The Secret Life of Mario Scaramella

What a bit player in the case of the radioactive Russian tells us about Berlusconi’s Italy.

The story of Alexander Litvinenko—the former KGB agent contaminated with the radioactive isotope polonium-210 who died in a London hospital insisting that he had been poisoned by agents of Russian President Vladimir Putin—grabbed the world’s attention. But what of Mario Scaramella, who met with Litvinenko at the Itsu sushi bar in Piccadilly Circus and was himself diagnosed with the dangerous radioactive substance in his blood? *

He is a kind of Rosencrantz or Guildenstern of the Litvinenko tragedy, a minor character who sheds a highly revealing sidelight on the larger drama while also illuminating a different and very Italian tragedy. He is a type that shows up in spy stories—a teller of tall tales and half-truths; part Walter Mitty, part con man, part spy; a person who by virtue of bogus credentials and connections acquires real credentials and real connections. The Italians have a term for people like this that has no exact equivalent in English: millantatore di credito—someone who claims to know a lot more and to have done a lot more than he really does. (It is even a crime in Italy, generally invoked in fraud cases.)

Although a baby-faced man of only 36, Scaramella claims to have been recruited several years ago by the CIA to trace relationships between South American narco-traffickers and Russian spy agencies. He has claimed to have been educated in England, Belgium, and France, without saying exactly where. He says he taught at the University of Naples (which says it has no record of him) and at various American universities, including San Jose University (which doesn’t exist—though there is a San Jose State University, which says it knows nothing of Scaramella)—and Stanford University. He claims to have been a judge, but this appears to have consisted of an unpaid position as a justice of the peace.

The one indisputable element in Scaramella’s résumé is that for the last three years he has served as a paid consultant on a commission of the Italian parliament set up by then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2002 to investigate the occult influence of the KGB in Italian life. As newly published wiretaps reveal, the commission quickly degenerated into a dirty-tricks operation to dig up dirt on Berlusconi’s political opponents.

The commission was named for Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB archivist who moved to England in 1984 and claimed to have copied extensive portions of KGB files on its agents and informants operating in the United States and Europe. While British intelligence made a serious effort to document and verify the information that Mitrokhin brought to them, the same care was not taken in Italy. When Silvio Berlusconi took over as prime minister in 2001, he saw the Mitrokhin case as a cudgel with which to beat his political opposition. Berlusconi created the Mitrokhin Commission to investigate KGB infiltration in Italy and handed the direction of it to Paolo Guzzanti, who simultaneously works as a member of parliament for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and as deputy editor of the Berlusconi family newspaper Il Giornale. Guzzanti’s double role is typical of the rampant conflicts of interest of Italy in the era of Berlusconi—who saw nothing wrong with owning half the country’s media outlets while running the country.

However, the commission failed to provide the rich material that Berlusconi and Guzzanti were hoping for—material to keep the Italian left on the defensive and in opposition for years to come. Mitrokhin’s information was very old, and most of the people in his files were dead or retired. “There wasn’t much to discover about spies and foreign agents,” said Giulio Andreotti, an Italian senator and former prime minister during the Cold War period and himself a conservative member of the Mitrokhin Commission, in a recent interview with La Repubblica. “All the material had been published already in Great Britain, and there was really no reason to do further investigations.”

As a result, in 2003, Guzzanti hired Scaramella hoping to dig up information of more recent vintage. Of course, this meant going beyond documentary evidence supposedly copied by Mitrokhin from the KGB files, investigating all sorts of ties between Russia and Italian politicians, and refreshing the memories of unemployed or underemployed former spies with nothing to sell other than their stories. The commission’s work was so poorly regarded even by many conservatives that not only was it unable to generate a bipartisan report, but Guzzanti ended up issuing a report without the signatures of his fellow commissioners on the center-right.

Even after issuing his official report in December of 2004, Guzzanti continued his investigations with Scaramella at his side. But soon enough, Scaramella became a major source of embarrassment. He told Italian authorities that the Russians had planted an antenna on Mount Vesuvius that could activate nuclear missiles that were in a sunken Soviet submarine at the bottom of the Bay of Naples. Investigations found no antenna, and the submarine in question was known to have sunk in the Bay of Biscay. In looking for the mysterious antenna, Scaramella obtained a police escort and got involved in a shootout that he described as an attempt on his life. Investigations proved that Scaramella’s bodyguard had done all the shooting, firing 16 bullets into a parked car. Scaramella insisted that he was the target of an assassination squad from Ukraine connected to al-Qaida, and he led police to a truck containing four Ukrainians and an unimpressive stash of arms: two grenades. Scaramella’s precise knowledge of the operation attracted suspicion, and he is now under investigation for arms trafficking. He also claimed that Russians were transporting a shipment of uranium across Italy—another claim that didn’t pan out.

Scaramella’s interest in nuclear waste is linked to a business he has set up in the field of environmental security. He lists himself as the “secretary general” of an organization, allegedly connected to the United Nations, known as the Environmental Crime Protection Program, which has been described as little more than a small office in Naples, an “empty box,” that gives Scaramella an impressive-sounding title to put on his business card. The ECPP, in turn, could be used to win government contracts for investigating crimes against the environment—hence Scaramella’s claims about uranium shipments and nuclear missiles in Italy.

Potentially, this was a good fit with his position as consultant to the Mitrokhin Commission, putting him into contact with former Soviet spies who might give him information about hazardous nuclear materials that he could, in turn, use to drum up business for his Environmental Crime Protection Program. Scaramella was interested in what Litvinenko could tell him about the status of Russian nuclear materials and potentially embarrassing material about Italian politicians. We know that he was trying to get the former KGB agent to state that Berlusconi’s principal political rival (and current prime minister) Romano Prodi was being groomed as a Soviet spy, but the presence of polonium-210 at their last meeting may have been related to Scaramella’s interest in nuclear materials in his environmental security business. British police have not immediately accepted Litvinenko’s claim to have been poisoned by Vladmir Putin’s secret police. It is possible that Litvinenko may have been trafficking in nuclear materials and accidentally poisoned himself while handling a leaky vial of the radioactive isotope. This would explain why traces of polonium-210 have turned up in different places where Litvinenko went in early November. Scaramella, along with a few others, may have been accidentally exposed in the process.

For Scaramella, a man who had been insisting that he was the target of a massive international assassination plot, the polonium episode may have appeared like the fulfillment of his deepest fantasies. He and Guzzanti held press conferences and gave interviews by the dozen about being targets of an international hit squad. (Why Putin would want to kill associates of his good friend and ally Berlusconi, they never explained.) As the criminal investigations into his activities heated up, Scaramella flew to London and announced that he had ingested “five times the lethal dose” of polonium—a fact immediately denied by British doctors. In Rome, Guzzanti told the press that Scaramella had been given a “death sentence.” A week later, Scaramella walked out of a London hospital under his own steam, apparently in good health, saying that he had been contaminated accidentally.

In the last few days, another KGB agent and sometime source of Scaramella’s, Oleg Gordievsky, has come forward, granting a long interview to Rome’s La Repubblica in which he revealed that Scaramella persecuted him for two years, trying to get him to make false statements about Prodi and other politicians of the Italian center-left. He referred to Scaramella as a pathological liar and a megalomaniac. At a certain point, he says he e-mailed Guzzanti, insisting that Scaramella was a “mental case” who needed to be reined in. He then contacted MI6 and asked the British security service to get the Italians to cease and desist.

The kind of thing that Scaramella was really up to in London has come out in a series of wiretapped phone conversations made in the course of the arms-dealing investigation. Most revealing of all was a series of phone conversations between Scaramella and Guzzanti that took place a month before the Italian national elections this March, in which Prodi narrowly defeated Berlusconi. (Guzzanti and Scaramella have expressed outrage that the conversations of a member of parliament were wiretapped and leaked to the press, but they have not contested the accuracy of the accounts published in the newspapers.)

Scaramella tells Guzzanti that he has a former KGB agent who is prepared to go on record saying that the KGB was “cultivating” Romano Prodi as a source. “There is no information that Prodi was a KGB agent, but we can talk about his being ‘cultivated,’ ” Scaramella tells Guzzanti. “Cultivated is enough,” Guzzanti says. “It’s a lot, but don’t imagine we’re going to get a statement by whoever saying ‘Prodi was an agent.’ … What is undoubtedly true is that the Russians considered Prodi a friend of the Soviet Union.” Guzzanti becomes furious: “Friend of the Soviet Union doesn’t mean a thing. What do I give a shit about a friend of the Soviet Union? Does that sound like a big news story to you: friend of the Soviet Union? … But ‘cultivated’ suits me fine.”

In another conversation, Scaramella insisted that Berlusconi promised him a job at the United Nations after the elections, though Berlusconi has denied even knowing who Scaramella is. But in one of his wiretapped conversations, Guzzanti indicates that he has kept Berlusconi informed about his investigations. “The news made a big impact,” Guzzanti told Scaramella. “I told him that the problem with this business is that we need to be able to prove what we’re saying, and he, surprising me a bit, said, ‘Well, in the meanwhile, we force them to defend themselves.’ ”

What the Litvinenko-Scaramella connection offers—along with a glimpse at the murky world of former Soviet spies—is a picture of Berlusconi’s Italy, in which bogus scandals are manufactured in order to distract attention from real scandals (many involving Berlusconi and his associates), a place where a businessman-turned-politician can use one of his journalists to conduct a bogus investigation carried out by a shady con man without the least regard for the truth or lack of truth in whatever dirt they dig up.

Correction, Dec. 13, 2006: This article originally gave the wrong name for the London sushi bar where Scaramello and Litvinenko met. It is Itsu, not Isu. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)