What began as an investigation of the alleged CIA abduction of a radical Muslim cleric has mushroomed into a wider probe of possibly illegal domestic espionage by Italian intelligence agents compiling dossiers on judges, journalists and prosecutors.
Investigators raided the files of one intelligence agency Thursday, and journalists figured into the growing scandal as both the purported spies and the purported spied-upon.
Prosecutors who had two senior Italian intelligence officials arrested Wednesday in connection with the CIA case plan to interrogate six other officers from the same agency, known as SISMI, sources familiar with the widening probe said Thursday. The arrests were the first official acknowledgment of Italian involvement in the 2003 abduction of the cleric, who has said he was tortured after he was transported to Egypt.
Developments in that case sent shock waves through Italy’s political establishment. But it now appears that activities by the intelligence agency, or a unit within it, went further into murky and possibly illegal territory.
Prosecutors suspect that SISMI agents were carrying out surveillance on journalists, magistrates and businesspeople and collecting the data in a massive secret archive at a government building in Rome, the sources said. Police began raiding offices housing the archive Wednesday and continued Thursday, hauling out loads of files and computer disks.
The sources requested anonymity because their information involved an open case.
The prospect that SISMI may have been engaged in an illicit domestic spying operation has raised serious questions about the roles of Nicolo Pollari, the agency’s chief, and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. There were calls Thursday for a parliamentary inquiry.
Under Italian law, the country’s secret services must inform judges before they investigate citizens connected to suspected crimes. 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 Thursday as reporters questioned him about the new revelations. 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 said.
Among the material found in the archive was a file on crusading investigative reporter Giuseppe D’Avanzo of the leftist newspaper La Repubblica, people familiar with the probe said. D’Avanzo has reported numerous intelligence scandals, including one involving documents that purported to show Iraq was buying nuclear material from Niger, an allegation that figured into Washington’s argument for war in Iraq but turned out to be false.
Prosecutors based in Milan discovered the archive as they deepened their investigation of the No. 2 SISMI official, Marco Mancini, in connection with the CIA abduction case. Mancini was one of two Italian spymasters arrested Wednesday on suspicion of having helped CIA operatives plan and execute the “extraordinary rendition” of cleric Hassan Osama Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, from the streets of Milan in February 2003.
Among other elements of the case, prosecutors are investigating whether SISMI used friendly journalists to spy on unfriendly magistrates. Reporters with Libero, a small right-wing newspaper in northern Italy, are suspected of setting up interviews with the lead prosecutor in the abduction case, Armando Spataro, to inquire about what he had learned, and then passing the information to SISMI agents.
One of the Libero journalists, Claudio Antonelli, was interrogated by prosecutors in Milan for four hours Thursday, the Italian news agency ANSA reported. Editors for the paper have denied wrongdoing. Its offices were raided Wednesday by police working for the prosecutors.
Spataro’s work has been especially problematic for the CIA and its allies in Italy. In contrast to law enforcement officials in other European countries where the agency is believed to have carried out similar extraordinary renditions, Spataro is attempting to prosecute CIA operatives.
He has issued arrest warrants for 26 Americans whom he has accused of being part of the Abu Omar operation, including the former CIA station chief in Rome, even though the Berlusconi government tried to shut the prosecutor down. None of the Americans are in Italy, and none have been detained.
The transcripts of law enforcement wiretaps published in Italian newspapers showed that Mancini and other SISMI officers referred to Spataro as il cretino -- the cretin. Mancini also can be heard, according to one of the transcripts, saying he lied about involvement in the Abu Omar case.
Mancini was expected to be interrogated by prosecutors today. He said Thursday through his lawyer that he “trusted in justice” and was confident that his innocence would become clear.
Part of the case that Spataro is building, according to sources familiar with it, relies on testimony from Col. Stefano D’Ambrosio, former head of SISMI’s Milan office. He purportedly has said that he was removed from the position and replaced by Mancini after he voiced objections to the plan to seize Abu Omar, which he also discussed with the Milan CIA station chief.
Berlusconi, a supporter of the Bush administration who lost reelection to a center-left coalition in April, has denied knowledge of the Abu Omar operation.
The CIA has not officially acknowledged its role, but officers have said privately that the operation was conducted with Italian officials’ approval and cooperation.
Italy’s new foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema of the Democratic Party of the Left, said in comments published Thursday that the entire matter needed to be fully investigated.
“The Americans have always said they never violated Italian sovereignty,” he told the Corriere della Sera daily newspaper. “Perhaps they were not entirely wrong.”
But he drew a line on what SISMI should be allowed to do under the new government.
“At what point is it legitimate, in the fight against terrorism, to negate the values you are fighting for?” D’Alema said. “One of the principles of Italian foreign policy will be to promote the defense of human and democratic rights as universal values.”
But others said intelligence agents must have a freer hand to fight terrorism.
“Is this supposed kidnapping worth weakening our national security in the fight against terrorism?” said former President Francesco Cossiga, who visited the SISMI headquarters in Rome on Thursday as a gesture of solidarity.
Livia Borghese of The Times’ Rome Bureau contributed to this report.