ROME -- The U.S. National Security Agency may have spied on the future Pope Francis in the run-up to his election in March, an Italian magazine reported Wednesday. The NSA strongly denied the report.
Without citing sources, Panorama magazine said the NSA intercepted calls in and out of the Rome residence where cardinals stayed before the papal conclave. Among them was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was on the verge of being elected pope.
“There is the suspicion that the conversations of the future pope could have been monitored,” the magazine said.
Responding to the report, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said, "We are not aware of anything on this issue and in any case we have no concerns about it."
An NSA spokeswoman, Vanee' Vines, categorically denied the claim.
"The National Security Agency does not target the Vatican," she said in an email. "Assertions that NSA has targeted the Vatican, published in Italy’s Panorama magazine, are not true."
The Panorama report repeated a charge that the NSA had conducted wholesale surveillance on the records of 46 million Italian phone calls between December 2012 and January 2013, much as it has been accused of doing in France and Spain. The Vatican was included in that sweep, the magazine said.
But the report said the NSA went beyond record-collection when it came to the Vatican. According to the report, Vatican calls were intercepted and placed into one of four categories: leadership intentions, threats to the financial system, foreign policy objectives and human rights.
The report added that the NSA monitored calls related to the choice of Ernst von Freyberg as head of the Vatican bank.
A German who was hired by Pope Benedict just before he resigned in February, Von Freyberg was brought in to clean up the bank, which has been mired in scandal for years over allegations of money laundering.
Von Freyberg proved a controversial choice since he was also chairman of the German shipyard Blohm & Voss, which builds warships for the German navy.
According to documents released by WikiLeaks, the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican was tracking Bergoglio in 2005, naming him as a favorite to become pope that year after the death of Pope John Paul II, before the eventual election of Benedict.
“Bergoglio exemplifies the virtues of the wise pastor that many voters value. Observers emphasize his humility,” the embassy stated in a cable.
Kington is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.
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