Bugging scandal fuels attack on Spanish Socialists: The Barcelona affair has raised fears of telephone terrorism, writes Phil Davison in Madrid

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The Independent Online
A PHONE-TAPPING scandal in Spain with a plot so convoluted that even Le Carre might balk at it has led to media and opposition allegations of government involvement. The characters include a newspaper-owning Spanish count, former intelligence agents codenamed Romeo and The Wolf, and the count's bodyguard and chauffeur.

The plot involves illegal wiretapping that allegedly provided fuel for an extortion racket. Several former military intelligence agents, the bodyguard and the chauffeur are in detention pending charges. And the opposition People's Party (PP) has pointed to Narcis Serra, righthand- man to the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, as having overall responsibility for the affair.

Those detained are being investigated for allegedly bugging the telephones of Count Javier de Godo, owner and editor of La Vanguardia, a Barcelona daily of national importance. The first twist came when the Count revealed that he had hired the men accused of tapping his phone as security agents after death threats from the Basque separatist group, Eta. He said he knew nothing about wiretapping or extortion.

After the detainees said they had recorded his and other people's telephone phone calls on the Count's orders, the Count was called in by the investigating judge in Barcelona for questioning. He was allowed to remain 'free without bail' but was ordered to check in once a week during the investigation.

Last week, in an unprecedented move, the judge summoned General Emilio Alonso Manglano, the head of the military intelligence service, Cesid, apparently to reveal what he knew or did not know about the affair. The media have accused Mr Serra and Cesid, which he reformed while defence minister from 1982 to 1991, of knowing that an illegal wiretapping ring was operating in Barcelona and even of having access to information garnered by it. Mr Serra, Cesid and the government deny this. There has been no suggestion that the authorities were aware of any extortion racket that might have emanated from the alleged wiretapping.

The media and opposition accusations come at a bad time for Mr Gonzalez, who has promised 'open government', leads a divided Socialist Party in a minority government and faces a general strike next month.

The Barcelona case has also created an unprecedented 'bugging psychosis' in a country where financiers, businessmen, politicians and journalists are now even more reluctant to discuss anything of import over the phone. Many Spaniards fear the Barcelona affair may only be the tip of a nationwide iceberg of what the press here has dubbed 'telephone terrorism'.

The Barcelona case broke on 15 November, when police detained seven men, including Colonel Fernando Rodriguez Gonzalez, alias Romeo, who was, until July, the head of a Cesid branch; four other ex-Cesid agents; the Count of Godo's chief bodyguard and his chauffeur. One of the other ex- Cesid agents was Miguel Ruiz, nicknamed El Lobo (The Wolf).

Col Rodriguez and several others were detained in La Vanguardia's offices, where police said they found a large number of tape-recorded conversations they suspected came from illegal wiretaps. Other such tapes were found in offices run by The Wolf and the other ex-agents, the police said.

Spain's biggest daily, El Pais, citing judicial sources, said police had confiscated more than 100 hours of taped conversations involving politicians, businessmen and financiers. Their sources added that there were at least two other copies of each tape that had not been traced and which might be circulating in blackmail attempts.

While the alleged wiretappers were working for the Count - he says as security men - he was involved in the sale of his shares in the private television station Antenna 3. His shares were eventually bought in 1992 by a group which included Rupert Murdoch, Banesto bank and the Zeta publishing group.

Media reports, citing judicial sources, said conversations between Count Godo and Mr Serra, who are both Catalans and old friends, were among those confiscated on tape. There was no indication that the contents of the tapes suggested anything underhand.

This month the Defence Minister, Julian Garcia Vargas, told parliament that Cesid, which reports directly to him or to the Prime Minister's office, had first put Count Godo in contact with Col Rodriguez - Romeo - earlier this year while he was an active Cesid chief. The minister was responding to media reports that the Count had asked Mr Serra for advice on hiring security personnel. The Colonel later quit the military intelligence service and began working for the Count, using an office in La Vanguardia's Barcelona headquarters, according to media reports. The other ex-Cesid men, including The Wolf, had been working for the Count since late 1991.

Mr Garcia Vargas insisted that, 'based on information to hand so far', current Cesid employees were not involved in the Barcelona affair and the intelligence organisation had not had access to any information from the alleged wiretappers. But he dropped a further bombshell when he said 'Romeo' had stolen confidential documents, though none detrimental to state security, before leaving Cesid.

The anti-government daily El Mundo followed with a headline saying: 'All the indicators point to Serra being responsible for the (wiretapping) network.' Mr Serra and government spokesmen continued to deny any involvement.

The PP's Secretary-General, Francisco Alvarez Cascos, last week accused the government of 'culpable negligence' in the affair. Mr Alvarez told a press conference: 'the principal person responsible for whatever implications result from the Cesid affair is called Narcis Serra'. He repeated the allegations in parliament the following day, and the Minister for Public Works, Jose Borrell, responded.

Mr Borrell's main point appeared to be that the government could not guarantee telephone secrecy. He recommended that citizens buy anti-bugging devices.

According to Spanish media reports, the Guardia Civil in Barcelona had wind of the phone-tapping long before last month's detentions, but backed off. The tapping, according to the local media, had been converted by the former agents into a useful way to make money by extorting cash from those whose voices they had recorded.

(Photograph omitted)

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