ROME A former U.S. spy at the center of a kidnapping trial in Italy appeared to acknowledge a role in the abduction of a Muslim cleric but said he was only following orders, according to a rare interview published on Tuesday.
Robert Seldon Lady is one of 26 Americans, almost all believed to have been working for the CIA, who are accused along with Italian spies of grabbing a terrorism suspect off the streets of Milan in 2003 and flying him to Egypt.
There, Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr says he was tortured and held for years without charge.
"I'm not guilty. I'm only responsible for carrying out orders that I received from my superiors," Lady, the CIA's Milan station chief at the time, was quoted as telling Il Giornale newspaper when asked whether he participated in the abduction.
He said he committed no crime because it was a "state matter." "I console myself by reminding myself that I was a soldier, that I was in a war against terrorism, that I couldn't discuss orders given to me."
Lady, now retired, spoke from an undisclosed location over the Internet to the paper, which is owned by the brother of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
He said an Italian police officer, who already confessed to police and was given a suspended sentence, was the only Italian at the scene of the Milan abduction.
"I wasn't at the scene and I didn't organize the thing, the rendition, the arrest, the kidnapping, however we want to call it," said Lady, who is being tried in absentia. "But my belief is that at that moment there weren't other Italians."
Berlusconi, who was also in power at the time of Nasr's disappearance, has denied any Italian state knowledge of any secret CIA transfer. But he also successfully waged a campaign to get classified testimony and documents related to Italy's collaboration with the CIA stripped from the trial proceedings.
Berlusconi says the trial risks isolating Italian spies from the international intelligence community.
"TOO MANY MISTAKES"
Lady said he regretted that the spies left such a big trail of evidence for investigators to dig up. Prosecutors say this included cell phone records, wiretap transcripts and even a confession by a Italian police officer who helped.
"How could we have been so unprofessional? The answer I've given is that there were too many people involved. In these operations, there should be few," he said.
"There is no excuse, there were too many mistakes."
Magistrates seized Lady's retirement villa to cover court costs, a heavy blow, the retired spy said.
"I love Italy. I had decided to live my life in Italy," he said, adding his villa had 10 hectares of vineyards and was "a wonderful place." "Instead I had to escape."
Prosecutor Armando Spataro told Reuters Lady's comments appeared similar to ones published in GQ magazine in 2007, but he might request they be added to the case file when the trial resumes on Wednesday. The U.S. embassy had no immediate comment.
Lady said Italian prosecutors had gone too far in trying to prosecute spies over the incident. He said most covert activity abroad is illegal and still every country authorizes it.
"I worked in intelligence for 25 years and almost no activity I did in those 25 years was legal in the country where it happened," Lady said.
"When you work in intelligence, you do things in the country in which you work that are not legal. It's a life of illegality ... But state institutions in the whole world have professionals in my sector, and it's up to us to do our duty."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)