Italian spy probe widened

July 07, 2006|By TRACY WILKINSON | TRACY WILKINSON,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ROME -- What began as an investigation into the alleged CIA abduction of a radical Muslim cleric in 2003 has widened into a probe of possibly illegal domestic espionage by Italian intelligence agents compiling dossiers on judges, journalists and prosecutors.

Investigators were raiding the files of one intelligence agency, while journalists figured in the growing scandal as both the purported spies and the purported spied upon. Prosecutors who on Wednesday arrested two senior Italian intelligence officials in connection with the CIA case also plan to question six other officers from the agency, known as Sismi, sources familiar with the widening probe said yesterday. The arrests marked the first official acknowledgment of Italian involvement in the abduction of the cleric, who was taken to Egypt where he has said he was tortured.

Developments in that case sent shock waves through Italy's political establishment. But it now appears that activities by the Italian intelligence agency went further into possibly illegal territory.

Prosecutors believe Sismi agents were carrying out surveillance on journalists, magistrates and businessmen and collecting the data in a secret archive at a government building in Rome, sources said. Police began raiding offices there on Wednesday and continued yesterday, hauling out loads of files and computer discs.

The prospect that Sismi was engaged in illicit domestic spying has raised serious questions about the role of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolo Pollari, chief of Sismi. There were calls yesterday for a parliamentary inquiry.

Under Italian law, the country's secret services must inform judges before they investigate citizens. Sismi is the military intelligence agency, one of three secret services.

"There is undoubtedly a need to discuss reforming the services," Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said yesterday. Amato said Italy must confront "the usual problem concerning the definition of a clear legal framework for intelligence operations."

"It is important to clearly define the limits" within which intelligence operations can be carried out, he added.

Among the material found in the archive was a file on crusading investigative reporter Giuseppe D'Avanzo of the leftist newspaper La Repubblica, according to sources familiar with the probe. D'Avanzo has reported numerous intelligence scandals, including one involving documents that purported to show Iraq buying nuclear material from Niger, a bogus story that figured controversially in Washington's argument for war in Iraq.

Prosecutors based in Milan found the archive as they deepened their investigation of the No. 2 official in Sismi, Marco Mancini, in the CIA abduction case. Mancini was one of two top Italian spymasters arrested Wednesday on suspicion of having helped CIA operatives plan and execute the "rendition" of cleric Hassan Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from the streets of Milan in February 2003.

Prosecutors also are investigating whether Sismi used journalists to spy on unfriendly judges.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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