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NEWS ANALYSIS : In Italy, Scandal Taints Even National Guardians : Justice: Judges who participated in a crackdown on the Mafia are now among the subjects of inquiries.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who will watch the watchers? Italians wonder. Confidence in national institutions is at a low ebb.

Demands for a radical political cleanup accumulate beside alarming discoveries of venality and treachery by the very officials who are entrusted with safeguarding the state.

Scandal that has convulsed Italy for nearly two years is now tainting judges who participated in the most successful crackdown against the Mafia in half a century. At least 10 judges in Sicily are under investigation on suspicion that they colluded with the Mafia to soften sentences and rig acquittals, investigators say.

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Worse, the judges join a fast-expanding list of scandal-scarred national guardians.

High-ranking army officers are accused of plotting a coup. A police general is said to have collaborated with Marxist terrorists in the ‘70s. A senior Italian counterspy is charged with planting explosives on a train.

All this is a jarring supplement to new accusations against political figures and business people linked to a gigantic kickback scandal that has ensnared nearly 3,000 notables since February, 1992.

Would-be reformers and ambitious extremists are all vying to reweave the unraveling fabric of the Italian state.

They look toward national elections next spring as Italy’s most dramatic political watershed since World War II.

Indeed, in recent weeks, it has sometimes seemed as if all the worst cliches of Italian political life were true.

“For years, the Mafia-political connection has been able to operate thanks to the support of magistrates disposed to ‘adjust’ trials in return for repayment by one boss or another,” commentator Giulio Anselmi said.

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Now, investigators have specific allegations from Mafia turncoats against as many as 20 corrupt judges, Sicilian sources say.

Among them, one judge is said to have approved the transfer of a Mafia boss from jail to a hospital whence he quickly escaped.

Another judge named by the turncoats raised eyebrows when he acquitted 80 of 127 defendants at one maxi-trial, including a number of known Mafia bosses.

For years, Italians have lived with a shadowy residue of fascism, which at times has seemed ready, Latin America-like, to impose a military solution on political chaos.

Now, Donatella Di Rosa, the 36-year-old former mistress of Gen. Franco Monticone, charges that he and at least a handful of other officers, including her lieutenant colonel husband, Aldo Michittu, conspired to mount a coup next spring.

Michittu is suspended. So is Monticone. The latter’s protesting boss, Gen. Biagio Rizzo, has been fired for inadequately controlling his subordinates.

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And on Friday, Gen. Godfredo Canino, the army chief of staff, quit over Rizzo’s dismissal.

Nobody expects the tanks to roll, and Di Rosa’s sound bites may prove more soap opera than documentary, but she is talking to a rapt national audience.

For years, Italy’s secret services, one civilian, one military, both supposed to be purely counterespionage, have been named in the same breath with everything from right-wing terrorist bombings to kidnapings to conspiracy with the Mafia.

Now, Augusto Citanna, Genoa chief of the civilian spy agency, is in jail for hiring two members of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia, to smuggle explosives aboard an overnight express train last month.

Citanna denies responsibility for an incident whose motive, although probably political, is still unclear.

Neither the intelligence services nor the national police have produced those responsible for unexplained bombings of public monuments this year in attacks variously ascribed to the Mafia or forces of political destabilization.

After an unprecedented security summit meeting this week, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and the Cabinet of Prime Minister Carlo Azeglio Ciampi agreed to restructure Italy’s secret service.

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Under the reform, the formerly autonomous services are being thinned out and made directly responsible to the prime minister.

Denizens of an exuberantly operatic society, Italians are no strangers to political and social turmoil: fascism, terrorism, recession, political stagnation.

Now, though, national institutions they once looked to for solutions have instead, riddled with weakness and corruption, become an integral source of the problem.

In the morass, it seems the best Italy can hope for is--a long shot--that next spring’s elections produce a credible state under new leaders with fresh ideas and clean faces.

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