Italy’s secret services were concerned that bugging equipment donated to Mintoff’s government to intercept telephone calls from the Libyan Embassy in the ‘80s was being used instead to spy on ‘Nationalists,’ according to an intelligence report that is about to be published in a book by journalist Dione Borg.
Titled ‘Communications System of the Maltese Armed Forces and Police,’ the unsigned report describes the strategic outposts where the military and police bugged telephone conversations among ‘Nationalists.’ It also documents the secret trafficking of bugging equipment and weapons from Italy and Libya during the eighties.
The document sheds light on the extent of intelligence gathering by the Italian secret services at a time when relations between Malta and Italy and Libya oscillated .
Dione Borg, who will be reproducing the document translated into Maltese for the first time in his new, updated edition of Libertà Mhedda (Freedom Threatened), does not disclose the source of the document, but he attributes its authorship to a SISMI (Italian secret service) agent writing before the elections in Malta of 1987.
The report describes the police communications system as “an efficient one,” with “an important interception installation at the former British barracks of Tas-Salvatur in Mqabba.”
Referring to the 1980 heated territorial waters dispute with Libya, which saw Dom Mintoff at loggerheads with Mu’amar Gaddafi over the right to conduct oil exploration to the South of Malta, the report states that Italian secret services “immediately took advantage of the dispute and donated ultra-sophisticated equipment that could be used to intercept telephone communications from the Libyan Embassy, to Malta.” At that time, Mintoff signed a defence agreement with Italy guaranteeing Malta’s neutrality.
The Italians were, however, soon disappointed, as towards mid 1981, “SISMI realised that this (interception) equipment was not being used correctly, because it was being used to bug telephone calls between the Nationalists.”
This preoccupied the Italians, prompting vast reconnaissance flights in the Mqabba area with the helicopter of the Italian Military Mission with the aim of establishing which antennae were operating and how they were set up.
“In fact, the network connected all police stations in the two islands,” the report states. “Eventually … it was established that other sophisticated bugging equipment had reached Malta from Italy and Libya. It has to be recalled that in the period Italy (SISMI) had generously donated equipment to the police, including weapons and armaments. Meanwhile, officials and engineers had arrived on a vessel from Libya in 1985 which also contained a consignment of arms and equipment.”
Describing the way Malta’s secret services intercepted telephone calls through sophisticated equipment, the report says: “They bug the telephone line directly without warning Telemalta (which is unable to know about the bugging operations), or else they use a telephone radio which can scan all frequencies used for communication… It is probable that the Prime Minister (Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici) is sincere when he says in Parliament that there are no telephone interceptions going on, because he would have to authorise it personally through Telemalta. On the other hand, with such small and ultra-efficient equipment, the police, unknown to anyone else (apart from Mintoff who probably orders Police Commissioner Lawrence Pullicino), carry out this successful activity.”
The report states that the Tas-Salvatur barracks, being out of bounds for the public at large, was an excellent site to carry out covert activities.
“In particular, the Special Squad headed by Inspector Charles Cassar carries out the harshest training in martial arts, anti-sabotage, raids and helicopter training,” the report says.
The training and bugging operations were kept under wraps because “neither former police commissioners, nor Pullicino wanted to make it known that the police were engaged in specific training against the Nationalists,” according to the report. In fact, the Special Squad held its training exercises “camouflaged” in plain clothes in other parts of Malta. Shooting practice and sniper training exercises were carried out in Floriana (HQ) where the police kept their vehicles.
Reflecting the author’s concerns about Italian interests, the report notes that by mid 1984, Malta paved the ground for a new accord with Libya “thanks to the moral support offered by Mintoff to Gaddafi during the attempted coup on 10/11 May 1984.”
“The agreement was sealed in August 1984 and provided for cooperation in the field of intelligence and in the installation of a Libyan radio station in Bingemma,” the report states. “The agreement was eventually broadened to provide for the defence of Malta.”
The report says that Cachia and ‘L. Sant’ conducted several visits to Tripoli “with long lists of radio equipment and weapons.”
“The Libyans agreed, in part, to the demands, and on 30 December 1985 a Libyan vessel arrived in Malta, unloading arms, ammunition, radio equipment and marine radars in the presence of Cachia,” the report says. “Two officials from the Libyan Armed Forces and four engineers of the same government conducted several reconnaissance operations between Wied Rini and Delimara, accompanied day and night by WOI Xuereb of the Task Force.
“On 9 February 1986, after the Libyan personnel had all the communications in the Mediterranean under control, particularly those in Sigonella, Comiso and Lampedusa, the officials were ordered back to Tripoli and to leave their equipment in Wied Rini, which continued to be used for interceptions.”
According to the report, in the 1984 agreement, the Libyan government had also promised “a Libyan plan for the defence of the Republic of Malta.” The report mentions a certain Cordina who was present for the Libya-Malta secret summits, and who was caught by the government passing notes of the meetings to Italian secret agents.
The report says that the agreement included the understanding that Libya would help the Labour government “in the case of external or internal threats.”
“Probably, the arms that reached the island on 28 September 1986 formed part of this plan,” the report states.
The document also sheds light on the “Task Force” based at the Luqa barracks under the orders of “Col Cachia.”
“Cachia can make contact directly and without asking for any authorisation with the control room and with every detachment, forts, etc. and with Castille (the Prime Minister’s office),” the report states. Task Force personnel were “recruited ad hoc, on the basis of trust and cultural requisites.”
The Task Force was also reportedly in charge of a new bugging and interception centre in Wied Rini, conceived back in 1982 at a meeting of high-ranking government officials involving the army and Xandir Malta (the national broadcasting service).
“The main task was to intercept any kind of communication (air, naval, terrestrial) on a vast range, including police communications (in fact nobody from the police corps was present for the meeting),” the report says.
The report also gives a remarkably detailed survey of Fort Mosta. This well-guarded and secluded garrison served as an arsenal of all munitions and explosives on the island, in a bid to keep them out of reach of potential insurgents. It also housed helicopter missiles, mortars, China-produced hand grenades, ammunition for Russian machine guns, Russian missiles, TNT, mines and North Korean munitions. The fort also had a helicopter landing pad.
The Armed Forces and police kept very low stocks of ammunition in their barracks which had to be returned day in, day out. On the other hand, weapons were kept at Luqa Barracks under the Task Force’s control.
“All weapons were returned to the barracks at the end of every operation. So in theory, no military or police officer takes the weapon home while off duty. In practice, however, those who are most loyal to the regime are always armed, day and night, at the discretion of their commanders.”
The report adds that in case of an insurgency, ammunition and missiles could be stored in the underground depot at the Luqa airport. These could be secretly carried through two carriage ways – one from the Task Force barracks and another one from the airport Helicopter Flights area.
“This passageway also makes it possible to transfer weapons from the Task Force barracks to the Helicopter Flights area, to arm both Maltese and Italian helicopters, in order to follow up operations of popular repression.”