SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – A fugitive former CIA base chief detained in Panama this week was being sent to the United States on Friday instead of Italy, which wanted him to serve prison time in the 2003 abduction of a terror suspect, the Obama administration said.

Robert Seldon Lady was held in Panama on Thursday after Italy and Interpol requested his arrest for his role in the anti-terrorism program known as extraordinary rendition. After barely a day in detention, he was put on a plane to the U.S. by the Panamanian government, a close U.S. ally that offered no explanation for its decision.

“It’s my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Italy’s deputy foreign minister, Lap Pistelli, said that Italy “acknowledges” Panama’s decision, adding nothing more about the case. Italy and Panama have no extradition treaty, Italian diplomats said, but Panama would have been free to send Seldon Lady to Italy if it wanted.

Seldon Lady, 59, tried to cross from Panama to the Costa Rican border town of Paso Canoas around 10:30 a.m. Thursday but a check of his passport triggered an Interpol alert, said Andrea Quesada, a spokeswoman for Costa Rica’s directorate of immigration. A Costa Rican border official called Interpol, which advised that Seldon Lady shouldn’t be detained in Costa Rica, which has limited extradition powers, but could be held in Panama.

Costa Rica sent Seldon Lady back across the border, where his passport didn’t trigger any alert when checked by Panamanian authorities, Quesada said. The retired CIA officer tried to cross back into Costa Rica again, where he was sent back for a second time. On his return to Panama, an Interpol alert was triggered and police detained him.

Costa Rican records show Seldon Lady entered Costa Rica in December 2012, but stayed in the country less than 24 hours.

“It’s just pretty astonishing that this hopeful moment for some accountability turned so quickly on its head,” said Katherine Gallagher, a senior attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which has fought against U.S. practices such as extraordinary rendition and detention of terrorism suspected at the Guantanamo Bay prison.

She said U.S. efforts to help Seldon Lady escape punishment in Italy opened the Obama administration to charges of hypocrisy when they are considered in light of a U.S. push to bring National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden back to the U.S. for trial. Attempts to get Snowden back have included an international push to persuade countries not to give Snowden asylum, or even let him cross their airspace.

“We see a complete double standard here. The U.S. is saying it’s so important for Snowden to face charges in the U.S., where there is a great deal of debate over whether those charges are legitimate, as opposed to Lady, where there is a conviction for torture, a universally recognized crime,” Gallagher said.