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Eavesdropping on La Bella Vita: Listening Quietly in Italy

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Hardly anywhere in the world is the illegal monitoring of phone calls so prevalent as it is in Italy. Notwithstanding its negative connotations, such eavesdropping occasionally uncovers scandals that would otherwise remain undiscovered.

A man and a woman on their mobile phones walk past each other in Rome.
AP

A man and a woman on their mobile phones walk past each other in Rome.

Statistically speaking, every Italian between the ages of zero and 100 has a mobile phone, and some even have two. According to a United Nations study, Italians lead Europe when it comes to chatting on their phones, with the rate of mobile ownership at a record-breaking 109 percent. In Italy, the mobile phone is as much an accessory as a pair of sunglasses, a fact that was never a problem for Italians, at least not until Sept. 20.

That was the day when police in Milan arrested the members of a private espionage ring. It was headquartered in the security department at Telecom Italia, where software programs are normally used to conduct wiretapping operations. By bribing contacts at government agencies, the operation managed to establish several thousand personal dossiers, which it sold through a private investigation agency in Florence.

"I was shocked. And I'm not easily shocked," says Carlo Lucarelli, who is part of a younger generation of Italian detective novelists. The 46-year-old, who sports a goatee, culls his stories from contemporary life and hosts a TV show called "Blu Notte," which specializes in tales of famous Mafia organizations like the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Naples.

"Why is it that wiretapping is more prevalent in Italy than anywhere else?" Lucarelli shouts over the din on Rome's Piazza Mazzini. "Here in Italy, wiretapping has about as long as a tradition as talking. As far back as the days of Mussolini, someone was listening in on one in ten conversations. Our police chiefs were trained to fight organizations like the Red Brigades and the Mafia. Wiretapping was extremely successful in these environments."

It hasn't been disclosed yet how many phone conversations were targeted by the Milan ring's illegal wiretapping operation, or how many conversations and confidential data concerning banking transactions or criminal records were recorded in the group's dossiers. One thing is certain, and that is that the private sector has once again proven to be far superior to the leviathan of the Italian state. According to the police reports, the dossiers are "more complete than those of the authorities." No one is seriously intimidated by the state and its underpaid and incompetent public servants, whose hands are tied by a set of rules and regulations of epic proportions. But what happens when highly efficient, private intelligence services do the wiretapping? That's when things get serious.

According to Lucarelli, "when all conversations pass through a central office -- Telecom Italia in Milan -- there is of course an enormous temptation to run the wiretapping programs. After all, one can never know whether a dossier might come in handy some day."

Much of Italy's current political turmoil has been triggered by monitored phone conversations and the transcripts of those conversations, which quickly make their way into the papers.

  • In March, Minister of Health Francesco Storace resigned because a wiretapping affair. Storace allegedly discredited his rival in the 2005 regional election, Neo-fascist Alessandra Mussolini, with falsified lists of supporters. The team that uncovered the affair included eleven private detectives, two officials from the tax police and two employees of Telecom Italia's mobile phone subsidiary, Tim.
  • In April, the press published extensive transcripts of phone conversations from the world of professional football. According to the transcripts, the 2004/2005 championship was to a large extent rigged. Luciano "Lucky" Moggi, the general manager of Juventus Turin, had apparently conducted about 100,000 conversations in eight months on his four mobile phones.
  • When Italians opened their newspapers in June, they discovered how the spokesman of former Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini had boasted about his encounters with various starlets on his office sofa, including the current fiancée of Flavio Briatore. No one knows how the papers got hold of the wiretapping transcripts.
  • In another scandal, the head of the Italian royal family was wiretapped as he complained about the high prices Eastern European whores were charging. A woman using the alias "Alice" revealed that Crown Prince Victor Emanuel of Savoy never shuts off his phone, even in bed, and that he chose the Italian national anthem as his ring tone. According to the transcripts, the prince himself was involved in such nefarious activities as sex trafficking and manipulating gambling machines; he also apparently shares the vocabulary of your average street hooker.

But the Telecom affair has triggered a round of political action. On Thursday, Prime Minister Romano Prodi defended his legislative decree, under which, effective immediately, illegally obtained phone conversation material must be destroyed under court supervision. Media outlets that publish the illegal transcripts now face the prospect of being fined up to €1 million.

Until now, Article 684 of Italy's criminal code called for a negligible fine of up to €260 for newspapers that revealed the secret contents of legal proceedings. In explaining his decree, which received wide support across the entire political spectrum from the conservatives to the communists, Prodi said that it was necessary to prevent "the decay from spreading even further."

"It's suspicious," says Nino Filastò, a native of Florence, an author of detective novels and one of his city's most skilled criminal defenders. The 68-year-old lawyer and author, who sports a Buffalo Bill haircut, was the defense attorney in the Aldo Moro kidnapping case and has spent years trying to solve the case involving a serial killer known as the "Monster of Florence," who killed 16 people.

Filastò finds it interesting that the most vocal criticism of "excessive wiretapping" is coming from the higher spheres of political power in Italy. Justice Minister Clemente Mastella, for example, was apparently not as concerned about the fact that a private wiretapping organization existed in the first place, but about the possibility that the dossiers could soon end up in the morning papers.

Filastò isn't surprised that personal dossiers are sold in Italy like pieces of Pecorino cheese. "Every court case includes information that could only have been obtained through wiretapping," he says.

Detective novelists aren't the only ones who are concerned that the illegal wiretapping scandal could be used as an excuse to limit legitimate wiretapping operations. On the one hand, it makes sense that private conversations should remain private, as long they have nothing to do with court decisions. On the other hand, the Italian justice system is the world's slowest. The average duration of a criminal case is five years, which allows suspects, especially the well-connected ones, to take advantage of the amount of time it takes for a case to progress through the court system. "It is important that we publish wiretapping transcripts so that we can fight illicit business dealings, extortion and corruption. They are our only instrument," the weekly magazine L'espresso wrote in the summer.

Police officials agree that without wiretapping operations they would have trouble solving murder, bribery and protection money cases. "Hardly anyone files complaints, but oddly enough, almost every perpetrator talks about his crime on his mobile phone at some point," says Carlo Lucarelli.

Italy's journalists' and judges' associations have expressed their concerns over the decree. One point of contention is over where the dividing line should be drawn between legal and illegal cases. But what critics find most objectionable is the destruction of the material that has already been seized by authorities.

Killing the hydra

In the daily Corriere della Sera newspaper, the prominent historian and publicist Galli della Loggia recommends that the courts comb through the material, "despite deep opposition." This, he says, is the only way the "Italian hydra" can be dealt a deathblow. What he means by "hydra" is a state in which private and public interests are hardly distinguishable, an impenetrable system of mutual favors, flattery, recommendations and veiled threats. This world operates to a large extent through constant telephone conversations.

Hardly any other country has as many laws and decrees as Italy. The most harmless approach to surviving this bureaucratic jungle is to put in a call to a brother-in-law or an acquaintance who happens to sit at the right desk: "Hey, Gianni, do me a favor." The criminal version of the art of dealing with bureaucracy is corruption. But the boundaries that separate the two are fluid.

It may be true that no legislative decree is capable of seriously putting an end to incriminating conversations. After all, any defendant can tell a journalist whatever he wishes or what he claims is in his file, and there is no law that prevents the media from publishing information that could serve the interests of the defendant.

Nevertheless, Nino Filastò is unable to shake the feeling that the great era of enlightenment could be over, the era that began with Mafia hunters Paolo Borsellino and Carlo Alberta Dalla Chiesa. "Soon we will be hearing once again about those typical Italian secrets that no one ever uncovers." It's something that the writer in Filastò would welcome, but not the attorney.

Translated from German by Christopher Sultan

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