Italy's top spy is expected to be replaced in the coming days, as prosecutors seek his indictment on charges connected to the abduction of a militant Egyptian cleric in Milan by US intelligence agents in 2003.
The expected indictment of the spy, Nicolo Pollari, is part of a sprawling investigation here, the first in which government officials have essentially been charged with cooperating with Washington to violate the laws of their own government. If Pollari is indicted, he would be by far the most prominent official charged in relation to the scores of abductions of suspected terrorists around the world since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The case's impact on the US practice of rendition, in which terrorist suspects have been seized and turned over for interrogation to other countries, including several known to engage routinely in torture, is not clear. Some experts say the program was already languishing, after disclosures last year that some abductees ended up in secret prisons run by the CIA.
But any trial, especially one involving a prominent official like Pollari, could shed uncomfortable light on how US allies cooperated in one of the most controversial tactics in the Bush administration's fight against terrorism.
Twenty-five operatives for the CIA are named in the case, and documents filed by prosecutors here are full of specific information: telephone and credit card numbers, tapped phone calls and surveillance photographs.
Perhaps most difficult for Italy, a trial would raise the possibility of showing collusion at the highest levels of government under the prime minister at the time, Silvio Berlusconi. Intelligence experts say it is highly unlikely that Italy did not give explicit approval of the operation, especially since the kidnapping took place right before the invasion of Iraq -- and Italy was one of only a few European governments to support the war.
"The idea that either the director of central intelligence or the White House -- and this would have had to go to the president -- would have agreed to conduct the operation unless they were absolutely sure the Italian government was behind it is laughable," Michael Scheuer, a former senior US intelligence analyst, said in an interview. "It's not even in the realm of possibility."
Earlier this month, Armando Spataro, one of the chief prosecutors in the case, told members of the European Parliament in a briefing that "at this point" he had "no evidence" of anyone higher than Pollari being involved.
Berlusconi and other top officials of his government have repeatedly denied any knowledge of the kidnapping.
Prosecutors made their case public last year, and officially closed the investigation earlier this month. Lawyers for the defendants have at least until the end of the month to examine the evidence. After that, the prosecutors said they intend to ask for indictments.
Pollari has consistently denied any role in the kidnapping, and his lawyers say he has been unable to defend himself fully because of Italian secrecy laws, though prosecutors contend they do not apply.
One of his lawyers, Titta Madia, said that Pollari's actions must be seen within a "larger picture" in which he must maintain secrecy.
"It's a delicate theme because it pertains to international relations and national security in a tragic political moment," he said.