Hayden and Panetta declined to comment. Spokesman for the State and Justice departments also declined to comment.

The Justice Department argued for a dismissal of her lawsuit. It argued that the executive branch decides who receives immunity, not a federal judge, and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations entitles the United States to invoke immunity to advance its own interests, not an individual’s.

De Sousa’s attorney, Mark Zaid, who has represented intelligence officers and military members for nearly two decades, says he is not aware of another case in which the United States failed to claim immunity for a U.S. diplomat officially registered with the host country. In 2011, the United States claimed immunity for CIA operative Raymond Davis, who was charged with shooting and killing two motorcyclists in Lahore, Pakistan.

“Davis was very clearly not an accredited diplomat entitled to immunity,” Zaid says. “And the fact that the U.S. invoked it for someone so obviously not entitled is a slap in the face to individuals like Sabrina who unequivocally possessed diplomatic status.”

Next steps are uncertain

As the Supreme Court hearing in Rome approaches, De Sousa is still looking for full-time work. But it’s not easy when the phrase “convicted kidnapper” pops up in her Wikipedia entry. In the meantime, she’s working on two books — a memoir and a psychological thriller. She’s also working with a cousin to set up an orphanage in Goa.

She is fully aware that some in the Foreign Service believe she is unwilling to deal with the natural perils of their profession. With a mother in India and sisters in Germany and Canada, she says she never would have taken on any assignment that could have jeopardized her ability to travel freely. Her critics, she says, cannot understand what it’s like for an immigrant to be stuck in the United States and barred from visiting family abroad.

“Every one of the little white boys who work in the Foreign Service whose parents live down the street, they can see their mother anytime,” she says.

She also never anticipated that she would be associated with counterterrorism tactics that she deems too extreme.

“I had never heard of renditions at that point in my career. I am dead serious. They were highly classified,” she says.

If the Supreme Court in Italy upholds her conviction, Spataro, the Italian prosecutor, says his office will ask the Italian government to obtain an Interpol arrest warrant issued in her name. If that happens, De Sousa could be arrested in countries outside the European Union, including India, Spataro says.

De Sousa is not certain what she’ll do if the Italian Supreme Court does not exonerate her. Most of all, she is not sure how she’ll tell her 85-year-old mother the news, or whether she’d risk flying to India for a face-to-face conversation.

“It’s not the thing,” she says, “I want to think about.”