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There are a number of countries that are responsible for the wiretapping of friendly States. In the underworld of interceptions there is an agreement between five countries: the United States, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. All the information collected through bugging are shared among these countries. Clearly, whatever happens in Europe is of interest mainly to the US and the UK, while, possibly, the Asian landscape is targeted by Australians and New Zealanders. During the last war in Iraq this divide was pretty evident: even within the international coalition there was a computer hub dedicated to wiretaps that could only be accessed by those countries we mentioned above. The rest of the allies were kept in the dark, unless it was strictly necessary, thus undermining the chances of rapidly reacting to the needs coming from the battlefield.

An exclusive club

The root of the problem is: why is there such an anglophone fellowship? This is because interceptions are among the most sensitive intelligence activities and a widespread sharing of information could pose a series of issues. On one side, when the contents of a wiretap are shared, also the way these are collected is also revealed. In other words, even if not clearly staten, the interceptor's technical capabilities and their penetration inside a country or a system are unveiled together with the information they convey. The need for an anglophone club was thus necessary to avoid posing sovereignty issues, hurting other countries' feelings or each time having to evaluate the reliability of your partners. The club members know everything and on time, while other Agencies can eventually be informed at a later stage and after the necessary precautions are taken to avoid leaking the source of the information and how it was acquired. This implies that if one were to look for those responsible for the interceptions in Europe, fingers would have to be pointed both at the United States and Great Britain. Not only because they are the most active members of the club, but also in reason of the British hosting on their territory, apart from satellite interceptions, the biggest listening centrals targeting Europe.

Interceptions are only part of the problem, the other and more sensitive issue is decryption. When a signal is clear, it is enough to intercept it and then offer it to the club. When an information traveling by air or on the internet is ciphered instead (meaning its contents could be confidential since the sender has decided to conceal them) one has to decrypt it first. How that is done is a fundamental secret for intelligence services. Over all, there are a number of confidential aspects surrounding interception systems and a high level of secrecy is crucial. Any country accessing this type of information will either keep it to themselves or share it only with its loyalest friends with whom it has worked in collecting them.

Radio communications and anything circulating on the airwaves is intercepted. Telephone, communications via cables and radio links are intercepted. And, as widely reported, internet traffic is also intercepted. At the same time, you intercept and decrypt. This happens every day around the globe. And anyone can be both an actor and a victim of this system. There are no friends or foes, but just information needs.

enrico letta
  Former Italian PM Enrico Letta

Snowden and Italy

Let's come to the Italian case. After Edward Snowden's leaks, it is clear Italy was among the countries intercepted. Some nations protested and expressed their legitimate concerns, while others, such as Italy, minimized the entire issue. But this delves with politics, rather than intelligence. Following the NSA Datagate scandal the then Italian Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, summoned the Italian secret services and asked them: can you confirm the government's and the embassy's communications systems have been spied on and compromised? Negative, Sir.

What else could have our Services replied: that the embassies were bugged and the telephone network compromised? Could they have offered a different reply given that the AISE is responsible for the protection of the networks, while the AISI of counter-espionage? Could the Services admit they had failed in facing such a penetration from foreign and “friendly” intelligence agencies inside their own country? Could the fresh chief of the DIS, until recently the Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, admit that his former ministry's communications system is vulnerable? Could the AISE, that overlooks all ciphering systems (equipment, encryption and decryption) for all of the State's institutions (embassies, ministries, police force etc.) admit that there is a risk that it's current system had been breached? Could the AISE, also responsible for the training and selection of the personnel dedicated to such a secretive task, admit that some of its employees could have been responsible for such a breach?

But the then Italian Prime Minister failed to pose himself these questions. He was only concerned about his post and, at the same time, to avoid unnecessary frictions with the Americans. With the answers from the Secret Services in his pocket, the PM faced Parliament and offered them the same replies he had received. Nothing more, nothing less. Clearly, things are not the way they were portrayed by Enrico Letta, since Snowden's leaks were more complex than that. They indicate listening and collection peaks during government crisis, they offered a figure on the number of telephone wiretaps in Italy over a month: 45 million. Precise data was also provided as far as embassies are concerned.

Alberto Manenti
AISE director Alberto Manenti

The truth

But let's come to the truth of the matter.

The first truth is that, within the US embassy in Rome, there is an NSA representative. He is tasked with interceptions and is in contact with his Italian counterparts. The second truth is that on the roofs of the United States' diplomatic venues – on Via Veneto in Rome and at the Consulate in Milan – antennas dedicated to interceptions are present, although concealed. Both circumstances confirm the US's technical capability and willingness to intercept signals on Italian soil. Obviously, the Americans will not tell their Italian colleagues that they are tapping into their communications, but the issue is dealt with within the framework of the collaboration between the intelligence agencies in the two countries.

Italy has a number of very restrictive laws when it comes to wiretapping. Even the Agencies have to seek the authorization of the judiciary to control their targets (communications, telephones or other). This means that if an Agency is facing difficulties in obtaining the necessary clearance, there are only two possible options left: it either intercepts without the authorization from the judiciary (and this brings along a number of risks) or it relies on the cooperation and help of those who can actively pursue interceptions without any restrictions. And the NSA just fits the profile. This could help us understand the replies given by the Italian intelligence agencies to their Prime Minister. Could they accuse the US when they share with them a number of concealed targets and activities? Obviously the US profited from such a stance and cultivated their own interests.

The relationship between US and Italian intelligence agencies is sometimes one of subjection. The praises and positive references coming from the Americans usually pave the way to brilliant and successful careers. The current director of the AISE, Alberto Manente, was one of such beneficiaries. We should not hence be surprised by the replies given by the intelligence community to their PM and the uncritical use he made of them to survive the nth government crisis. The Italians kept at large of the Snowden affair and refused to grant him asylum on the basis that the request had to be filed on Italian soil. And, guess what, Edward was not in the condition to respect the due process.