Soviet intelligence officers successfully recruited dozens of paid agents in Italy during the Cold War who may have compromised secrets of potential importance to NATO and the United States, according to documents leaked by a former KGB archivist that were released here last week.
The alleged recipients of Moscow's paychecks included politicians, an Italian ambassador, Foreign Ministry employees, businessmen and journalists, the documents state. The most sensational allegation is that Armando Cossutta--the leader of the Party of Italian Communists, which is part of the government coalition--was an informant for Moscow.
But so far, the revelations have provoked little public response besides weariness at the fresh political warfare the documents have ignited between Italian right and left. The two blocs fought bitterly during the Cold War and now want to influence history's judgment of Italy's manipulation by intelligence services from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
The allegations have been received here as merely titillating details that "refresh the tints of a picture which basically we've known for a long time," as the Rome newspaper Il Messagero put it. Although parliamentary support is growing for a formal inquiry, the government has not acted.
Few of the former Communists who now compose the leading bloc in Parliament appear eager to have a harsh new light trained on efforts by the Soviet Union to manipulate Italy or exploit its security lapses. The papers, which were handed over to the British government in 1992 by former KGB official Vasili Mitrokhin, were passed along to Rome in 1996.
Franco Frattini, a member of the parliamentary opposition who heads the commission that released the documents, said government officials told him they have been conducting a quiet counterespionage investigation since then. But this claim was undercut when Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, a former Communist, denied knowledge of the accusations, which mostly involve spying in the 1960s and '70s.
"People assumed that things like this went on," Frattini said. "But . . . it's one thing to talk about them at the bar, it's another to have them written out."
Justice Rosario Priore, a prominent investigating magistrate in Rome, is among the few independent officials who have urged prompt government action. He said the report showed "a strikingly large" KGB network in Italy, whose members committed "crimes that are punishable by life prison sentences."
The backdrop for the disclosures is a long history of attempted bribery of influential Italian politicians by the United States and the Soviet Union. For years the CIA helped fund the rightist Christian Democratic Party that has ruled much of postwar Italy, in an effort to keep Western Europe's largest communist party from gaining power.
The documents indicate that Moscow spent millions of dollars a year to apply pressure from the opposite direction, some of it handed over to a Communist Party official after dark in the garden of the Soviet Embassy in Rome. Cossutta, the party secretary at the time, has dismissed this claim as nothing new or surprising.
But other details, unproven so far, provide entertaining reading. Two agents are described, for example, as leaving coded hash marks on a clock near the 16th-century Piazza del Popolo in central Rome and then greeting each other with this improbable exchange:
"Excuse me, but didn't we see each other at the races in Montevideo in 1965?"
"No, it was France in 1964."
The Russians, like much of the Italian left, worried that fascists would regain power in Italy, so they sought to lay the groundwork for a landing by Soviet saboteurs. They established a ring of radio transmitters around Rome, stored weapons and other equipment, learned how to fake government stamps and bought uniforms of "military, railroad workers, forest rangers and police" as well as the "used civilian clothing of the local population."
Fifteen Soviet residences were used as bases for eavesdropping on tens of thousands of coded cablegrams, the documents assert.
Not all of the 261 people described in the report were paid. Moreover, KGB officers were notorious during the Cold War for exaggerating their contacts and access in reports. But some of those named could in the end have a tough time sloughing off the detailed accounts of cash and gifts of cars or vacations.
The documents claim that reporters for several Italian newspapers and the Associated Press in Rome received money. They also suggest that Moscow planted a report in a leading Italian magazine, Panorama, that the CIA was behind the 1978 assassination of former prime minister Aldo Moro. The documents also cite for the first time a link between Moro's known killers, the leftist Red Brigades terrorist group, and the daughter of one of Moscow's spies.