Spygate watch: The ‘purge’ of Italian intel, and Obama’s odd meet-and-greet

Spygate watch: The ‘purge’ of Italian intel, and Obama’s odd meet-and-greet
We regret to put before you the new headquarters of the combined Italian intelligence services on the Piazza Dante in Rome. At least the Altare della Patria of the Vittorio Emanuele II era (which frankly looks like a giant Underwood typewriter) has some company now in the gaudy and infelicitously proportioned department. Image courtesy Govt of Italy

Last week, George Papadopoulos and his Italian wife, Simona Mangiante, alerted social media users to reporting in Italian press that the Giuseppe Conte government had abruptly asked for resignations from four top national intelligence officials.  (Their tweets refer to six, but the Italian reporting indicates that two of the references are to pre-existing vacancies.  With the four requested resignations, the number of vacant positions at the top would grow from two to six.)

Trending: A round-up of analyses of Day 1 of the ‘Take Down Trump’ Project

The pivotal significance is the connection of the individuals in question with Link Campus University in Rome: one-time haunt of Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese professor who apparently tried to set Papadopoulos up as a conduit for purported “Hillary dirt” to the Trump campaign.

George Papadopoulos reads this big move by the Italian government as preparation for “giving up Brennan.”  We’ll have to wait and see how much of a connection it has to John Brennan, the former CIA director.  But the connection to Link Campus is certainly there.

The window afforded in this case into the Link Campus connection is a little deceptive.  The very high-level individuals involved aren’t the best exemplars of Link Campus’s (or LCU’s) pivotal role in either Italian politics or the saga of Spygate in the U.S.  But the connections are there.

General Carmine Masiello, an army officer of some renown, and Roberto Baldoni, a top cyber-security specialist, are vice directors of the cabinet-level Dipartimento delle Informazioni per la Sicurezza (DIS), or Department of Security Intelligence.  As recounted at Il Giornale, they are two of the top officials whose resignations have been requested.  Both have been lecturers and/or conference speakers at Link Campus.

One of many appearances by Roberto Baldoni at Link Campus events

The other two officials are Valerio Blengini, vice director of the Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Esterna (AISE; Foreign Intelligence and Security Agency), and Giuseppe Caputo, vice director of the Agenzia Informazioni e Sicurezza Interna (AISI; Domestic Intelligence and Security Agency).  Career intelligence officials, they have also been in LCU’s orbit but to a lesser extent, at least in terms of appearing at conferences, course work, or in official announcements.

The unique role of Link Campus

The ties of these senior personnel require context, however.  And the landscape is littered with context.  The particular officials named in this “purge” are some of the personnel least (overtly) embedded with Link Campus.  What the Italian media tell us about others who are more embedded is far more illuminating.

The courtyard entry to Link Campus University’s main building at the Casale San Pio V in Rome. Link Campus video

We must start with the Italian media’s chatty references to political characterizations of Link Campus in Italy: as a sort of policy incubating center for the “Five Star Movement” – which functions as a political party, although it doesn’t like to call itself one – and as the nexus of a “Third Republic.”  This is worthwhile, so stay with me.

The latter reference – “Third Republic” – is a specific allusion to recent Italian history, immediately recognizable to those who followed the national politics in the 1990s, and who refer to the reforms that swept Silvio Berlusconi into office in 1994 as the inauguration of the “Second Republic.”  (I happened to be stationed in Italy with the U.S. Navy at the time, and remember the drama well.)

The First Republic was the government cobbled together in 1946 out of the aftermath of the Mussolini years.  Italy has been in the Second Republic since 1994; the reference to a “Third Republic” evokes a sense that the current agitation for reforms and change of direction is like the prelude to the Second Republic.  In some ways, it’s not unlike the allusion of current France-watchers to the potential for a Sixième République, or “Sixth Republic,” to be emerging on the horizon.

In other words, all of the restiveness of Europe and its roiling socio-political divisions is in that reference to Link Campus being connected to the Five-Star Movement and its aspirations for the future of Italy.

The Five-Star Movement was founded by entertainment personality Beppe Grillo in 2009.  The chief political representative now is Luigi Di Maio, serving in the Italian parliament as party head and a senior minister in the current government (deputy prime minister and the minister of economic development, labor, and social policies).  The Five-Star Movement, the Italian Democratic Party (the DP; legacy social democrats), and the Lega Nord, or Northern League, are the principal parties in the current governing coalition.

The Five-Star Movement isn’t linked to the surging “populists” in this scenario.  The agenda of Di Maio and the movement he is now the front-man for started as a grab-bag of oddities – and tellingly, although the movement is anti-euro (currency zone), none of those oddities is traditional national sovereignty for Italy, as Trump supporters would define it.  A reasonably accurate listing of them can be found in the well-sourced Wikipedia entry:

The “five stars” are a reference to five key issues for the party: public watersustainable transportsustainable developmentright to Internet access, and environmentalism. The party also advocates e-democracydirect democracy, the principle of “zero-cost politics,” degrowth and nonviolence.

You get the picture.  The implication of popular analysis about Link Campus and the M5S (Five-Star Movement) is that LCU is something of a codifying think-tank for the movement: a stable of policy wonks who have given the M5S some structural backing and made it more suited for practical government.  Luigi Di Maio, 31, is regarded as central to that symbiotic development.

Here is La Repubblica from 2018 on Di Maio and his link to LCU (the explanatory link on Vaffa Day is added, as are the rest of the links in the other quoted passages below.  My translation makes a little free with the punctuation, and includes some clarifying words in brackets, not found in the original text. The text is breezily colloquial and somewhat elided, characteristic of Italian popular journalism, and requires a little help to make sensible English. Comments as opposed to clarifying interpolations are in italics):

“Oh, you’re the ‘Grilline’* university?” is the question one hears asked if one goes to do orientations in the high schools.  An emblem, Link [Campus], of the moderate and lobbyist-oriented direction stamped by Luigi Di Maio’s leadership.  That of an M5S with fewer strange ideas, and closer relations with so many people who count, in the light as well as the shadows [in other words, the bureaucratic and power-brokering background as well as the political foreground].  A movement to which the new leader has given a more pro-American, Israeli and pro-European profile –  a “turning point,” [as] Di Maio [himself] pronounced it right in Link’s Lecture Hall, in front of those very diplomatic missions, and with those of the United States and Israel in [newly] distinct elevation.  A development that has facilitated the inclusion of people like [Link professor Elisabetta] Trenta [see below]: “I always liked politics, and also [worked in] it. But with my background, I couldn’t have stayed [around] in a ‘no-NATO’ and ‘no-euro’ movement [like M5S],” she explains; [she] who’s been fighting actively since 2013, but in truth knows M5S from the very beginning through her younger brother Paolo, a leader in the city council in Velletri, and an activist since the first “Vaffa Day.”

An M5S, Di Maio’s M5S, which nevertheless [now] has ties to all sides as befits a power that wants to stick around – that’s determined not to go away.  Like the DC [i.e., the Christian Democrats]? A bit like the DC, let’s say.  The comparison is good; it was made by [Link Campus Founder] Vincenzo Scotti himself, who sighed two years ago between longing and nostalgia: “They’re the only ones left to do politics.” [He refers to the Christian Democrats here.] And as regards the Link Campus headquarters, Casale San Pio V, the Christian Democrat spirit is strongly present: the summer residence of seven popes, leased to Link for sixty years with a fee varying between €800,000 and €1,200,000 (restoration work and extraordinary maintenance excluded but mandatory), it’s a place that would drip from the paintbrush in a film by Paolo Sorrentino.

Deputy PM Luigi DiMaio at Link Campus for a chat in June 2018 with LCU founder Vincenzo Scotti (L) and Vatican-watcher Pietro Schiavazzi (R), now known as the “tutelary deity” explaining Di Maio to a waiting world. YouTube, LCU video

The article at La Repubblica, as suggested above, sees LCU as something of a bracing, homogenizing influence on M5S.  But the movement itself doesn’t get short shrift as an actor in its own right:

But … in the case of the M5S [and Link Campus], it is not at all clear who contaminates who, and who governs what side: a point that would be central in the unfolding of what [Ms.] Trenta considers a “political experiment.” Premeditation and spontaneity intertwine.  For example, Di Maio himself didn’t foresee, when he went to Link Campus in February [2018], that he would choose two of his ministers from there.

Trenta herself tells of having met him just that day. The M5S leader didn’t know he had three Movement candidates among the professors. “We met for ten minutes, I told him I could help, but I meant advice, explanations.” Instead, after a few more contacts, a proposition was made: “One of his collaborators phoned to ask me if I was available [to join the government if Di Maio would be filling cabinet posts]. I thought it was a joke.”

This, in effect, is what happens at Link [Campus]: interpenetration. It’s the physical place where the 5-Star Movement becomes establishment, power, influence; and a certain establishment [i.e., Link Campus] becomes “Five-Star.” “The First and Third Republics meet [at Link Campus],” says Vatican expert Pietro Schiavazzi, the tutelary deity of the Church of Di Maio’s initial line of approach – and, moreover, not a lecturer at Link University. [In other words, Schiavazzi speaks with imputed independence here. The “Republics” quotation is a bit slurpy, conveying in part a sense that the M5S is the vanguard of a defining period in Italian politics with the staying power of the First Republic.  In the socio-political conditions of 2019, that vote of confidence for M5S betrays the political bias of the Repubblica writer more than anything else.]

A protean talent of power [that meeting of history; that interpenetration]. Here, indeed, one can encounter whole pieces of history. Former Minister Franco Frattini, Christian Democrat Ortensio Zecchino, Cossighiano Paolo Naccarato [a Christian Democrat but affiliated with the scrappily independent Francesco Cossiga, famous for refusing to negotiate with the Red Brigades during the Aldo Moro kidnapping], former Undersecretary Antonio Catricalà – [these luminaries] instruct you, but also the man who encapsulated his life in a [famous] referendum: Mario Segni. That’s enough? It is not enough. Sometimes we encounter Zingaretti: not Nicola, governor of Lazio, but Luca, commissioner Montalbano, enlisted in the DAMS [famous arts program of the University of Bologna] led by Alessandro Preziosi [see information on LCU’s Performing Arts Department here].

Another Repubblica article from 2018 lists more former government officials connected closely to Link: Umberto Saccone, formerly of SISMI (the old Italian national intelligence agency); Alfredo Mantici, a senior defense official in the 2000s; Giampiero Massolo, career diplomat and the chief of DIS until 2016.  LCU’s founder, 86-year-old Vincenzo Scotti, was a Christian Democrat who served as minister of the interior and foreign affairs in the early 1990s. (That connection is the other facet of the “place where the ‘First and Third Republics meet’” reference, above.  Scotti’s political career started with the early years of the First Republic.)

When the Link Campus door swung the other way, the two key officials Luigi Di Maio originally intended to poach from the LCU faculty in early 2018 were Elisabetta Trenta and Paola Giannetakis.  Trenta is currently the minister of defense in the Conte government, a post M5S is filling in the governing coalition.  Giannetakis was intended for the post of minister of the interior, but that cabinet post didn’t end up going to M5S.

(Tweet above: Elisabetta Trenta with Professor Marco Mayer at Link Campus.)

It should be clear at this point that Link Campus University doesn’t just have a lot of former government officials on its staff.  LCU is thought to have a kind of symbiosis with the Five-Star Movement, giving it a rising significance in Italian politics and national power. More on that and its import for the LCU role in Spygate in a moment.

The “not-LCU” politician

Mention of the ministry of the interior brings us to the other pole of the “Third Republic’s” evolving drama: the Lega Nord, or Northern League, and its federal secretary, Matteo Salvini.  The Northern League was founded in 1991.  It was present at the creation of the Second Republic.  But its fortunes have been transformed under its current leadership, making it – like M5S – a major actor in flux in an embryonic Third Republic.

Salvini – like Di Maio a deputy prime minister – is much more familiar to Americans than either Giuseppe Conte or Luigi Di Maio.  His is the “surging-populists” connection in the mix. He’s the popular politician who, like Di Maio, is neither a centrist nor an establishment guy.  And he is definitely not an LCU affiliate.

In fact, Salvini is believed to be behind the Conte government’s request for the rash of LCU-linked intelligence resignations (see Il Foglio link at the top).  Most of the officials were appointed near the end of the previous Gentiloni government, in late 2017, and Salvini has been said to be unhappy with their continued tenure since the Conte government of which he is a part was installed in 2018 (see especially here).

Deputy PM Matteo Salvini, most definitely NOT at Link Campus, at a rally in Milan on 18 May 2019. YouTube, Matteo Salvini

In crude shorthand, Salvini is depicted, not inaccurately, as the Italian Donald Trump, a big favorite with the nationalist middle class that prefers to exercise sovereign prerogatives in key policy areas rather than being ruled by edicts from Brussels.

If Trump is Salvini’s foreign analogue, Di Maio’s as the current face of the Five-Star Movement may be the strange phenomenon of Emanuel Macron and his “France ‘En Marche!’” which came galloping out of left field to snatch votes from the old centrists in the 2017 election and defeat Marine Le Pen.  Like Macron, Di Maio is unusually young (31), and is the face of a movement that still has an air of philosophical mystery about it, needing to be shored up by a stable of associates and advisers from a place like Link Campus where policy substance is (at least putatively) churned out.

Because the old center in Italian politics has lost too much ground to form a government, Giuseppe Conte, essentially a non-politician (indeed, a longtime professor at another university in Rome, LUISS), is presiding over a government formed by Di Maio and Salvini, in conjunction with the wheezing old social democrats.  The significant agenda differences between them aren’t necessarily paralyzing government activities, but they are being worked out in bureaucratic maneuvers like the intelligence leadership “purge.”

On the face of it, these factors would seem to suggest that the “purge” isn’t much about Brennan or Spygate.  The evidence looks strong that it’s about Italian politics and government.  (It may not be unrelated that the Conte government presided on 6 May 2019 over the opening of a new, consolidated headquarters building for the combined Italian intelligence services.)

The people connections that may fit a bigger picture

But I recommend keeping an open mental channel on this.  The “purge” could be about both.

In his excellent backgrounder on Joseph Mifsud, Lee Smith demonstrated strong evidence for Link Campus’s connections with Western intelligence – especially British intelligence – and the likelihood that that, and not a Russian connection, had explanatory value for Spygate.

If a thread of the effort to affect the American presidential race was running through Link Campus and its intelligence connections to Whitehall, it would be bad intel tradecraft to ignore the larger meaning that may have for LCU’s connections to Italian intelligence.

The obvious implication would be that it’s all connected.

I don’t think Italian intelligence had independent agency behind the Mifsud-centered effort to set up the Trump campaign.  That’s not the point.

Rather, we need to consider this possibility: that the size of the stakes, in the game LCU seems to have been part of, encompasses both the future of Italy, hanging in the balance in a time of continent-wide political rifts, and the future of the United States, prompting whatever maneuvers the Spygate honchos wanted to pull off against Trump.

That, at least, is a rational way to approach this.  In both places, Italy and the U.S. – indeed, throughout the West – the dynamics involve a surge of popular dissent; a political left blinking in the headlights and struggling to define itself; and an array of technocrats, think-tankers, appointed officials, and permanent-staters hovering in the background.  Connections among those background personalities ought to interest us – a lot.

There’s no slam-dunk case here at the moment, but writing off possibilities because we just don’t like them would be failing to pursue the truth.

As I have mentioned before, the connections among people are how you make cases.  They tell you where to look, and suggest what to look for.

And in this situation, Link Campus’s parent company housed Joseph Mifsud – with his myriad people connections – in Rome for months after he “disappeared” from public view, while Link Campus affiliates were running Italian intelligence, and graduates of Italian intelligence and other government careers were manning the podiums at Link Campus (meaning the Italian government knew perfectly well where Mifsud was).

The U.S. State Department, Justice Department, and FBI probably knew where Mifsud was too.  They were quite unsurprised by him when he attended a conference in the U.S. in February 2017, although at that point, since they had had Stefan Halper in contact with Papadopoulos since September 2016, supposedly had Alexander Downer’s story in late July 2016, and had already done an initial interview with Papadopoulos in January 2017, they would have been at general quarters over Mifsud’s stateside appearance if he were actually a Russian agent.

But it’s pretty certain now he’s not one.  And LCU looks more like a plug-in for shadow-dealing in the affairs of both the U.S. and Italy than like a bystander with an unusually coincidental list of faculty and distinguished lecturers.

There’s one more distinguished LCU speaker to list.  His name is Giampiero Massolo, and he, like the other LCU affiliates mentioned here – featured lecturers and dignitaries-about-campus – had a connection to Italian intelligence, although his background was principally in foreign service.  (He carries the title Ambassador.)

Massolo served as the general director (chief) of the DIS – the cabinet-level intelligence department, counterpart to the U.S. ODNI – from 2012 to May 2016.  He became chairman of one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world, Fincantieri S.p.A., on leaving government service, and president of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies in Milan, or ISPI, in January 2017.

(Massolo is the featured speaker, center, in the tweet photo above, appearing with Professor Marco Mayer (L) and Vincenzo Scotti at Link Campus.)

Encounter in Milan

Through Fincantieri, Massolo has some fascinating connections.  For example, Fincantieri bought the U.S. shipbuilding consortium Manitowoc Group in 2009, and is participating in the construction of the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) in Marinette, Wisconsin.  Startlingly, perhaps, Fincantieri is also partnered with the Russians to build a small naval submarine for export based on the Russians’ original Lada-class submarine design, with air-independent propulsion.  So far, the one buyer for this submarine is China.

Fincantieri is also partnered with Russia in a START Treaty-era project to decommission nuclear-powered submarines.  Fincantieri’s role has been to build the unique vessel designed to transport radioactive waste from the dismantled subs by sea.

Fincantieri was also one of the first companies to sign commercial agreements with Iran after the lifting of sanctions in January 2016.  The official date for that was 17 January.  By 27 January 2016, Fincantieri had agreements signed with subsidiaries of Iran’s Industrial Development and Renovation Organization (IDRO) – for years on the U.S. Treasury sanctions list due to its links to IRGC procurement and the Iranian nuclear program – for shipbuilding, ship repair, and offshore development, as well as a contract to sell marine engines to another previously sanctioned Iranian entity.

For good measure, while he was still a senior government official, Massolo attended a 2009 conference on the topic of the latest G-8 summit sponsored by the Italian ministry of foreign affairs and co-sponsored by Link Campus, among others.  Fellow attendees at this gathering included Joseph Mifsud, Vincenzo Scotti, and Strobe Talbott, whom alert readers will remember as a longtime associate of the Clintons, among other potentially relevant distinctions.

These facts prepare us for the final data point, which comes to us from the “things you can’t make up” department.

Former President Barack Obama made his first post-presidency speech abroad in Milan in May 2017, at the Seeds & Chips Global Food Innovation Summit.  His scheduled appearance at the summit was first announced on 3 April 2017.

The conference was held 8-11 May 2017, and Obama spoke on 9 May, giving a speech and doing a Q&A follow-up with his former White House chef, Sam Kass. (As an aside, our friends at Conservative Treehouse were gobsmacked by some of the points Obama made about how society must be arbitrarily rearranged to accommodate “climate change.”)

But that’s not all Obama did while he was in Milan.  He also visited the ISPI and did a meet-and-greet with Giampiero Massolo and the ISPI staff.  The ISPI reportedly sponsored a dinner for Obama and some local dignitaries, which was closed to the media.

If you know the city at all, you know that, distinguished though the ISPI may be, there are a lot of other things for VIPs of extraordinary background to do in Milan.  It can’t fail to be … arresting, that a visit to ISPI and Giampiero Massolo was the activity selected for Obama.

That’s the company Massolo, Link Campus, and Obama run in.  For that matter, it’s the company the Clintons have run in since Bill Clinton left the Oval Office in January 2001: the interlinked haunts of self-consciously transnational “civil society.”  It’s also the circuit plied by Stefan Halper and Joseph Mifsud, along with a number of other bit players in this drama.

The light shed on Link Campus’s role with the Italian government suggests that sometimes the think-tankers and academic hosts are mainly setting up place cards and putting out water bottles – but sometimes the benign generic-ness of that role is a convenient screen for other things. That point, at least, had already occurred to those mulling LCU’s involvement with representatives of British intelligence.

Back in the States, during the Food Innovation Summit, the melodrama of James Comey and the leaked memorandum of his interview with Trump came to a head.  Comey resigned on 9 May 2017, setting up the sequence of events in which a special counsel was chartered and Robert Mueller was selected for it.  Let us file this timing away as an uninteresting coincidence, and move on.

 

* “Grilline” (plural Grillini) is an adjective created from Beppe Grillo’s name, analogous to Americans calling something “Clintonite” or “Reaganite.”  “Grillismo” is, similarly, a noun referring to policies, attitudes, etc. that define the Five-Star Movement politically.  The equivalent in American English might be most usefully – if inelegantly – translated as “Grillo-ism.”  Neither the adjective nor the noun is capitalized in Italian, although we would capitalize them in English.  I have gone with our English convention on that for the translation.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.