In the summer of 1943, as Allied forces reached Italy, U.S. Army counterintelligence warned GIs, “You are no longer in Kansas City, San Francisco, or Ada, Oklahoma, but in a European country where espionage has been second nature to the population for centuries.”
That “second nature” extends all the way back to early Rome and its rise—in the space of six or seven generations—from rural obscurity to the ancient equivalent of benevolent global hegemony. While the Roman legions were the most efficient and disciplined troops of the premodern age, their battles would have been more difficult without their elaborate intelligence network. Many Romans proved to be even more adept at spying on each other; by the end of the Republican era, Rome was a hotbed of intrigue, conspiracy, and subterfuge.
It all started (as Livy tells us) around 500 B.C., during the Etruscan wars, when a brother of the consul Fabius Maximus went into the Ciminian forest dressed as an Etruscan. Fluent in the language of Rome’s enemies, he was able to penetrate areas previously inaccessible to Romans and to woo the local Umbrians to support the Roman cause. Livy describes the efforts of Carthaginian agents, fluent in Latin, who were all over the Roman rear, equipped with secret gestures to recognize one another and who used forged documents and planted false information to trap the Romans. The Romans responded with such stratagems as dressing up a centurion as a slave and inflicting a caning to give him cover.
Rome seemed a mighty monolith to the outside world after Carthage was razed, but rivalry and jealousy within its ruling class caused Livius Drusus’s architect to ask if he should build Drusus’s house “so that it be free from public gaze, safe from all espionage, and that nobody could look down on it.” Knowing your competitors was any public figure’s key to survival and advancement in the decades preceding Augustus. This required the creation of private intelligence networks of friends and family, slaves, and paid agents of both sexes. It was not only Cicero’s oratory and determination but his private network that saved the Republic from Cataline, and Pompey and Caesar used their networks against each other in the civil war that finally brought it down. But the danger that it might fall into the hands of a rival faction made Roman leaders wary of creating a centralized intelligence agency.
That was no way to run an empire, however, and half a century later, Augustus established postal and messenger service (cursus publicus), a permanent and reliable means of communication—though it had its imperfections: Codes and security classification of communications were not developed until later. The imperfections could be fatal: Caracalla’s commander in Rome sent a message to the emperor in the field that his aide Macrinus was plotting against him. The warning, however, was sent in a sealed letter through the imperial post. The courier was not informed of the importance of the message; upon receiving the mail, Caracalla gave it to Macrinus to read and to report if there was something of interest—thus sealing his fate.
By the end of the first century A.D., a full-time intelligence and security service was in place. Drawn from the ranks of the legions’ quartermaster staff (the frumentarii), they also spied on their superiors, the imperial bureaucracy, and the local population, and reported to Rome. They doubled as couriers, tax collectors, and state security officers. By the third century, they were spying on distant governors and generals, on humble Christians and haughty senators alike, and eventually their job description included assassination. Romans and provincials could no longer speak freckly, and abuses grew intolerable.
Diocletian eventually replaced the frumentarii with the blandly named agentes in rebus or “general agents.” Civilian hoods proved even worse than military ones, and they often colluded with the officials who could pay them off or promote their careers. Upright citizens could be falsely accused of treason, while real plotters remained unhindered.
For centuries after the Goth “immigration,” Rome declined in size and importance. Throughout medieval times, rivals for the papacy and Roman noble families employed cloak-and-dagger techniques against each other, but the first figure of James Bond’s caliber is Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692- 1779), known as England’s spy in the Vatican.
A cultivated man whose passion for classical antiquities made him one of the outstanding collectors in Europe, Albani established a lifelong friendship with Philip von Stosch, a celebrated art collector. Stosch was a spy for the English government, which was anxious to learn the plots hatched in the court of James III, the “Old Pretender” to the British throne. James had taken refuge in Rome, holding court in exile under papal protection. Stosch recruited Albani to obtain information on the Old Pretender’s court and the activities of visiting Jacobites.
At first, the cardinal was reluctant to betray Pope Benedict and to undermine his allegiance to the Stuarts. Vanity and ambition intervened when Benedict, heeding warnings that Albani was not to be trusted, denied him the post of prefect of the signature. Those warnings became a self-fulfilling prophecy: Albani became a willing spy for the English.
Albani often met with wealthy English collectors, who furnished him with an additional source of information on the underground activities of the Jacobites. He established a network of spies that, in 1744, reported that James’ son, Bonnie Prince Charlie, was gathering troops to invade his ancestral land. The cardinal informed the English, who were ready when the prince landed in Scotland in 1745. With the Jacobite cause lost, Albani rose in power and, in concert with the English, was able to persuade the Vatican to revoke its recognition of the House of Stuart.
The Vatican has been a major point of interest for foreign spies ever since. Nazi Germany considered the Catholic Church a threat to its domestic security and its international ambitions. In Germany, Hitler’s agents successfully recruited informants to provide intelligence on Church finances and the political views and activities of bishops, priests, and lay Catholics. In Rome, however, German attempts to penetrate the papacy were less effective, though the German code-breaking operation was successful: The Nazis systematically intercepted, decoded, and read secret communications between the pope and his representatives worldwide.
One of the most interesting espionage operations in World War II-era Rome was the so-called “ratlines” network that provided forged passports, shelter, money, and transport for thousands of fugitive Nazis and their collaborators fleeing Europe. This highly secretive operation was negotiated between Allen Dulles—then senior wartime OSS officer in Switzerland, later to become director of the CIA—and SS Gen. Karl Wolff. This worldly, debonair, and well-connected SS officer—not at all your Hollywood German—commanded the SS and Gestapo contingents in Italy. By the summer of 1944, he could see the writing on the wall. The result was an agreement affording amnesty to SS and related personnel in exchange for their promised support of the West in the anticipated Cold War.
As British and U.S. intelligence officials scoured Europe, seeking to apprehend Nazis wanted on war-crimes charges, their colleagues were helping them escape. Some 30,000 men found sanctuary (mostly in South America), including some distinctly nasty characters: Klaus Barbie, Eugen Kvaternik, Franz Stangl, Ante Pavelic, Adolf Eichmann, Andrija Artukovic, and Josef Mengele.
Funding for this operation came largely from gold and other liquid assets looted by the Nazis’ Croatian collaborators, the Ustashi, from their hundreds of thousands of Serbian and Jewish victims. The key Roman institution providing logistical support for the operation was the Croatian-run Institute of St. Jerome—a hotbed of atavistic ethnic hatred hiding behind the facade of a religious institution. It brought discredit and embarrassment to the Vatican with its freelance operations from 1945 to 1947.
A report released by the U.S. State Department in 1998 provides conclusive evidence that Swiss banks were not the only facilities used to channel looted funds. Relying on recently declassified U.S. government documents, it identified the Vatican’s financial institutions as a key postwar repository used by the Ustashi.
The Vatican denied the accusations when they first surfaced in the summer of 1997: “There is no basis in reality to the reports,” said Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. They were based on anonymous sources “whose reliability is more than dubious.” But two weeks later, the Associated Press reported that this denial was contradicted by an internal U.S. Treasury Department memorandum that had been sealed for 50 years. “Approximately 200 million Swiss francs was originally held in the Vatican for safekeeping,” says the October 21, 1946, memo from Treasury agent Emerson Bigelow to the director of monetary research. Other documents, declassified on the last day of 1996 (under the 50-year rule), established that Bigelow had received confirmation from the OSS that a considerable portion of the Ustasha money was sent to Spain and Argentina through the “pipeline.”
But there was one American intelligence operative in Rome who did not want to let the cat out of the bag. In 1944, James Jesus Angleton, a 26-year-old second lieutenant in the X-2 counterespionage branch of the OSS, arrived in Italy. He had spent the better part of his adolescence there, spoke the language fluently, and understood its culture and institutions. Angleton proved an adept field operative, hunting down agents left behind by the retreating Germans. His rise to the top of all American secret activity in Italy paralleled a remarkable expansion of U.S. intelligence capabilities.
By the end of 1946, Angleton had recruited over 50 informants and penetrated seven foreign intelligence services, including Tito’s OZNA, the French Service de Documentation Exterieure et de Contreespionage, and the Italian agencies. The professional skills of the man who would come to dominate American counterespionage for a generation—for good and ill—were honed in Italy.
Angleton’s network was as inexpensive as it was productive. He reported in late 1945 that he did not pay for anything that he received from the Italian Intelligence Service. By giving them some cigarettes or other cheap goods, he could gratify his Italian counterparts without humiliating them. As Angleton wrote in one of his general reports: “A few such items represent the equivalent of a month’s pay to an Italian Intelligence officer. In practice, $500 worth of operational supplies has the operational value of $50,000 worth or more. This method of payment is generally in use by other intelligence services.”
Angleton sought key informants not among conservative traditionalists but among anti-monarchist Italian political radicals or former fascists. The passionate debate over the future of the monarchy in Italy, which followed the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Fascist Republic in Northern Italy, affected the Italian Royal Navy, which Angleton himself described as “the stronghold of Monarchism.” Angered by the militant monarchism of his superiors, a young republican in the naval intelligence section took matters into his own hands and, from the summer of 1945, supplied Americans with Italian secrets, strengthening Angleton’s ability to monitor Italian efforts to rebuild an intelligence capability.
This was the time when the first director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, conceived Operation Stay Behind. The idea was to build throughout Western Europe a secret network of guerrillas who could fight behind the lines in the event of a Soviet invasion. The plan was later codified under the auspices of the Clandestine Coordinating Committee of the Supreme headquarters Allied Powers Europe, the military arm of NATO. This was the seed that grew into Operation Gladio in 1956. The name derived from the short sword (gladius] used by Roman legionnaires. The Gladio network was initially funded by the CIA. Apparently unknown to the Italian government, 622 Italian citizens were recruited and trained by U.S. and British specialists in Sardinia.
Up to 15,000 people were ultimately recruited to the Gladio network. Bv the 1970’s, with the prospect of a Soviet invasion receding, some of its members (especially its senior officers) seem to have turned rogue and actively fomented political destabilization plots, surreptitiously encouraging and even facilitating a series of terrorist attacks.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets had an invaluable pool of collaborators in Italy: a large, well-organized, and disciplined Communist Party. The extent of the KCB’s activities only became fully apparent in recent years, notably with the publication of the so-called Mitrokhin dossier on the KGB’s espionage activities. But while the report named names from Italian political, social, and media life, it merely lists Soviet activities in the Vatican—without giving us a clue whether recruitment attempts were successful. After the Polish pope was elected in 1979, the report states:
The central office has assigned the KGB in Rome the priority task of penetrating Vatican objectives, especially at the present moment, when the Western special services are constantly attempting to use the Catholic Church for anti-Soviet and anti-Socialist ends. A special section of the plan was dedicated to the study and cultivation of support staff in Vatican institutions with direct access to secret records. It was a difficult undertaking, given the atmosphere of distrust and suspicion that prevailed, as well as the hostility of the media and religions fanaticism of some individuals. . . It was not necessary to find a direct contact. It was necessary to find and acquire support agents who could cultivate Vatican personnel under false pretenses. This type of employee was poorly paid; the material factor did not play an insignificant part. Within this category, one could come across those who were closed from the point of view of ideology and who, because of the work itself, addressed negative aspects with Vatican chiefs, such as corruption, lack of honesty, immoral conduct, and individuals who were totally disillusioned with the ideals and ideas of Catiiolicism.
The KGB’s central office pointed out concrete strategic places within the Vatican establishment, singling out interpreters working in the Secretariat of State and in the Church’s Council of Public Affairs: “Such individuals could be contacted through ads in which, as members of a category that was poorly remunerated, they offered their own services as teachers, translators, etc.” Interestingly, the report does not indicate subsequent success in its attempts to infiltrate the Vatican. A list has been published, however, of Italian politicians, journalists, and other personalities who were paid by the KGB.
By far the most intriguing Roman cloak-and-dagger affair in modern times started unraveling in London in the early morning hours of Friday, June 18, 1982, when the body of a stocky, middle-aged man was found dangling from an orange rope underneath Blackfriars Bridge. A passport identified him as Gian Roberto Calvini, but the dead man was really Roberto Calvi, chairman and managing director of the Banco Ambrosiano. Calvi had mysteriously vanished from Rome a week earlier, and his spectacular end in London reignited media curiosity over a story that had already made headlines, reverberating through the world’s major financial and political institutions. Calvi was only one of a cast of characters that included organized-crime interests, political groups, secret societies, drug dealers, major financial institutions, and —perhaps most stunning of all—the Institute for Religious Works, the official bank of the Vatican.
The circumstances of Calvi’s death led knowledgeable observers to suspect a Masonic ritual slaving. With his hands tied behind his back and a brick thrust into his coat pocket, Calvi had been strangled, apparently by the rope that had been noosed around his neck. The location itself was symbolic: Blackfriars Bridge sits astride the border that connects the masonically named “Square Mile” of the City (the financial district of London) to the rest of London. The initial inquest into his death returned a verdict of suicide. Suspicious of the Masonic affiliations of the City police, Calvi’s family called for a second, more thorough inquest, which belatedly returned an open verdict. Meanwhile, Banco Ambrosiano, Calvi’s privately owned bank, collapsed on the news of his death, revealing a $1.3 billion deficit in the balance sheet. A large portion of the missing money was later traced to accounts owned by the Vatican bank.
Calvi was connected to the secret Masonic lodge P2, an organization headed by Licio Gelli, known as the “Puppet Master.” By 1974, P2 had more than 1,000 members, including four Italian cabinet ministers, three intelligence chiefs, 160 senior military officers, 48 MPs, the chief of staff of the Italian Army, and top diplomats, bankers, industrialists, and media publishers. But Gelli needed more funds to spread his network. He turned to Calvi, who headed the largest non-state-owed bank in Italy. Calvi began to siphon money illegally from his bank, using the Vatican bank to channel it. As a result of blackmail or ideological commitment, Calvi continued to funnel vast amounts to Gelli and P2, bankrupting his bank in the process.
The story gets even more interesting—and murky—from this point on, including possible ties to the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, Mafia links, and secret societies. Which version of events is true is anyone’s guess. Roman espionage has been around for over two millennia of recorded history, and by now the spies have learned how to cover their tracks more successfully than in the days of Fabius Maximus.