Vatican battles eavesdroppers

The security and privacy of papal elections has been of concern since cardinals were first locked up in conclave ("cum clave" is Latin for "with a key") in the 13th century, but the technical challenge of ensuring the confidentiality of their deliberations increased markedly during the 26 years of Pope John Paul II's reign.

The pace of technological progress was underscored this week when the association of Italian pasta makers announced that their countrymen now spend as much money on SMS (Short Message Service) as they do on the national staple. The Vatican Press Office signaled the first news of John Paul's death to international news agencies by SMS, and the civil protection department sent out 120 million SMS messages to Italian citizens, many warning them to stay away from St. Peter's Square on the day of the Pope's funeral.

It comes as little surprise then that the Vatican has had to update its electronic countermeasures to try and foil the efforts of international secret services to penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding the process that will lead to the election of John Paul's successor when 115 cardinals first assemble in conclave on Monday.

Within hours of the Pope's death, Vatican security officials and technical experts provided by the Italian secret services began sweeping the Santa Marta residence where the cardinal electors will be housed, and the Sistine Chapel, where they will meet and vote, for electronic bugs, the Italian weekly Panorama reported. They have been charged with creating an electronic barrier to keep out directional microphones and other laser-operated espionage devices, the magazine said.

John Paul laid down strict guidelines on the maintenance of secrecy during the conclave, with the cardinals and those who assist them while they are closeted in the Vatican all sworn to secrecy. His instructions "On the election of the Roman Pontiff" are explicit: "relying on the expertise of two trustworthy technicians," senior Vatican officials must "make every effort to preserve that secrecy by ensuring that no audio-visual equipment for recording or transmitting has been installed by anyone in the areas mentioned, and particularly in the Sistine Chapel itself."

The Pope also forbade the introduction or use "of technical instruments of any kind for the recording, reproducing or transmitting of sound, visual images or writing." Cardinals are not to use the telephone, listen to the radio or watch TV while the election is in progress.

The Vatican's ban on cell phones and palmtops may not be enough to ensure the complete confidentiality of their discussions, the Rome daily La Repubblica warned. "Laser microphones can capture conversations at a distance of 400 meters by recording the vibration of windows or other rigid surfaces," the paper pointed out. "And the Sistine Chapel, the seat of the conclave, has large glass windows close to the roof."

Technicians will remove and inspect carpets, open cushions, inspect air conditioning ducts and examine electric wires, lamps and taps for the presence of bugs, La Repubblica said. Italian officials have not been keen to discuss such measures. "I don't think we can say anything about activities of that sort," an interior ministry spokesman said when asked for an interview. "Even more so since it concerns another state."

La Repubblica reported four years ago that the Vatican had taken special measures to protect its communications from electronic eavesdropping by the U.S.-controlled Echelon system. The Vatican had discovered that its diplomatic activities were being spied on by the satellite-based espionage system between 1995 and 1998, it said. A solution was particularly urgent since John Paul himself was a keen Web navigator and e-mail user, it said.

U.S. intelligence has been fascinated by the information held by the Vatican since as long ago as World War II. A joint U.S.-British effort did succeed in cracking a low-grade Vatican communications code, but was unsuccessful against its higher grade ciphers, according to author David Alvarez. The crypto-analysts tackling the Vatican codes were highly impressed by the intelligence of their adversary, he said.

In his book "Secret Messages: Codebreaking and American Diplomacy 1930-1945" Alvarez describes the satisfaction of the Office of Special Services (OSS) -- precursor of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency -- at recruiting a Vatican source with access to sensitive files from the Secretariat of State. The documents, alas, were forgeries.

"In its eagerness to penetrate the secrets of the Vatican, OSS had fallen victim to the fertile imagination and skillful pen of Virgilio Scattolini, journalist, film critic, pornographer, and the most brazen intelligence fabricator of the Second World War," Alvarez wrote. On that occasion U.S. intelligence had managed to decipher diplomatic traffic which would have given the lie to Scattolini's material, but the two departments involved did not talk to one another, Alvarez found.

Catholics believe that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit, rather than mere cardinals, who chooses the successor of St. Peter, good preparation perhaps for dealing with disembodied entities that can pass through walls.

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