NSA attention turns Berlusconi into world statesman

Silvio Berlusconi

 Rome -- Reports that the United States’ electronic spy agency beamed its rays onto Silvio Berlusconi have offered the former Italian prime minister a belated promotion to the rank of world statesman, alongside other NSA espionage victims such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy.

 Confidential documents published by WikiLeaks show the National Security Agency managed to penetrate the content of a “tense and very harsh” meeting between the three European leaders in October 2011, as financial crisis and “bunga bunga” allegations were pushing the Italian premier towards resignation.

 Merkel and Sarkozy pressed Berlusconi to implement concrete measures that showed his government was serious about its debt problem, an NSA report says. “Sarkozy was said to have told Berlusconi that while the latter’s claims about the solidity of the Italian banking system may be true in theory, financial institutions there could soon "pop" like the cork in a champagne bottle,” the report said.

 It is not clear how the NSA gathered the information, but the report describes the techniques used as “unconventional”.

 Another NSA report, citing “Italian diplomatic reporting”, describes a conversation between Berlusconi and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli premier, over a US-Israel rift triggered by Israel’s decision to build hundreds of new homes in contested East Jerusalem. “In response, Berlusconi promised to put Italy at Israel's disposal in helping mend the latter's ties with Washington,” the report says.

 WikiLeaks revealed that the NSA had also targetted the telephones of Italy’s permanent representative to NATO, as well as of Berlusconi’s diplomatic and national security advisers. Rome magistrates have opened an investigation into the allegations and the foreign ministry called in the US ambassador to Rome, John Phillips, for an explanation of this latest example of “blue on blue” espionage.

 The Italian minister for relations with parliament, Maria Elena Boschi, described the alleged spying as “unacceptable” and MPs from Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party renewed their calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the events that precipitated their leader’s resignation.

 Francesco Paolo Sisti said the NSA espionage was outrageous. “This is the chassis onto which is grafted what Berlusconi rightly defines as the “conspiracy” of 2011,” the Forza Italia lawmaker said.

 The content of the NSA reports is hardly damaging to Berlusconi’s reputation and there is no evidence that the United States participated in a plot to bring down the maverick Italian leader. US diplomatic cables previously published by WikiLeaks were much more hard-hitting. In reports filed seven years ago, the then ambassador to Rome, Ronald Spogli, described the close personal ties between Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

 Berlusconi admired Putin’s “macho, decisive and authoritarian governing style, which the Italian PM believes matches his own,” Spogli wrote. More embarrassingly, the ambassador relayed suspicions, voiced by both the centre-left opposition and members of Berlusconi’s own party, of a more nefarious connection based on personal financial interests.

 “They believe that Berlusconi and his cronies are profitting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia,” Spogli reported. “The Georgian ambassador in Rome has told us that the government of Georgia believes Putin has promised Berlusconi a percentage of profits from any pipelines developed by Gazprom in co-ordination with ENI.” That information was not gathered by electronic eavesdropping but by old-fashioned personal conversation.

 The row is likely to generate a degree of feigned indignation but not enough to revive Berlusconi’s flagging political career. Members of the centre-left government will pretend to be outraged while secretly enjoying Berlusconi’s embarrassment and the former premier’s camp will not want to upset the “special relationship” with the United States that Berlusconi himself once embodied. It’s the politicians not important enough to be intercepted who might feel slighted, in a world where everyone spies on everyone else and everyone knows it.