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Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 2: Intelligence Structures and Capacities

July 18, 2016

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

In this, the second part of Balkanalysis.com’s series on Italian security challenges in the MENA and Balkan theaters, we outline the structure and capacities of Italian intelligence and its orientation toward the MENA and Balkans. This structural analysis notes both relevant current events and history.

As such, this analysis provides context for the rest of the series, which assesses Italian intelligence activities in individual countries.

Italian Intelligence: Organizational Structure

The External Intelligence and Security Agency (Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Esterna, AISE) runs Italian HUMINT networks abroad. An August 2007 law created it out of the former Military Intelligence and Security Service (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Militare, SISMI), which had operated since 1977.

The 2007 law also established two other new entities. The coordinative Department of Information Security (Dipartimento delle Informazioni per la Sicurezza, DIS), replaced the Executive Committee for Intelligence and Security Services (Comitato Esecutivo per i Servizi di Informazione e Sicurezza, CESIS).

This committee had been mandated to oversee the military SISMI and its domestic-focused, civilian counterintelligence counterpart, the Intelligence and Democratic Security Service (Servizio per le Informazioni e la Sicurezza Democratica, SISDE). The replacement of SISDE with the Internal Information and Security Agency (Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Interna, AISI) preserved the civilian and domestic mandate of the agency.

The Reasons for Restructurings: A Succession of Scandals

Italian intelligence has been restructured often since WWII. Restructurings have generally been due to scandals that forced a political and then legislative intervention. In several cases, these scandals have been caused by an overzealous desire to be ‘helpful’ to the Americans, and thus win greater prestige and leverage for Italy.

For example, the 1977 law that created the CESIS/SISMI/SISDE structure came as a reaction to the 1974 arrest of then-military intelligence chief Vito Miceli, for alleged involvement in the failed right-wing Golpe Borghese coup of 1970. Miceli was cleared in 1978, while the reformed structure that followed his arrest would live on for three decades. The public suspicions that the US was involved both in the failed coup in Italy (and the near-contemporaneous, successful right-wing coup in nearby Greece) would feed decades of left-wing anti-Americanism in both countries. This would also affect political decisions over intelligence structures.

Indeed, history repeated itself when perceived heavy-handed American involvement once again caused intelligence-related scandals, leading to the 2007 restructuring. In March 2003, CIA agents kidnapped Imam Abu Omar in Milan, and sent him via the Aviano NATO base to Egypt, where he was questioned and tortured before being released in 2004. Known as the Imam Rapito case, it caused considerable public outcry in Italy and charges of breached sovereignty.

Further scandal arose from this case after SISMI chief Nicolò Pollari resigned in November 2006 and was indicted. Investigators found evidence of a secret SISMI operation targeting Romano Prodi, further fueling historic leftist suspicions. They also discovered a domestic surveillance program that had operated since 1996, run by Marco Mancini, a former SISMI deputy chief. He had reportedly cooperated with Giuliano Tavaroli, former security chief at Italian Telecom, along with a private detective.

A detail of this affair that may be relevant to Balkan investigations is the mysterious death of Tavaroli’s predecessor Adamo Bove, who ‘fell’ from a Naples highway bridge on 21 July 2006. Apparently, Bove had discovered a Telecom system flaw that allowed intruders to enter and plant wiretaps undetected.

Ad even this case appeared to be related to the CIA extraordinary rendition. “Bove was a master at detecting hidden phone networks,” noted Alternet in 2006, adding that he had “used mobile phone records” to help prosecutors in Milan uncover the SISMI-CIA kidnapping.

The media drew parallels between Bove’s ‘suicide’ and that of Greek software engineer Costas Tsalikidis in 2005. Tsakalidis, who had shown no signs of an impending suicide, worked for Vodafone and “had just discovered a highly sophisticated bug embedded in the company’s mobile network. The spyware eavesdropped on the prime minister’s and other top officials’ cell phone calls; it even monitored the car phone of Greece’s secret service chief.” The Vodafone case, which caused great uproar in Greece at the time, was also believed to be associated with the Americans.

However, neither of these scandals really affected American interests, though they do exhibit certain symmetries with Balkan cases that bear looking into. But the final SISMI scandal that did lead to the 2007 reform – and again, related to ‘helping’ the Americans – would have disastrous long-term consequences for the latter. That was SISMI personnel’s role in providing US intelligence with forged documents, which claimed Saddam Hussein was trying to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger, as part of his purported ‘weapons of mass destruction’ program.

The scheming behind this whole episode is extremely opaque, and well beyond the scope of the current article; essentially, though, it resulted in tremendous controversies and differences within the CIA, State Department and Bush administration. For whatever reason, therefore, Italy had a central role in building the case for war in Iraq (not to mention internal feeding internal divisions in the US administration) and this case was another reason given for the 2007 reforms.

Implications of the Restructuring: Civilian and Military, Domestic and International Roles

For many Italians, these scandalous episodes indicated a lack of governmental oversight and control over senior SISMI officials and agents. SISMI was disbanded, and replaced by the new AISE and AISI agencies, which would report no longer to ministries, but to the prime minister himself. DIS, meanwhile, was given stronger oversight powers.

This restructuring has had both positive and negative results, and has indicated clear trends in the Italian intelligence business. The major change the restructuring brought was a division of domestic counterintelligence and foreign intelligence, as is common in many countries, and the reduction of the military presence in foreign intelligence activities. One result of this has been AISE’s increased use of diplomats, economic attachés and other non-military personnel in their operations.

The 2007 restructuring has also led to an inevitable increase in political appointments (with the bodies now being under the prime minister).

AISE Leadership Structure

With the 2007 law, the president of the Council of Ministers appoints and oversees the AISE director- the current director, General Alberto Manenti, was appointed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in 2014.

While AISE deputy directors may be appointed and dismissed by the President of the Council of Ministers, the AISE director may freely appoint other personnel. DIS is a department of the Prime Minister’s office and, as said, overviews the work of AISE and AISI, representing the final link between the services and the acting cabinet.

Criticisms of Intelligence Sector Reforms

The investigative website Invisible Dog, which covers Italian intelligence matters, has been highly critical of the practices and hiring systems of the ‘reformed’ AISE (and general services), however. A recent analysis concluded that “the current cadres hired in the Agency are all unskilled for the roles and tasks they have to fill. There are still, especially among the old guard, several highly skilled individuals in the Agency. But numerically they are not enough. Some young newly employed agents will probably have the chance in the future, but not today, to become true professionals.”

This quote highlights the inevitable downside of a reform conceived to bring the services strictly back in the hands of the government and of the Prime Minister, who can delegate the control over the agencies to a deputy or an undersecretary (position currently held in the government by Marco Minniti, a former deputy interior minister under Prodi). The new structure of appointments increases the potential for high-level intelligence officials being able to make decisions with the approval of only the prime minister, rather than the Parliament and opposition as well.

In 2007, when the Prodi government appointed the first directors of the agencies, Bruno Branciforte for AISI and Franco Gabrielli for AISE, it did so after a consultation with the opposition, then led by Silvio Berlusconi. But this consultation, though recommended, is not mandatory. One implication could be that intelligence bosses will be changed with each new government, which in turn could impede the proper development and continuation of intelligence activities.

Government Recognition of Potential for Politicization in Intelligence Leadership

Recently, Claudio Scajola – Italy’s ex-interior minister – revealed his concerns about the secret services, managed as they are “at the service of the government, instead of the State.” In this framework, the choices of the officials and the personnel of these agencies create competitive tendencies in which, a senior Italian diplomat told Balkanalysis.com, “trust and loyalty to the government could be very valuable assets to have for [winning] the position.”

In this regard, Italian newspapers covered the expected appointment of Marco Carrai – Renzi’s close friend and one of his fiercest supporters – as consultant for DIS on cyber-security in April. The nomination was however later stopped by the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella.

The president pointed out the elephant in the room (i.e., Carrai’s position as president of a cyber-security company). But the nomination was also allegedly blocked by pressures from the CIA, over Carrai’s reported links with Israel security groups. Numerous media noted that this relationship led some to question Carrai’s relations with the Mossad.

Events like this demonstrate the degree to which the capabilities and the goals of Italian secret services may be ancillary to the acting government. After the nomination of the new head at DIS (Alessandro Pansa, a former police chief) and at AISI (Mario Parente, former Chief of Carabinieri’s ROS), Prime Minister Renzi seemed to confirm this point of view: “we decided to make these appointments valid only for two years since we are serious people and we know that in 2018 we will vote to elect a new government,” he said in the press conference after the nominations, on 29 April 2016.

“When we talk about appointments on security we want to value institutional figures,” the premier underlined. “Usually, in Italy, governments changed and so did the heads of the services, but we want to operate in complete transparency. The new government will decide to confirm or not our appointment once it will be elected in 2018 elections.”

Several sources in Italian diplomatic circles emphasize for Balkanalysis.com that the future of the Italian services will rely greatly on the competence of the governments that will rule Italy in the next few years. This is especially so given that Italy is a country with a long history of interference from foreign services and cumbersome friendships. But in any case, the ship seems to have sailed.

After a request for comment from Balkanalysis.com regarding the possible outcome of political-governmental interference with the secret services, the staff of Undersecretary Minniti did not provide any new information, but instead directed us to his 2014 article in the magazine Italiani Europei (founded by veteran politician Massimo d’Alema).

The interesting article he wrote argues that “our information services move in a normative framework that allows them to use operative tools subordinate to authorization and internal controls, parliamentary and judiciary which guarantee the respect of everyone’s rights, without compromising efficiency. This system makes Italy one of the best models in the world […]. Intelligence, to fulfill its role of presiding over the boundaries of a democracy, must be strictly integrated with democracy itself. For this very reason, unconventional methods which are typical of information agencies must be regulated by the law.”

Such comments reflect a change of attitude, and a policy of blocking any possible “deviation” inside the services. This is clearly reflected in nominations which are more political than military, unlike the period before 2007.

An Apparent Success: Intelligence Outreach with the Assad Government in Syria

Despite Italian intelligence’s unfortunate role in ginning up a disastrous war in Iraq back in 2002, there are signs that the traditional ‘Diplomacy of Friendship’ between Italy and the MENA, which we discussed in the first part of this series is making a comeback, under the watch of AISE chief Alberto Manenti.

On 14 July, Gulf News reported that Manenti had just visited Damascus, following a visit to Rome slightly earlier by his Syrian counterpart, Deeb Zeitoun, who reportedly stayed at a private villa provided by the secret services.

Manenti’s visit was described as the first high-level visit to Syria by a Western official since 2011. The migrant crisis and increased terrorism threat in Europe seem to have now given the Syrian government considerable leverage; the Assad regime “is willing to provide all lists” of ISIS fighters known to them, the report stated, “if the Europeans took an initiative aimed at normalising relations with Damascus. Full counter-intelligence would only happen, they added, once diplomatic relations were restored.”

The selection of an Italian intelligence chief to lead the Western initiative at a time of huge security risks is quite logical. Aside from its historic friendships with MENA countries and the increasingly warn relations between Renzi and Assad’s main international supporter, Vladimir Putin, Italy had never held the hard-line anti-Assad opinions often voiced by the US and UK. Making first approaches with Syria would have been politically impossible for those countries.

Italy also has the advantage of leading EU foreign policy through its commissioner, Federica Mogherini, and can count on her leverage to appease the Assad government, gaining some much-needed concessions. According to sources in Damascus, Gulf Times reported that the AISE chief and his colleagues have “promised to trigger an initiative” by Mogherini, which would begin “within weeks” to lift economic sanctions on Syria, “if the Syrians agreed to share intelligence on Daesh and start a serious political transition.” The political process would then have to be executed “within six months” or, by December 2016, “thereby scrapping an earlier date that had previously been agreed upon by UNSCR 2254, which called for the start of a transition government in Damascus by August 1.” This looks very much like a victory for Assad.

It would quite obviously also constitute a diplomatic and intelligence coup for Italy, if it is in fact able to both restart the process towards peace in Syria, and gather significant data on ISIS fighters for Western interests. But, as we again analyzed in the first part of this series, Italy has wider ambitions in the MENA, particularly due to the migrant crisis, even if they are not managed directly by AISE.

Other Developments Regarding Italian Intelligence in the MENA

Elsewhere in the region, Italy has seen a changing dynamic. The restructuring of the intelligence services roughly coincided with political changes and then instability in Libya.

As we reported in the first part of this series, the Italy-Egypt relation has suffered since the murder of an Italian researcher in Cairo earlier this year. Now, with the huge uncertainty that the Turkish coup attempt has caused as well, we are likely to see a new focus of Italy and its partners with strong operational bases on the Cairo-Amman-Istanbul axis (particularly, run by the British). Another MENA country of interest is Libya, where Balkanalysis.com accurately predicted the future rise of ISIS, 16 months ago.

As we reported in the first article of the current series, the Berlusconi-Gaddafi deal helped Libya protect its coast effectively from any illegal migrant flows. And, while the deal brought Italian assistance (in the form of financial and regular police, ships, equipment and training for Libyan forces), the 2011 NATO intervention and overthrow of Gaddafi ended this program, helping to fuel lawlessness and the increasing migrant flows that have dominated Italy’s MENA concerns in the last few years.

What, then, was the role of Italy’s newly-restructured foreign intelligence service during this turmoil? “AISE always had a marginal role,” attested researcher from Invisible Dog for Balkanalysis.com. This situation apparently stemmed from a dispute between two ministers of the then-Berlusconi government: Minister of Interior Roberto Maroni (now, Governor of the Lombardy Region) and the Minister of Defense, Ignazio la Russa. The two men disagreed over which ministry should lead the operation for controlling illegal migrant routes. The dispute was finally resolved when migration was defined as a police, not military matter.

“This implied the marginalization of AISE itself, which was at that time led by Admiral Branciforte, a ‘man of the state’ put there as a guarantee of transparent behavior, but without direct expertise in migration issues,” noted the Italian investigative journalists. “What happened in Libya created a precedent, which influenced AISE’s role in following counter-trafficking actions. The MOI oversees the management of migration through police delegations, as secondments to those countries where this phenomenon is more visible.”

AISE may thus support the police by tracking transnational organized crime, and its presence is thus higher “in those countries where there are reported activities that can harm Italian national security, such as organized crime and terrorist groups.” In the past five years, practically the entire MENA has come under this category.

Italian Diplomacy and the Balkans: an Overview

Due to its geographic placement, and its commercial, religious and cultural issues, Italy has always looked eastward across the Adriatic to project its influence. Today, this influence is primarily executed by the presence of Italian companies, large deployment of diplomatic and intelligence officials. Inevitably, events on the Eastern Adriatic and Balkans have a direct influence on the Italian situation, both in terms of internal security and external relations.

Italian policy aims to push these countries into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Italy uses its diplomatic role as a mediator of Mediterranean and Balkan issues. This was recently reaffirmed by the Italian brokering of the Adriatic-Ionian initiative, and the ongoing participation to the Central European Initiative.

In the short term, the official goals of Italy in the Eastern Adriatic are regional stabilization, economic development, democratic consolidation and the fight against organized crime and terrorism. In this regard, many steps have been taken in recent years: the signing of an inter-government agreement on strategic collaboration with Montenegro, the establishment of Coordination Ministers Committees with Croatia and Slovenia, the reinforcement of strategic bilateral partnerships with Serbia and Albania, and the signing of a memorandum on exchange of classified information with Macedonia.

The importance of the region for Italian foreign politics was also underlined by its inclusion in the official priorities of the Italian Presidency of the European Union (June-December 2014), Then-Italian Foreign Minister Mogherini visited the six Western Balkans countries between 25 and 28 July 2014 to illustrate this interest.

Italy actively support the consolidation of security and stability in the region also through a deep cooperation with international counterparts, both at EU level and with the informal group of contemporary ‘great powers,’ the QUINT, which unites Italye the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany. Concerning the Balkans, representatives of these powers meet under this umbrella regularly, in Kosovo.

Regarding Italian and international security cooperation in the Balkans, we find a superimposition of activities by Italian agencies. There is ongoing Italian police cooperating with local polices, through bilateral agreements or in international forces (i.e. EUROPOL) in fighting human, drug and weapon trafficking. For its part, AISE oversees information gathering and analysis of the wider networks which exploit these smuggling routes.

Italian Intelligence in the Balkans in Context

After WWII, Italy was selected by the new NATO alliance, largely because of its historic and colonial relationships, to ‘cover’ Yugoslavia and Albania, creating excellent intelligence networks there. The occupation during the Fascist Regime and the conflict, as well as the forced return to Italy of the Italians residing in these territories, caused some tensions (and nearly provoked a war in 1953), mostly regarding the destiny of Trieste and Istria. (The dispute would be resolved only in 1975, through the Osimo Agreement). That was the primary reason why Cold War Italian governments kept a watchful gaze on the other side of the Adriatic, from which a potential military and ideological threat might come.

Italy’s historic relationships and intelligence focus on the Balkans also help explain why it was keener than other Western countries to prevent war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The wars had a negative impact for Italy, which until that point, had seen political and economic relations with Yugoslavia improve.

Indeed, as a top Italian diplomacy professor stated for Balkanalysis.com, “Italy and Yugoslavia were examples of the peaceful resolution of regional conflict during the Cold War. It was a mutual benefit: for Rome, Belgrade represented a way to depict Italy as an international mediator, while for Belgrade, Rome became more and more the primary partner for loans and request of international credit.” During the 1980s, thanks to the improving relations, Italy was the main commercial partner of Yugoslavia, along with Germany.

While Italy played a key role in early diplomacy to quell tensions, in the meantime the Italian political class was being crushed by a huge corruption scandal that peaked in 1992, diverting most attention to internal issues and excluding Italy from the main negotiations in Yugoslavia.

A senior Italian diplomat recalls for Balkanalysis.com the reaction of the Dini government’s foreign minister, Susanna Agnelli in 1995, when she read an article by Italian journalist Adriano Sofri from Sarajevo. It denounced the complete disappearance of Italian diplomacy in the talks about ending the siege of the Bosnian capital, saying that “nobody understood anything about what is happening here.” As this diplomat told us, “that was the moment in which an Italian government decided it was time to restart our eastern diplomacy.”

These historic linkages and experiences also help explain why, despite its relative insignificance compared with countries like the US, China or Russia, experts today believe that Italy possesses the best HUMINT network capacities in the Eastern Adriatic. This umbrella includes not only AISE and Italian military and law enforcement bodies, but also the often overlooked reach of the Catholic Church in the region.

This is the reason why, since the end of the war in Bosnia, Italian officials have taken a central part in the talks about Kosovo’s status in 1999, the Kumanovo Agreement, the issues of Montenegro and Kosovo independence and, more recently, about European inclusion of the Balkans countries.

To give an example, as an Italian top diplomatic official told us in a recent interview, Italian diplomats helped craft the official EU response to Kosovo’s declaration of independence on 18 February 2008. Thus it was the Italian delegation that suggested the wording, “the European Union takes note of” the decision, as a way to solve the problem of how to accept the independence as a given fact without actually saying it.

Russian and Italian Intelligence in the Balkans and Domestic Challenges

Indeed, Italian capacities have not gone unnoticed by outside parties, and the belief that the British frequently outsource intelligence work to AISE helps explain some trends. A senior European security official stated for Balkanalysis.com that “the Russians based in Rome go out and hunt down Italian HUMINT networks in the Balkans,” adding that Russia sends some of its top SVR lieutenants to Italy.

This is an intriguing game, especially at a time when Matteo Renzi has become increasingly close with Putin and when the two countries are working on joint commercial ventures. One regional example is in Montenegro, where in February 2016 the government awarded a 30-year oil and gas concession to ENI and Russian energy giant Novatek.

The mutual intelligence interest, again, is historic. The Soviet Union once maintained strong support inside the Italian Communist Party, among its many other activities on the peninsula. And, as we have explained in The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans, the Soviets assigned Hungarian intelligence to cover the Vatican.

Of course, the Soviets were also aware of Italy’s Balkan interests, and considered their own presence in Italy as crucial during the transformations in the 1990s. The historical presence of Eastern agents in Italy became public after the disclosure of the Mitrokhin Archive. Named after KGB officer Vasilij Nikitič Mitrokhin, it was given to the SISMI by British counterintelligence in 1995. (For this reason, some critics have suggested that the Archive is nothing more than an elaborate forgery created by the British). One of the most famous alleged operatives in Italy was codename “VERME” (Worm)- an alleged KGB informer who worked in the Italian foreign office from the 1980s before disappearing, unnamed, during the 1990s.

The Mitrokhin Archive contains the names of politicians, diplomats, administrative officials and journalists who were allegedly working as KGB contacts in Italy, with different purposes: gathering information, backing specific laws in parliament, requesting parliamentary debates about NATO and US military actions and so on.

Whether or not the Archive was real or a deceptive hoax, it did trigger real-world responses in Italy. Ironically, in a 2002 move that remarkably resembled the lustration committees of Eastern European countries, Berlusconi’s Casa delle Libertà coalition created a parliamentary commission to investigate allegations raised by the Archive. The committee was essentially created to search for KGB links to Italian opposition politicians (an approach many Eastern lustration committees have taken). By 2006, however, the commission closed without having developed any new concrete evidence beyond the original information given in the Mitrokhin Archive.

Today, the pervasive Russian activity in Italy itself is presenting some interesting new challenges for AISI. The recent case of a Portuguese diplomat arrested in Rome, who was reportedly playing both sides with Portugal and Russia and selling classified information to Moscow, shows that the intelligence competition with Russia occasionally unfolds within Italy itself.

On 21 May 2016 the veteran agent, Frederico Carvalho Gil, was arrested in a Rome café while exchanging an envelope with Russian agent Sergey Nicolaevic Pozdnyakov. Gil was a senior officer in the Servico de Informacao da Republica Portuguesa (Sis), the Portuguese secret service, and was tracked down after a police search in his Lisbon home found restricted documents and a large amount of money.

Gil was jailed under the allegation of passing classified information about Europe and NATO to the Russian secret service, while his contact was arrested for corruption (his detention was confirmed on 6 June by the IV Section of Judges in Rome’s Court of Appeals).

New statistics regarding more general counterintelligence and law enforcement challenges in Italy were recently disclosed by Interior Minister Angelino Alfano. According to an 18 July ANSA report, the year 2016 has so far recorded over 300 possible terrorist threats, with security services having investigated over 800 suspects; according to the interior minister, 500 people with possible terrorist links have been arrested. Also, among the 100 individuals deported this year were seven radical imams. In what could become a wider trend in Europe, Alfano recommended that off-duty policemen carry guns in the wake of the Nice terrorist attack last week.

Italian HUMINT Network Structure Division in the Eastern Adriatic/Balkans

Given these examples (and not even counting existing organized crime and migrant trafficking threats) it is clear why Italian intelligence retains a domestic focus. But the Balkans is another place where lots of interests intermingle, while some appear to be on the decline. Despite recurrent concerns, Russia “is no longer a contender there,” a veteran American diplomat in Italy told Balkanalysis.com. Putin is now more concerned with areas in which Russian ethnic presence is bigger and can be used as leverage, like former Soviet countries and the Caucasus, the American official believes. “Russia would not oppose the entrance of other countries into NATO, Macedonia for instance, as they did not oppose it for Montenegro.”

Due to its historic linkages and local realities, AISE regional HUMINT hubs are divided on ethnic/linguistic bases. The first is for agents who are “Slavonic-speakers.” It is located in Zagreb, Croatia. From there, AISE additionally covers Slovenia and Bosnia. The fact that Belgrade was the capital of Yugoslavia meant that Serbia had the largest Italian diplomatic presence, which is still relevant for AISE work in the most powerful Balkan country.

The second and perhaps most important hub, Tirana, is geared towards Albanian speakers, and thus covers Kosovo, where Italy has a military presence as well in KFOR. The interesting mixture of Slavic and Albanian speakers in Montenegro and Macedonia make these of special interest to AISE. The linguistic overlap may mean that in some cases, agents are selected for special purposes based on specific current or anticipated events. It is also not clear whether agents in these countries report to one of the hubs, or directly to Rome. This seemingly technical issue could quite easily have ramifications for analysis of specific operations.

Italian operatives typically work out of embassies and consulates, but also include businessmen, professors, consultants and other ‘unsuspicious’ persons. The historic relationships with Croatia and Albania, and disproportionately large diplomatic representations there, also help explain why Zagreb and Tirana are key Balkan bases. That said, it appears that Croatia’s membership in NATO and the EU are slowly making it of less importance than Serbia, where the migration crisis, relations with Russia and China, and other unique issues make it an important country for intelligence work.

A Note on the Counterintelligence Value of Italy-Based Foreign Missions to Balkan Countries

Although we will generally discuss the scale of Italian diplomatic missions (and thus, the scope of intelligence activities) to specific Balkan countries individually in the rest of this series, a note should be made of one very subtle, unquantifiable factor in the bigger intelligence game.

This is one that gives Italy another advantage in the Eastern Adriatic theater. Many countries (including some EU members) run their entire diplomatic, economic and intelligence operations to Balkan states out of Rome. This means that both AISI (domestically) and AISE (externally, though they have internal networks too) can gather intelligence about such countries’ relationships and activities within the Balkan region.

To give some idea of the scale of this diplomatic infrastructure, consider the example of one Balkan state especially important to Italy- Albania. It is known that some 32 countries run their whole operations to Albania, not from Tirana but out of Rome (including major countries like Canada, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Australia and Pakistan). Some 15 other nations run their Albania diplomacy out of Athens, which gives the Greeks a similar advantage.

However, at the same time, some 18 countries actually run their diplomatic missions to Greece itself out of Italy. These numbers indicate the considerable advantage Italy enjoys. In addition to Italy, Austria also has an advantage as a number of countries run their diplomatic operations to the Balkans out of Vienna.

A Note on Systematic Agent Detection Limitations

A final note can be made regarding the convergence of diplomatic and intelligence structural relations. One of the ways foreign intelligence services and amateur sleuths try to identify Italian (and other) HUMINT assets is to cross-reference databases and public information sources, such as diplomatic lists. One common method would be to search for the absence on the official list of individuals known to be working in Italian diplomatic installations overseas.

However, while in a few notable cases in the Balkans this can be an accurate verification tool, it has its limitations: most of the documents published by the Foreign Ministry include only the MFA’s high-level officers, that is, the career diplomats (level A). In the Italian structure, the name of this list is the Stati di Servizio del Personale appartenente alla Carriera Diplomatica.

However, as with any other country, there are also MFA officers who belong to the administrative and commercial services (level B and C). Most of them are reported in a different document that is called Stati di servizio del Personale appartenente alle Categorie Funzionali del Ministero degli Affari Esteri, which is available only to administration staff. However, these individuals are usually accredited in the diplomatic lists of host countries, as commercial or consular attachés.

There is also a third group of people which may be part of a diplomatic mission which are not included in both the “Stati di Servizio del Personale MAE” documents: it may feature AISE agents as well as officials of the Foreign Trade Agency (formerly known as ICE), since they are not employed by the ministry. If they are performing an official role, they should also be accredited in the diplomatic list of the host country as political, commercial or security attachés.

For instance, the European External Actions Service started this January to deploy security and counter-terrorism experts in embassies in sensitive countries like Egypt and Turkey, that are accredited as security attachès even if they enjoy “greater access to the military of the country” than a normal diplomat would have”, one of the security attachés told POLITICO, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Thus the job description of personnel in the diplomatic lists of the host country may also cover a larger role in that country’s internal and diplomatic dynamics, as this article series is going to confirm. But it is additionally to be noted that protocol practices vary by host countries, as some for example will identify only high-level officials, while others list all affiliated officials and their spouses and dates of arrival. It is an imperfect science, though an educational one.

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