Electronic bedbugs put the bite back into Berlusconi

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The Independent Online
Silvio Berlusconi is back in the news, thanks to an outbreak of bedbugs. For the past few months the former Italian prime minister, now opposition leader, has done uncharacteristically little to attract attention, perhaps because he is going through two separate corruption trials. But this week the Italian media circus has been all his.

It all began with a remarkable revelation last weekend. The opposition's new headquarters in central Rome, Mr Berlusconi announced gravely to the press, had been invaded by una cimice - literally a bedbug, but in this context the slang for an electronic surveillance device. The bug, he said, had been discovered behind a radiator, and he believed that confidential meetings attended only by his closest political allies had been picked up and recorded for the last six weeks or so.

Almost instantly, Mr Berlusconi's allies began slinging wild accusations at the magistrates and at the government, saying that an Italian Watergate was under way. The government, meanwhile, voiced its strong disapproval, with the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, calling for an urgent investigation into this "uncivil incident unworthy of a decent country".

By yesterday, the government was promising to reform the security services, and the media was awash with speculation as to the possible culprit.

And yet something did not add up. The bug was an old-fashioned device not used by the security services for years. Checks showed that no magistrate had requested any surveillance, at least not officially. Moreover, Mr Berlusconi told the press before going to the police, obliterating possible fingerprint evidence by handling and waving the bug around.

One senior politician, the Northern League activist and former interior minister Roberto Maroni, accused Mr Berlusconi of a media stunt. Certainly, the tycoon turned politician has been playing the issue for all it is worth.

But Mr Maroni's is not a popular opinion, and most Italian politicians have reacted in the opposite fashion - by insisting that Mr Berlusconi's problem is actually contagious. One minister, Antonio Maccanico, said he was fairly sure he was being spied on. And Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, claims nine bugs have been found at his headquarters.

The issue taps into every Italian paranoia about the murky activities of the security services and the deeply held conviction dating from the Cold War, that the country is not run by elected politicians but rather by occult, invisible forces.

It is hard to imagine, however, who could benefit by listening in on Mr Berlusconi's political meetings since their contents are usually leaked to the press. Even Mr Berlusconi has admitted he does not himself suspect the security services or other organs of the state.

So who is spying on him? Perhaps the same organisation that has been putting bombs on trains and planes, blowing up historical buildings and staging attempts to assassinate the Pope for the past 25 years; perhaps nobody at all. Chances are, we will never know.

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