January 5, 2010 / 12:55 PM / 10 years ago

Berlusconi backs spy chief in espionage scandal

ROME (Reuters) - Italy’s prime minister has intervened to defend a former spy chief accused of being part of an illegal espionage ring, in a twist to a case that drew in Italy’s top telecoms firm and embarrassed the secret service.

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (C) leaves the San Raffaele hospital in Milan December 17, 2009. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito

The case first shocked Italy in 2006, when employees at former monopoly Telecom Italia and parent group Pirelli were arrested in a probe into a spy ring suspected of snooping on Italy’s elite by using data from phone records.

Among others arrested was Marco Mancini, a former No. 2 official in the military intelligence agency SISMI. At his preliminary hearing in November, Mancini refused to answer questions, saying doing so would violate state secrecy laws.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wrote to the judge confirming that “state secret” issues existed in the case, his office said.

Secret service units and their relations with other groups on their activities are given maximum protection under the law, Berlusconi’s office said in a statement.

Berlusconi’s letter will likely allow Mancini to avoid trial, while adding fresh speculation into the nature of confidential links between the secret service and Italy’s top telecommunications operator, said daily Corriere della Sera, which first reported the news.

Mancini previously faced separate charges of helping the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency kidnap a Muslim cleric in Milan, but those charges were dropped in November because evidence against them violated state secrecy rules.

In the spy ring case, prosecutors say a group led by the former security chief at Telecom Italia, Giuliano Tavaroli, created thousands of files from 1997 to 2004 by illegally gathering telephone traffic data. Both centre-left and centre-right governments ruled Italy during that period.

Alleged targets of their spying included former Prime Minister Romano Prodi when he was European Commission president in 2001 and a host of well-known personalities ranging from financier Emilio Gnutti to football player Bobo Vieri.

Mancini was accused of sending several files related to the secret service’s work to Telecom Italia, via an intermediary.

Telecom Italia’s head at the time, Marco Tronchetti Provera, has denied any links with Mancini or any knowledge of any illegal activity conducted by the company’s security division.

Additional reporting by Massimiliano di Giorgio, writing by Deepa Babington

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