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G8 – Italians break convention and listen in

July 8, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in L’Aquila and Marco Pasqua in Rome

Whenever G8 leaders gather for their annual talks, an elaborate ritual unfolds to ensure the conversations within this elite club are kept confidential.

There will be no recording or note-taking of their deliberations, and each head of government is accompanied by just one aide – the “Sherpa” – who is allowed to communicate with those outside the closed room only through a digital pen. Their huddle is projected on a video to aides outside the conference room, without sound. Their mouths are digitally blacked out.

It is a process that has been respected each year – only once, in St Petersburg in 2006, when a microphone picked up an exchange between the then US President George W. Bush and Tony Blair, British prime minister,
has part of their conversation leaked out – and the Italian presidency insists there is no change in procedure this time.

But the Financial Times has learned from a senior official, who requests anonymity, that Italian aides did listen to yesterday’s proceedings through headphones from nearby rooms. A document obtained by the FT, written earlier by a member of the organising team, urged discretion. “Pay attention not to tell the other delegations about
our facility, otherwise they will all want it and that is not possible.”

Plans to install the secret link caused concern among some Italian officials, who said it amounted to spying.
The purpose of the audio link appeared to be to transmit quicker advice – via the Sherpa – to Silvio Berlusconi, chairman of the talks. Marco Ventura, spokesman for the prime minister, flatly denied there was an audio link.
“What they say remains in the room. There is no channel of communication between the leaders and the outside, except for the digital pens,” he said.

“There will not be any sort of secret channel between the president of the G8 [Mr Berlusconi] different from the others.”

Even more strange, a witness said, was the presence in the high-security area of Bruno Vespa, a  veteran television host favoured by Mr Berlusconi, most recently in explaining his friendship with an 18-year-old model which led his wife to ask for a divorce. Mr Ventura denied Mr Vespa had been able to listen to the confidential talks.

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