Speaking frankly about “the known al-Qaida antipathy to the Pope,” American embassy officials in 2008 asked the U.S. State Department to consider an effort to help Vatican security forces deal with terrorist threats.
The WikiLeaks website recently published a Dec. 19, 2008 State Department cable reputedly from the U.S. Embassy in Rome. The cable, classified as “secret,” documented a request from the U.S. Vatican Embassy to plan and fund a “crisis management tabletop exercise” with Vatican security services.
The stated purpose of this effort was to enhance the Vatican’s crisis response abilities and to “foster a dialogue with the Vatican on counter-terrorism.”
“Al-Qaida has publicly identified the Pope and the Catholic Church as an enemy (‘Crusaders’), and Vatican City attracts hundreds of thousands of American citizen visitors each year, both tourists and pilgrims,” the cable continued.
According to the cable, the head of the Vatican Gendarme Corps Domenico Giani had sought specific security training from the FBI, including explosives ordinance training for Vatican Gendarmerie members at the Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia. However, the cable reported, Giani has been “reluctant to engage in a comprehensive dialogue with the United States about Vatican capabilities and preparedness to respond to a terrorist attack.”
While the famous Swiss Guard provides security for the Pope and visiting dignitaries, the Gendarme Corps is responsible for general security and law enforcement at the Vatican.
During a November 2008 conversation about al-Qaida’s threat to the Vatican, U.S. Vatican Embassy official Julieta Valls Noyes proposed to Giani a joint tabletop exercise on crisis management, to which he reportedly responded “positively.”
The Rome Embassy cable noted the Holy See’s sensitivity about appearing to be too close to any one state, which the embassy described as a challenge to fostering dialogue about security. Another challenge was “the Vatican’s conviction that its facilities must be easily accessible to all Catholics.”
According to the cable’s analysis, Giani’s interest in a crisis management exercise was an opportunity to better position the U.S. to help the Vatican prepare to respond to terrorist threats.
The cable appears to be WikiLeaks’ first release of a Vatican-related document that did not originate with the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. The cable’s authorship is attributed to U.S. Ambassador to Italy Ronald Spogli.
More than 700 WikiLeaks cables originate at the U.S. Vatican Embassy, while about 100 others originate at other American embassies and consulates.
In a Dec. 3 response to CNA inquiries, the U.S. Vatican Embassy said it could not address the authenticity of any documents provided to the press. The embassy also condemned “in the strongest terms” the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.
For their part, Vatican officials have also advised “great prudence” in examining the WikiLeaks cables. Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said the reports reflect “the perceptions and opinions of those who wrote them” and cannot be considered as expressions of the Holy See or as exact quotations of its officials.