The Secret Life of Mario Scaramella
What a bit player in the case of the radioactive Russian tells us about Berlusconi's Italy.
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.
Alexander Stille is the author of The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful Country With a Fabled History and Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi.