ROME, Jan 5
Italy's prime minister has intervened to defend a former spy chief accused of being part of an illegal espionage ring, a paper said, in a twist to a case that hinted at murky ties between the secret service and big business.
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.
In a surprise boost to the former spy chief's defence, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wrote to the judge confirming that "state secret" issues existed in the case, top daily Corriere della Sera reported on Tuesday, citing the letter.
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Berlusconi's letter will likely allow Mancini to avoid trial, while adding fresh intrigue into the nature of confidential links between the secret service and Italy's top telecommunications operator, Corriere said.
Berlusconi's office had no immediate comment on the report.
Mancini previously faced separate charges of helping the US 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.
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 soccer player Bobo Vieri.
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.