By Stefano Polimeni
Ten years ago, the Legislative Act n. 124/2007 reformed the Italian secret service, leading to the most important change since 1977, in one of the rare occasions where both parliamentary majority and opposition contributed to its design and approval. There was the need to align the intelligence apparatus to the new security environment that in the first decade of 2000s saw United States, United Kingdom and Spain hit by the jihadist terrorism.
Before 2007, this sector was characterized by the division of responsibilities and by a deep separation of operative capacities between a civil service (SISDE) under the authority of the Interior Ministry, and a military service (SISMI) dependent on the Defence Ministry; both were coordinated by a specific body (CESIS) under the supervision of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers. In this context, the reform introduced substantial innovations that touched both the normative and the organisation fields, with the ambition of enhancing the capacity of coordination and of defining and delimiting the procedures and the powers of the services.
Firstly, the two new intelligence agencies – AISE that is responsible for protecting national interests and for safeguarding national security against threats originating abroad and AISI that deals with risks coming from the internal side – are coordinated by a strong body, the DIS (Security Intelligence Department). Secondly, it is important to underline that this administrative structure is subject to the direct political responsibility of the President of the Council of Ministers, formally at the head of the intelligence with the subsequent and relative powers. While the CISR (the inter-ministerial committee for the security of the Republic) is responsible for defining the goals of the intelligence policies and it assists the President of Council in its decisions, another figure plays a crucial role: the delegated authority. It is an Undersecretary of State or a Minister without portfolio that acts on behalf of the Head of the Government and chairs the Steering Committee composed by the directors of DIS, AISE and AISI. It is a political role, but with a solid technical background that works as a conjunction between the agencies and the Government, with the aim of ensuring the perfect alignment between the policies and the practical intelligence activities. Although the typical Italian political instability that produces frequent changes in the executive, for its important character there is a tendency to promote more continuity for this position. It is the case, for example, of Senator Marco Minniti, that fulfilled this role between 2013 and the end of 2016 before becoming the current Interior Minister.
In these ten years, the structure of the “Italian information system for the security of the Republic” (the new definition launched by the Law 124/2007) has been ameliorated on specific issues. Indeed, the legislator intervened in 2012, 2015 and 2017 with the purpose of improving the Italian cyber security capacities: in this perspective, within the intelligence perimeter, according to the last regulatory intervention, the DIS supervise and coordinate not only the two external and internal agencies (AISE/AISI), but also the Cyber Security Unit (NSC), eliminating the prior confusion that characterized the entire apparatus in managing cyber security threats and in protecting the critical infrastructures.
The organisational aspect and the “intelligence approach” are strictly interconnected: the former is fundamental and it is the precondition for the functioning of any modus operandi employed by the intelligence in counterterrorism. If we consider, for example, the French case, where currently there are nine active intelligence/security agencies, the efforts to coordinate a such complex system inevitably impact on the effectiveness of their security activities, with particular reference to the internal side. Even as far as the method is concerned, it is commonly argued that there are substantial distinctions across Europe. Italy differs considerably from other countries as France, Belgium or UK where the intelligence agencies are used to keep examining the potential terrorist, filling copious files with a lot of reports, documents and information before intervening. By contrast, our services have a more practical and direct approach and tend to clarify this “doubt” at very first indication of a probable threat. In such a way they also respond to the challenge of keeping the numbers of potential terrorists within a manageable range and, consequently, with the capacities to monitor them in the most effective way possible. However, once more, this would not be feasible without the simple, delineated and highly-coordinated form of organisation chosen in 2007.
Overall, ten years later the success of the reform is recognised both at home and abroad: the coordination between agencies works, the combination organisation-approach seems to be successful and the past memories of the Italian secret services inefficiencies are far away. These positive achievements allow the legislator to found future adaptations to the evolution of the international security scenario on a well-functioning system, as happened in the last years with respect to the counterterrorism legislation; a different condition from other countries where they are still working on fixing the structural deficiencies.