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Intelligence activity is regulated by rules that are applied to all Secret Services in similar ways. These generally unwritten rules are applied both internally, to the Service’s institutional activities and to the relations between one Intelligence agency and the next.


Internally, the paramount rule is compartmentalization. Information is shared on a need-to-know basis and not everyone is allowed to know everything. The less an information is circulated within an Intelligence agency, the lesser the risk that the same information land on ears that shouldn’t know about it. Reserved data can guarantee the success of an operation. This is due to the fact that an Intelligence agency carries out several different activities: some operative and others logistic. If it is generally accepted that subjects who do not partake in operative tasks have no need to access sensible information, the same principle is not true within the structures that carry out the operative activity itself.

There are technical activities like ELINT (Electronical Intelligence), SIGINT (Signal Intelligence), IMINT (Imagery Intelligence), and other, more operative ones such as HUMINT (Human Intelligence). So when should an operative structure be kept in the dark? It is a question that frequently arises within Intelligence agencies, and the rules that apply are not so clear. There is common sense; there are internal structures that are tasked with circulating information, like the situation rooms; but there are no set rules. In the end, compartmentalization, when self-referential, can cause operative damage to the other structures that could benefit from the information that was withheld.

And is there a rule on what should be shared: news or information? A piece of news is just rough data that needs to be elaborated and verified in order to become information. Is it better to use unreliable news to see if they fit in with other data or is it preferable to wait until such news has been verified?

There are pros and cons for both yes and no answers. If research is based on a piece of unreliable news, there is a risk of wasting time and of misleading other research that concurs on the same operative target. But if the news ends up being true, it is sometimes possible to save time, a crucial element in many Intelligence activities. After all, aquiring information, because of its incontrovertibly truthful nature, requires more time.

But there is also another problem with the source of the news, especially if these are produced by Humint activity. This is due to the fact that research abroad and on the national territory is carried out by distinct Intelligence structures. When speaking of sources, the principle of secrecy is sacred even within the Intelligence agencies themselves.

It is not rare to see the simultaneous presence of several agencies – with their own operative instruments and contacts – each working to obtain the same data.

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The Italian case

If compartmentalization is an issue within an Intelligence agency, the problem is further pronounced in a nation like Italy, which has two Intelligence agencies with identical goals as far as national security security is concerned, but with distinct projections on the ground: The AISE (Agency for Information and External Security) abroad and the AISI (Agency for Information and Internal Security) at home. (law 124, August 3, 2007)

Apart from the evanescent geographical division – as if the operative and informative activity of the two agencies didn’t overlap – the main problem is the osmosis and transmission of data between two agencies that compete with each other.

The history of the Italian system and past political choices generated two distinct Intelligence agencies (actually three, if we count the military RIS, Information and Security Department, military). The reason for this dualism was to separate competences and create competition between the agencies, thus making them less dangerous for democracy. Divide and conquer. If these were the premises, one cannot complain if the efficiency of the agencies is limited.

One could object that there is indeed a third structure that coordinates the first two, called the DIS (Department of Security Information), tasked with amalgamating, controlling and directing the activity of both Intelligence agencies. But again, it would be another misunderstanding: In reality, the coordination carried out by the DIS is very limited. Both the AISE and the AISI tend to be self-referential due to compartmentalization and to the aforementioned competition between the two agencies, an aspect which is favored by the Italian law.

The duties of the DIS include tasks that are also delegated to the two Intelligence agencies (training, health, logistics, finance, recruiting), thus creating further duplicates. Operatively speaking, each of the agencies independent from the others. But on a higher level, compartmentalization happens within the agencies, between agencies and in the cooperation between agencies and the rest of the State.

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AISE emblem

Relationship between Intelligence agencies and the Judicial system

There are striking contradictions in the agencies’ relationships with the Judicial system. An Intelligence agency gathers news; they verify the reliability thereof, turning the news into information; they then pass the information on to the judicial system, which is tasked with enacting security measures, if needed. Yet the judicial system cannot move swiftly, because the information passed on by the agencies (who don’t reveal their sources) has no real value in court; it is nothing more than an investigative cue.

In other words, if a judge chooses to enact measures on the basis of information obtained from Intelligence agencies, he/she can only do so on the basis of his/her own follow-up investigation. The above mechanism, although aimed at guaranteeing individual rights in judicial proceedings, hinders the collaboration between agencies and the judicial system and increases compartmentalization between the two.

Furthermore, when an Intelligence agency gathers information that may be judicially relevant, the Director of that agency has the authority and discretion to decide whether it is appropriate to share the information with the judicial. In other words, he/she decides whether to follow up judicially on the information or whether to keep the information secret.

In practice, when information from the agencies lands on the desk of a judge, that information has already been evaluated in terms of reliability and appropriateness by the Director of the Intelligence agency involved.

stemma AISI
AISI emblem

Attributions and collateral damages

The approval in 2007 of law 124, which regulates the duties of the agencies on a territorial basis, created further conflicts, also caused by compartmentalization. In the previous law (n. 801, 1997), counterespionage duties were assigned to the SISMI (now AISE) and not to the SISDE (now AISI). But with law 124, the agencies were forced to apply the new regulations, which included a transfer of operative assignments from one agency to the other. Up until the year 2007, it was the SISMI – and it’s internal structures – that had operative control over foreign diplomatic missions in Italy. It was a grievous task, seen that diplomatic missions in Rome are doubled by the corresponding missions with the Holy See, the Vatican (which does not allow for a diplomatic post to have dual obligations).

The SISMI team that carried out this activity in the past had grown experienced over the years. They had trustworthy sources, contacts, had carried out checks, wiretapping activity and other activities, sometimes borderline illegal including, on occasion, the violation of a diplomatic post. The transfer of jurisdiction, which was compulsory with the new legislation, made this wealth of information useless. The official version, of course, was that the passing of the torch occurred amid an air of courteous cooperation between national structures, but the truth was much different. The individuals that worked on the limit of ‘legality’ generally dislike spilling the beans on past operations, even to their colleagues.

Of course, compartmentalization is a defensive rule that ensures secrecy. When disregarded, it can jeopardize that which is the primary element of every Intelligence structure. However, when applied without discernment, it becomes a crack in the information structure and compromises the efficiency of the structure itself. As with all rules, this one too needs to be regulated, although there exist no regulatory criteria except for those that arise during each single application of the rule itself.

There are, however, antidotes, which are represented by the legal safeguards that can be applied to defend secrets of State. The fear that an information were leaked or that it could be used instrumentally against the leaker itself could be exorcised by the legal safeguards guaranteed to any national Intelligence agency. Unfortunately, the activity of an Intelligence agency, especially an Italian one, must confront itself with the prejudice of the public opinion which perceives its opaque workings as machinations, violations of one’s privacy and widespread illegality. The collective consciousness does not do justice to the dangerousness of a job that’s ancient as the world itself. The work of intelligence may be dirty work, but it is not necessary carried out by people that break the law.

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