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spy vs spy

Following the revelations on the so-called Datagate scandal, an unsparing comment by the British Secret Services on their Italian counterparts made the headlines. According to her majesty's 007s, Italy did not take part in a European mass surveillance telecommunications network - run by the British GCHQ (the government agency charged with signals intelligence, SIGINT) together with Germany, Sweden, France and Spain - because "Italians are incompetent and are not willing to collaborate between them".

There are two reasons why the British have no competence or knowledge to assess, from a technical point of view, whether the Italians are truly incompetent. The first one is that SIGINT activities are the most covert aspect of any intelligence agency's operations (and thus it is quite hard for competitors to have enough evidence on this subject). Secondly, such an activity is shared solely among those Secret Services that are traditionally collaborative. And this is not the case in the relationship between the British (MI-5 or MI-6 for whom the GCHQ works) and the Italians.

The "lack" of collaboration between Italian and British intelligence agencies is the result of past diffidence, British snobbish attitude, asymmetric collaboration requests and, lastly, the fact that the English are part of a global intelligence network (especially in the interception of communications) run by the United States (and that features other loyal anglo-saxons as the Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders). From the Italian's point of view, it is thus more worthwhile collaborating directly with the Americans that with their subordinates. It should also be noted that the U.S. have a greater leverage on Italian politics when it comes to rewarding faithful collaborators within the Italian intelligence agencies with promotions and honors (as is the case with some current heads of those institutions).

There are then also the limits imposed on the Services' activities by Italian law. Interceptions and wiretaps require the approval of a judge. It is hence difficult for any Italian intelligence agency to serenely operate in international mass surveillance with the danger of facing prosecution from authorities at home.

Probably the only true accusation formulated by the British is the contentious nature of the relationship between AISE, Italy's external intelligence agency, and AISI, the homeland intelligence agency. This is unfortunately a recurrent aspect. The conflict between the two agencies is the result of their history.

Law n. 801 of 1977

Exactly on October 24 1977, the Italian Parliament passed a new law, n. 801/1977, whose intent was to discipline Italy's entire intelligence apparatus. SID (Defense Information Service), then under the Defense Chief of Staffs, was dissolved and two parallel organisms were created: SISMI (Military Security Information Service) and SISDE (Democratic Security Information Service).

The reason behind such a decoupling lied in the logic guiding those who had wanted this reform: the creation of two organism instead of one meant, de facto, weakening the power of an intelligence structure that in the past had been accused of plots, deviations, coup d'états and a series of negative acts undermining the safeguard of democracy. This pushed the two neo-born Services to not being philosophically inclined to collaboration, but rather to competition (that also postulated the reciprocal "control" over one another's activities). Another qualifying element was that now intelligence activities were taken away from the military, that had had exclusive control over them until then, and put them under the aegis of two Ministries: Defense (for SISMI) and Interior (SISDE). Law 801 also designated the Prime Minister as the person politically responsible for intelligence activities. The PM would then delegate their control to a dedicated Under Secretary. But, as a matter of fact, both intelligence structures also referred to their designated Ministries, also lead by politicians. An institutional mishmash that definitely did not favor cooperation or synergies.

Whether this contraption really guaranteed the democratic hold over intelligence activities is debatable. The only certain fact in 1977 was that, at least contextually, the operative unity of intelligence gathering was weakened. It is also true that law 801 set the creation of a coordination organism, CESIS (Executive Committee for Information and Security Services), but over the years this structure has performed a merely bureaucratic function. It basically acted as a secretariat for the Under Secretary delegated with the control over intelligence. The truth is CESIS has never controlled neither of the Secret Services and both have kept a constant conflicting competition.

But those who drafted the law wanted politics to take over and control intelligence activities. Whether this happened in a disorderly and organically debatable way was of little importance.

A controversial history

This was the nemesis of the history of Italian intelligence agencies. A past filled with suspicions, insinuations and political maneuvers that regularly called for cleansing, controls and democratic tests.

It had been the so for SIM (Military Information Service) first, dissolved after the war (in the intention of "cleansing" fascist era infiltrations), then for SIFAR (Armed Forces Information Service), abolished in 1965 (following the accusations against Gen. Giovanni De Lorenzo of organizing a coup), and finally for SID, decoupled on the wave of suspicions and allegations into SISMI and SISDE in 1977.

The ordeal did not cease after this reform because on March 17 1981 a list of people belonging to the masonic lodge of the Great Orient of Italy (Propaganda 2, aka P2) was found. In it were the names of 962 individuals, 208 out of them were army officials, including the heads of all intelligence agencies (Walter Pelosi from CESIS, Giuseppe Santovito from SISMI and Giulio Grassini from SISDE). This showed how the decoupling of intelligence activities had not granted their democratic reliability. In fact, the P2 had provided a masonic reply to the weakening of the Services' operations.

Nevertheless, and this is the core of the British accusations, the competition between the two intelligence structures that started in 1977 has continued until the present day.

It was immediately evident that the division envisioned by the 1977 bill between a Service dedicated to operations abroad, SISMI (that still maintained the control over counterespionage and anti-proliferation on national soil), and its domestic counterpart, SISDE, was a hybrid difficult to solve. Both Services initially created and maintained their own information structures abroad and at home. During Riccardo Malpica's tenure, chief of SISDE from 1987 until 1991, the attempts to place men outside Italy were subject to continuous reprisals from SISMI, formally the only structure allowed to be present abroad. The same happened, in a regime of reciprocation, for SISMI's activities at home.

The duel between these two parallel structures also had an impact on the relationship with foreign intelligence Services. Both SISMI and SISDE negotiated their own collaborations, information exchange programs, contacts and channels of communication without letting their competitor know about the contents and the deals signed. This has lead not only to a squandering of energies and resources, but also to a discrepancy in the contents that were time after time exchanged with their foreign counterparts. All of this has created the paradox that some joint operations were carried out in parallel and both SISMI and SISDE were unaware of what the other was doing. The same happened for foreign delegations invited to Italy without the other agency's prior knowledge, or for training courses and supplies provided in a framework of national competition. This void was often exploited by some foreign intelligence Services that have tried to capitalize on informations and collaborations.

giuseppe santovito

Giuseppe Santovito

The 2007 reform

Given such a picture and after three decades of negative experience, the Italian political class decided to restore some order in this issue. The new semantic configuration has turned the Services into "Agencies": AISE (Agency for Informations and External Security) and AISI (Agency for Informations and Internal Security).

Law n. 124 of August 3 2007 has maintained the division of tasks between those operating abroad (AISE) and those working on domestic soil (AISI). The distinction is based on a "territorial" criteria, rather than on "operational assignments". The result is that some structures and duties that once belonged to SISMI (now AISE) - mainly counterespionage - were passed onto AISI. Obviously, first those structures dedicated to these tasks were dismantled (officially they merged with the new Agency), as if this were a normal procedure regarding men and their assignments.

By doing so, a delicate job, made of secret operations, sometimes on the legal borderline, that employs qualified sources operating on a confidential basis that are not easily passed on from one organization to another or even from one overseer to another, was totally disregarded. But this was an aspect that had no value for both the politician and the legislator. The result is that several tasks were passed on lacking all the know how that made them efficient.

The legislator also intervened on the pair "territory"-"operational assignments" with one exception: anti-proliferation activities. They remained in the hands of AISE also on national soil. This waiver was the result of American and Israeli pressure to maintain a structure with which they had built, over time, a preferential relationship (mainly with its chiefs that have been supported in a brilliant career).

One of the benefits of law n. 124/2007 was that it took the two agencies away from the aegis of their respective ministries (Interior and Defense), reassigning the responsibility of their operations directly to the Prime Minister. By doing so, at least one political filter over the operations of the two Agencies was removed and determined efforts were made towards the coordination between these two organisms. In fact, the old CESIS was replaced by the DIS (Department for Information and Security), whose power to control over the two Agencies was increased.

This does not mean contradictions have not emerged: a unique training school was founded under the DIS, but some operational trainings were assigned to the Agencies. The same effort lead to the unification under a unique administration of the two Agencies, even though the management of the "reserved" portion of their budget - that is out of ordinary administrative channels and represents the most substantial part of available funds - was left to the Agencies. Even though employment proposals have to come from the Agencies themselves, recruitment and logistics have also been centralized. In practice, instead of centralizing and optimizing resources and activities, the reform has given room to a duplication of structures.

One last observation concerns the fact that the chief of the new-born DIS is not an intelligence expert, someone knowledgeable of how Agencies operate and sensible to the problems arising from overlapping tasks. It surely wasn't a technical choice to assign the post to Ambassador Giampiero Massolo, whose diplomatic career solely features, in an early age, a two year experience in Moscow (where he could have learnt the ropes in a post where intelligence is strongly supportive of diplomacy). He landed at the head of DIS for an internal row at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Massolo was Secretary General at the Farnesina and his role, rank and seniority were superior to those of Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata, former Italian ambassador to Washington DC, that had been named Minister of Foreign Affair by Mario Monti's technocratic government. There was hence an "incompatibility" that was solved by assigning Giampiero Massolo at the DIS. The usual technique of "promoveatur ut amoveatur".

giampiero massolo

Giampiero Massolo

Putting aside the dissertation on the congruity in the hiring of the heads of the Services, the latent conflict between the two Agencies is still unsolved and strikes a sour note. To this regard, law n. 124 of 2007 outlines mechanisms, provides directives and methods, but is still incapable of unraveling the veil of distrust and competition that hinders any hypothesis of bilateral collaboration.

The link between the Agencies and their former respective Ministries has remained, also because two military officials lead the two organizations and they still value gravitating towards those entities they belonged to or were hired by previously. Also in this case, and especially during the tenure of Admiral Bruno Branciforte (AISE) and of Giorgio Piccirillo (AISI), the competition was transferred to their respective ministries (Defense and Interior) and between the Ministers themselves. The "fight" was over illegal immigration, that both politicians wanted to use for personal political gains. This circumstance prevented the flow of information on an issue regarding transnational crimes. This happened, for example, with the Italian police officials based in Tripoli with regard to the Agency's representatives in Libya. During that same period, a guideline issued by the chiefs of AISI concerning the escort of the Prime Minister (a task assigned to AISI) forbad contacting AISE representatives during the PMs trips abroad.

For what we know, such a state of the art is still unchanged, as indirectly confirmed by the British intelligence Services.