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“Just Following Orders”


Often enough, commentators talk about the prospect that some foreign prosecutors will open criminal cases against Americans involved in some of the Bush Administration’s criminal enterprises, such as the operation of the torture black sites. But such cases are not speculative. They are already pending, and the most advanced of them is now coming close to the conclusion of the trial phase. In Milan, Italian prosecutors are pursuing kidnapping and assault charges against 26 American officials—CIA officers, diplomats, and a military attaché—in connection with the seizure and torture of a radical Islamic cleric known as Abu Omar. According to some observers, the case will conclude by the end of the summer.

Now Robert Seldon Lady, the former Milan station chief of the CIA and a key defendant in the case, has surfaced with an extended interview in Il Giornale, an Italian newspaper.

According to a translation by the Associated Press, Lady has set up a defense that sounds remarkably familiar: he was just following orders.

”I am not guilty. I am only responsible for following an order I received from my superiors,” Lady was quoted as saying by Il Giornale. “It was not a criminal act. It was a state affair. I find consolation in reminding myself that I was a soldier, that I was at war with terrorism, and that I could not discuss the orders I received,” he was quoted as saying. “I have worked in intelligence for 25 years, and almost none of my activities in these 25 years were legal in the country in which I was carrying them out.”

From a number of reports, Lady was intensely critical within CIA circles of the proposed effort to snatch Abu Omar. As it turns out, Italian prosecutors were on the verge of arresting and prosecuting Abu Omar before the CIA interceded. Chief Italian prosecutor Armando Spataro stated that the criminal case against Abu Omar was demolished by the CIA action. But Lady opposed the action, noting that it would be understood by the Italians as a crime and would badly damage the relationship with a NATO ally which was supporting the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. It turns out that Lady assessed the situation with perfect accuracy. It’s a shame that his bosses in Langley didn’t listen to him. However, “only following orders” is also known as the Nuremberg defense, and the problem is that it is no defense at all.

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