The U.S. National Security Agency has denied it targeted the Vatican by tapping the phones of the Pope and senior Vatican officials, saying the allegations, published in the Italian magazine Panorama, were “not true.”
But notwithstanding the NSA’s statement, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that the Vatican has been a target of intercepts or espionage.
The Vatican has long been considered an ideal “listening post,” drawing on a vast network of priests, missionaries, religious, diplomats and laity.
As recently as 2010, Benedict XVI’s calls were intercepted by the Italian police who admitted to tapping his telephone as part of their investigation into Guido Bertolaso, Italy’s civil protection chief, then accused of corruption.
Benedict XVI was not accused of any wrongdoing; he had simply made four telephone calls to Bertolaso who had led rescue efforts after a devastating earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009.
Vatican officials were said at the time to be furious about the intercepts.
More recently, the Vatican itself carried out its own telephone surveillance. During the 2012 investigation into the leaking of confidential documents from the papal household, the Vatican admitted to authorising “some intercepts and checks” that involved the wiretapping of "two or three" telephone lines.
But none of these incidents comes close to the extent of phone tapping and spying on the Vatican that went on in the 20th century.
During the Cold War, numerous operatives were able to infiltrate the Vatican and send back valuable information to Moscow.
In his book, “Spies in the Vatican – The Soviet Union’s War Against the Catholic Church,” author John Koehler reveals how, for years, Soviet leaders enjoyed regular access to the inner deliberations of Vatican leaders, thanks to the work of several spy networks. He shows how Communist intelligence chiefs exploited the Vatican's role as a forum for policy discussions, reporting back sensitive diplomatic strategies laid bare at the Holy See by American and European leaders.
Koehler says the KGB relied heavily upon “bugs” planted in key Vatican offices, and recounts one particularly odious incident when a housekeeper couple presented a ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary to Cardinal Agostino Casaroli.
“Inside the revered religious icon was a ‘bug,’ a tiny but powerful transmitter which was monitored from outside the building by the couples’ handler from the Soviet embassy in Rome,” Koehler writes. Another transmitter was hidden in an armoire in the cardinal’s dining room.
Koehler says that much of the spying on the Vatican during the Cold War was carried out by agents from the East German security service, the Stasi, and Bulgarian and Polish secret services. Their information was quickly shared with the KGB.
How much involved bugs, spies within the Vatican, or phone tapping is not clear, but in 1970 the KGB had full access to a meeting between Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and the then Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Jean Villot, in 1970. The two discussed President Nixon's intentions regarding Southeast Asia, Middle East tensions and SALT negotiations. Koehler says that Leonid Brezhnev would later receive a word-for-word account of the meeting.
During the Second World War, the Vatican was viewed by the allied powers to be “un covo di spie” – a nest of spies – partly because of the large number of Italian-born officials thought to have sympathies with Mussolini’s fascist regime, but also because of foreign diplomats who had sought refuge in the Vatican.
The extent of the spying is explained in some detail in Owen Chadwick’s “Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War” – an account that includes details of Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, and his time spent living inside the Vatican during the German occupation of Rome.
“No one, whether papal or diplomatic, could do anything without the Italian government knowing,” Chadwick writes, adding that what worried the Curia most was that spies would fabricate stories to prove the Vatican was an enemy of Italy and so force the expulsion of foreign diplomats such as Osborne.
He says that the Vatican police largely worked for the Fascists, and that Italians tapped Vatican phones and opened letters and telegrams destined for the Holy See (the Vatican, he adds, also tapped telephones in an attempt at counter-espionage).
The Vatican vigorously protested the interceptions at least five times, Chadwick says, mainly taking issue with tampered mail. The protests were always supported by Italy’s ambassador to the Holy See. But he says Italy’s Ministry of the Interior “was determined not to give way.” Their view, said to themselves but not to the Vatican, was that in a state of war and with the nation in crisis, the clauses of the Lateran Treaty must give way.
“Occasionally to satisfy the Vatican, they would dismiss an employee whose censoring methods were too patent or too clumsy,” Chadwick says. “But they had no intention of ceasing to check on Vatican mail, at least by spot checks. And they were quite successful. Files of ambassadors’ letters can still be found in the archives of the Italian government.”
Chadwick also reveals that the Gestapo had an agent inside the Secretariat of State as early as 1939-40. “The Pope was aware of his existence,” he writes, adding that senior Curial officials also knew of his assigned tasks (primarily to monitor the behaviour of the German bishops and their correspondence) and so he was “largely ineffective.”
The agent was “almost certainly” Alexander Kurtna, Chadwick says, an Estonian seminarian who, because he was found to have had no vocation, remained a layman and did translation work for various Vatican offices. He was found out when Italian intelligence arrested him in 1942 on suspicion of spying for the Russians, and later found “he was also, or instead, a spy for the Gestapo.”
But a more prominent spy was Virgilio Scattolini. Dismissed as a journalist with L’Osservatore Romano in 1939, he started selling information to the Germans in 1941. The material, Chadwick writes, “was sometimes quite lurid, and sometimes had a slim foundation in Vatican gossip.”
Other infiltrators were sought out on the orders of the head of the German Sicherheitsdienst, Reinhard Heydrich. One of the chief architects of the Holocaust, Heydrich wanted to place trustworthy informers into the Vatican system and among German theological students studying in Rome.
Spying was also a feature of World War I. A serious breach occurred when a Bavarian Monsignor, Rudolph Gerlach, “chamberlain and confident” to Pope Benedict XV – probably the closest equivalent to Archbishop Georg Gaenswein today – was discovered to be a spy for the Germans. But Benedict XV was merciful to his long-serving aid, and personally arranged his safe passage to Switzerland in 1917. His fate after his return, however, is unknown.
No doubt a counter-espionage force would have been helpful during both world wars. The Vatican once had one, but it ceased operating decades before. In his book “Spies In The Vatican: Espionage & Intrigue From Napoleon to the Holocaust,” David Alvarez explains that efforts to subvert the Vatican’s secular power in the 19thcentury were so prevalent that an unofficial Vatican security service was formed. It was cutback after 1870 when the papacy was forced to give up its territories, and the Vatican relied instead on clergy to solve problems of confidential communications and information gathering.
The Vatican aside, spying on popes is nothing new, also in recent times. Blessed John Paul II was continually monitored by the Communists, both before and after his election. Before he was elected, Benedict XVI was also the focus of surveillance by the East German St asi, details of which we documented here.
The Vatican is, therefore, no stranger to espionage. Were the allegations of NSA phone tapping true, the U.S. would have joined a list of rogue nations who have been historically hostile to the Catholic Church, something the Obama administration would no doubt have wished to avoid.