361. Telegram 373 From the Embassy in Italy to the Department of State1
373. For Assistant Secretary Hartman Only. Subject: Press Stories on CIA Activities in Italy.
1. As you know, I have previously expressed my real concern about leaks from the Pike Committee on alleged CIA activities in Italy during the 1972 elections. The latest stories about current activities are perhaps even more damaging. The decibel level in yesterday’s press here was very high; every newspaper gave the story prominent treatment with glaring headlines. The result was denials from the non-Communist parties (but, as always, the denials never catch up with the initial story) and three high level approaches to the Embassy expressing worry about the damage such stories are doing to the US and to our friends in Italy.
2. La Malfa, Vice-PM and President of the Republican Party, asked me to call on him on an urgent basis. When I saw him, the first thing he raised and the obvious purpose of the meeting was the allegation in the press that the PRI and other non-Communist parties had received CIA funds in 1972 as well as currently. He said that such stories would be very damaging at any time, but that, coming at the time of a political crisis and possible elections, they are doubly so. The damage, he said, is not only to the Italian parties and politicians who stand accused, but also to the US. The credibility of both is gravely hurt and the ability of the US to exert a positive and helpful influence on the Italian political scene will be seriously curtailed. The only beneficiary is the Communist Party, which he said undoubtedly receives help from the USSR but that help has and will remain unpublicized. The Soviet Union, and the PCI, according to La Malfa (and I agree with him), could not have worked up a propaganda campaign that would be even fractionally as helpful to them as the one we are giving them for nothing. I told La Malfa that we share his concern, and referred to the President’s [Typeset Page 1110] January 7 statement on the subject. I also tried to explain to him our policy of not commenting on such press allegations. While he seemed to understand the rationale for the policy, it obviously does not satisfy his immediate worries. He did not, however, present me with a formal demand for a USG denial.
3. Earlier in the same day, I met with Senator Giovanni Marcora (DC), Minister of Agriculture. Marcora expressed essentially the same concerns as La Malfa. At great length he explained his worry about Communist advances in Italy, and his full agreement with the position taken by Secretary Kissinger. Marcora is convinced that there is a very real danger that the Communists may come to power in Italy through the ballot box and that, if they do, it will have a profound negative effect on the entire Western world. He sees the CIA stories as seriously limiting the USG’s ability to contain Communism at a time when the balance in Europe seems to be changing in favor of the Communist bloc. With regard to Italy in particular, he made the same point as La Malfa: it would be hard to imagine a single initiative that would be more helpful to the PCI.
4. The political counselor, who was present at my meetings with La Malfa and Marcora, also saw Nino Valentino, President Leone’s principal adviser on domestic politics, on the same day. Valentino opened the conversation by referring to the CIA stories and stating that they were causing worry and anxiety throughout the non-Communist Italian political scene. Whether they may ultimately be proved to be true or not, he said, the fact that these allegations come out as leaks from USG sources (presumably the Congress) is sufficient to give them a respectability which in turn destroys the credibility of the alleged recipients as well as the discretion and trustworthiness of the USG. The stories constitute an enormous boon for the PCI and a disaster for the non-Communist parties. Valentino concluded by observing that there is probably little or nothing that can be done to undo this damage, but he expressed the strong hope that there will be no further leaks. The political counselor responded along the same lines as the Ambassador to La Malfa.
5. I have repeated yesterday’s conversations on this subject at some length as examples of the current concerns at high levels of the Italian political world. However, they are not unique. Ever since the Hersh story first appeared in the New York Times, the Embassy staff has received similar comments from a wide variety and large number of Italian contacts.
6. I am convinced that our interlocutors are basically right. These stories do hurt our friends, limit our effectiveness and help the PCI. Colby’s TV interview yesterday was helpful but obviously won’t solve the problem. Even a complete denial, if it were possible, wouldn’t undo [Typeset Page 1111] all the damage that has been done. Complicating this already serious situation was the presence in Rome and concomitant press conference on January 7 of former CIA staff officer, Philip Agee, who before a group of some forty or fifty local journalists identified the former and present station chiefs, and assured his audience that he would “intensify” his efforts to identify and expose CIA personnel in Italy, Spain and France. Agee went on to say that he had already collected the names of some forty to forty-five CIA personnel in Italy. His threat was followed [6 lines not declassified] I am concerned that the atmosphere created by the Seymour Hersh story will seriously impair our effectiveness [1 line not declassified] may well have a chilling effect on our expanded contacts envisioned in the Democratic Alternative paper. It is, therefore, of great importance that every effort be made to avoid any further leaks and, in particular, to avoid those that would provide the press with details (names, occasions, purposes, etc.) whether accurate or not. I very much hope that you and the Secretary will urge the President in the strongest terms to exercise his right to declare any reports that have been furnished to Congress on past CIA activities in Italy [1½ lines not declassified] as privileged and sensitive information under executive restraint.
Summary: Volpe discussed the effects of recent press stories on CIA activities in Italy.
Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Office of the Counselor, Helmut C. Sonnenfeldt, 1955–1977, Entry 5339, Box 7, Southern Europe 1976. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. In backchannel message 56 from Rome, December 22, Volpe shared with Ford and Kissinger his concern that publication of CIA activities during the 1970 and 1972 Italian elections “would have the most serious implications for” U.S. interests in Italy. (Ibid., Southern Europe 1975) In the January 7 edition of the New York Times, Seymour Hersh wrote that the CIA had provided at least $6 million “to individual anti-Communist political leaders in Italy since Dec. 8 in an effort to prevent further Communist Party gains in national elections.” (“C.I.A. Is Reported To Give Anti-Reds in Italy $6 Million,” New York Times, Jan. 7, p. 77)↩