The Italian government has determined that its intelligence services had no connection to a Maltese professor who told a Trump campaign adviser in 2016 that the Russian government had thousands of stolen emails that could damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, according to two senior Italian intelligence sources with knowledge of the matter.
In a series of meetings in Rome over the past two weeks, high-level Italian intelligence officials have repeatedly told cabinet members and a parliamentary oversight committee that the intelligence services did not have a relationship with Joseph Mifsud, a mysterious ex-diplomat who was a professor at a Rome university in 2016, the two sources told The Intercept.
The Italian inquiries into Mifsud’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election were sparked by an unfounded conspiracy theory that has gained currency in the conservative media and been seized on by President Donald Trump and his allies. According to the theory, Mifsud was an Italian intelligence operative used by the CIA or the FBI to entrap the Trump campaign adviser by pretending to act as a Russian agent and offering to share information about Russia’s efforts to tip the election in Trump’s favor. In May, Attorney General William Barr announced that he was assigning a top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney John Durham, to determine if the FBI or the CIA had been “spying” on the Trump campaign without a proper legal predicate to open a case. Barr has twice traveled to Italy to ask the Italian government to aid the Justice Department in its inquiry.
But the Italians did not view Mifsud in such elevated terms, according to one of the intelligence sources, who advises the Italian government. The professor “was considered to be of no value or use” by Italian intelligence, this person said. “They viewed him as a fool and saw no point of contacting him. They didn’t even debrief him after he was in the news.”
The inquiry into Mifsud is one of several efforts by the Trump administration to demonstrate that the original grounds for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation were manufactured by Obama administration intelligence officials to take Trump down. Another conspiracy theory, that one of the Democratic National Committee’s hacked servers is in Ukraine, surfaced in the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that was the subject of a whistleblower complaint and has led to a congressional impeachment inquiry. In the call, Trump urged Zelensky to work with Barr and the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate the unfounded server allegation.
Taken together, the efforts to undermine the Mueller investigation reveal the degree to which Trump has integrated conspiracy theories and unfounded assertions into U.S. foreign relations.
Asked on Wednesday about Barr’s meetings in Italy, Trump said he was unaware of the details. “I just know that our country is looking into the corruption of the 2016 election,” he told reporters. “It was a corrupt election, whether it’s [James] Comey or [Andrew] McCabe or [Peter] Strzok or his lover Lisa Page. There was a lot of corruption. Maybe it goes right up to President Obama. I happen to think it does. But you look at [John] Brennan and you look at [James] Clapper, and you get some real beauties.”
Trump added that Barr’s meetings in Italy “would be appropriate because the word is, and you read it in the same papers that I do, that they did go to other countries to try and hide what they were doing. Italy may have been one of them.”
Last month, Barr traveled to Rome with Durham to request information from the Italian government about Mifsud. Barr met with the heads of Italy’s external and internal intelligence services but did not meet with Mifsud himself, according to the two Italian intelligence sources.
Mifsud, who worked at Link University in Rome, played a brief but important role in helping set off the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign when he told Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of stolen emails.
Papadopoulos would go on to disclose that detail to an Australian diplomat, who alerted the FBI, which then opened an investigation into whether the Russian government was working with Trump campaign officials to interfere in the election. That inquiry led to the Mueller investigation, which found many links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government but “did not establish” that their efforts were coordinated or find evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Mifsud and two Russian nationals about his effort to set up a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and served 12 days in federal prison. Mueller’s prosecutors said Papadopoulos’s lies thwarted their investigation into Mifsud, whom the Mueller report described as having ties to Russian military intelligence personnel involved in the DNC hack. Mifsud, who has largely disappeared from public view since Papadopoulos was indicted, has denied that he is a Russian operative.
Since he emerged from prison, Papadopoulos has said continually and without evidence that Mifsud was part of an Obama administration CIA and FBI plot to entrap him and damage Trump’s presidential campaign. The conspiracy theory, which is rooted in claims by a Swiss lawyer who has said he represents Mifsud, has evolved over the past year and been cited in the right-wing universe as evidence of a so-called “deep state coup” by U.S. intelligence agencies against Trump. Papadopoulos made some of the same claims in his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee last year, citing a story he read in the Daily Caller. Last month, Sen. Lindsay Graham repeated the theory on Sean Hannity’s radio show.
Barr’s requests, and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s demand that his government comply, have led to recriminations from members of Italy’s intelligence community, some of whom feel that the recently elected Italian leader is misusing his country’s espionage apparatus, according to the two intelligence sources. “He’s asking the heads of the intelligence services to speak to foreign justice department officials about what could become a law enforcement investigation,” the senior adviser said.
Italian intelligence officials have quietly accused Conte of trying to score political points with Trump by ordering his government to chase a conspiracy theory. In the days after Barr’s September visit to Rome, senior Italian intelligence officials were called to meetings with both the government and parliament’s intelligence oversight committee, which asked intelligence leaders about any contact they may have had with Mifsud.
While Barr was in Rome, Papadopoulos continued to assert that Mifsud was an Italian intelligence “operative handled by the CIA.” Italy, he said, held the “keys to the kingdom.” According to the Italian intelligence adviser, Mifsud didn’t work with or for either the country’s internal service, AISI, or the external service, AISE.
Italian intelligence officials have been dumbfounded, this person said, that the Conte government has asked them repeatedly for information about Mifsud. “This shows [Conte’s] inexperience, to accept the meeting with Barr,” the adviser said. “In that way, he’s like Trump.”