By Giuseppe Fonte
ROME (Reuters) – Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Wednesday confirmed that U.S. Attorney General William Barr held two secret meetings with Italian intelligence officers in Rome and described the encounters as “legal and correct”.
The meetings, which took place on Aug. 15 and Sept. 27, have been widely reported as being part of an investigation by President Donald Trump’s administration into the origins of an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 American election.
However, Conte told reporters the meetings, attended by Italy’s spy chief Gennaro Vecchione and other senior officials, had established that Italy had no information on the matter and was not involved in the investigation.
“The meetings were fully legal, correct and didn’t remotely harm our national interests,” Conte said at a news conference after giving closed-doors testimony on the issue to the Italian parliament’s committee for national security.
Conte said U.S. authorities had requested the meetings in June, adding that he had never personally spoken to Barr and that Trump had never spoken to him about the investigation.
U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election using hacking and propaganda to boost Republican Trump’s candidacy and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Mueller detailed a series of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Trump, who is running for re-election next year, has called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and has repeatedly sought to discredit it.
Barr, a Trump appointee who is the top U.S. law enforcement official, is personally involved in investigating Trump’s complaints that he and his 2016 campaign were improperly targeted by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Barr wanted information on the conduct of U.S. intelligence officers based in Italy in 2016, Conte said.
He added that the meetings also discussed Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese university professor who was a key figure in the events that triggered the Russia probe and was teaching in Rome when the scandal erupted but has since disappeared.
The meetings “clarified that our intelligence was not involved in the affair”, said Conte.
Italian right-wing opposition parties have said Conte should not have authorised the secret encounters and have suggested they were connected to Trump’s endorsement of him as prime minister during an Italian government crisis in August.
Conte dismissed both charges.
“If we had refused to sit around a table we would have damaged our intelligence operations and it would have been serious disloyalty and discourtesy to our historic allies,” he said.
(Writing by Gavin Jones; editing by Giles Elgood)