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Two Strange Deaths in European Wiretapping Scandal

European investigators are tracking the mysterious deaths of two security experts who had uncovered extensive spyware in their telecommunications firms.
 
 
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Just after noon on Friday, July 21, Adamo Bove -- head of security at Telecom Italia, the country's largest telecommunications firm -- told his wife he had some errands to run as he left their Naples apartment. Hours later, police found his car parked atop a freeway overpass. Bove's body lay on the pavement some 100 feet below.

Bove was a master at detecting hidden phone networks. Recently, at the direction of Milan prosecutors, he'd used mobile phone records to trace how a "Special Removal Unit" composed of CIA and SISMI (the Italian CIA) agents abducted Abu Omar, an Egyptian cleric, and flew him to Cairo where he was tortured. The Omar kidnapping and the alleged involvement of 26 CIA agents, whom prosecutors seek to arrest and extradite, electrified Italian media. U.S. media noted the story, then dropped it.

The first Italian press reports after Bove's death said the 42-year-old had committed suicide. Bove, according to unnamed sources, was depressed about his imminent indictment by Milan prosecutors. But prosecutors immediately, and uncharacteristically, set the record straight: Bove was not a target; in fact, he was prosecutors' chief source. Bove, prosecutors said, was helping them investigate his own bosses, who were orchestrating an illegal wiretapping bureau and the destruction of incriminating digital evidence. One Telecom executive had already been forced out when he was caught conducting these illicit operations, as well as selling intercepted information to a business intelligence firm.

About 16 months earlier, in March of 2005, Costas Tsalikidis, a 38-year-old software engineer for Vodaphone in Greece had just discovered a highly sophisticated bug embedded in the company's mobile network. The spyware eavesdropped on the prime minister's and other top officials' cell phone calls; it even monitored the car phone of Greece's secret service chief. Others bugged included civil rights activists, the head of Greece's "Stop the War" coalition, journalists and Arab businessmen based in Athens. All the wiretapping began about two months before the Olympics were hosted by Greece in August 2004, according to a subsequent investigation by the Greek authorities.

Tsalikidis, according to friends and family, was excited about his work and was looking forward to marrying his longtime girlfriend. But on March 9, 2005, his elderly mother found him hanging from a white rope tied to pipes outside of his apartment bathroom. His limp feet dangled a mere three inches above the floor. His death was ruled a suicide; he, like Adamo Bove, left no suicide note.

The next day, Vodaphone's top executive in Greece reported to the prime minister that unknown outsiders had illicitly eavesdropped on top government officials. Before making his report, however, the CEO had the spyware destroyed, even though this destroyed the evidence as well.

Investigations into the alleged suicides of both Adamo Bove and Costas Tsalikidis raise questions about more than the suspicious circumstances of their deaths. They point to politicized, illegal intelligence structures that rely upon cooperative business executives. European prosecutors and journalists probing these spying networks have revealed that:

  • The Vodaphone eavesdropping was transmitted in real time via four antennae located near the U.S. embassy in Athens, according to an 11-month Greek government investigation. Some of these transmissions were sent to a phone in Laurel, Md., near America's National Security Agency.
  • According to Ta Nea , a Greek newspaper, Vodaphone's CEO privately told the Greek government that the bugging culprits were "U.S. agents." Because Greece's prime minister feared domestic protests and a diplomatic war with the United States, he ordered the Vodafone CEO to withhold this conclusion from his own authorities investigating the case.
  • In both the Italian and Greek cases, the spyware was much more deeply embedded and clever than anything either phone company had seen before. Its creation required highly experienced engineers and expensive laboratories where the software could be subjected to the stresses of a national telephone system. Greek investigators concluded that the Vodaphone spyware was created outside of Greece.
  • Once placed, the spyware could have vast reach since most host companies are merging their Internet, mobile telephone and fixed-line operations onto a single platform.
  • Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, BND, recently snooped on investigative journalists. According to parliamentary investigations, the spying may have been carried out using the United States's secretive Bad Aibling base in the Bavarian Alps, which houses the American global eavesdropping program dubbed Echelon.

Were the two alleged suicides more than an eerie coincidence? A few media in Italy -- La Stampa, Dagospia and Feltrinelli , among others -- have noted the unsettling parallels. But so far no journalists have been able to overcome the investigative hurdles posed by two entirely different criminal inquiry systems united only by two prime ministers not eager to provoke the White House's wrath. In the United States, where massive eavesdropping programs have operated since 9/11, investigators, reporters and members of Congress have not explored whether those responsible for these spying operations may be using them for partisan purposes or economic gain.

As more troubling revelations come out of Europe, it may become more difficult to ignore how easily spying programs can be hijacked for illegitimate purposes. The brave soul who pursues this line of inquiry, however, should fear for his or her life.

Jeffrey Klein is a founding editor of Mother Jones. Paolo Pontoniere is a New America Media European commentator.