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Vatican on lookout for eavesdroppers

Spies may be out to penetrate secret conclave of cardinals

By Chris Burns
CNN

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VATICAN CITY (CNN) -- From bugs to lasers to cell phones, the Vatican is on guard for high-tech eavesdropping ahead of Monday's opening of the conclave to elect a new pope to lead the Roman Catholic Church.

Intensifying the speculation -- and perhaps the taste for espionage -- are the lack of a clear favorite, a media blackout imposed on cardinals by the Vatican, and the church's tight-lipped statements on the cardinals' meetings so far.

Trying to stay one step ahead of spying technology, Vatican observers say the church's security force is expected to repeatedly sweep the Vatican grounds for bugs and other gadgets before and during the secret meeting of the College of Cardinals.

That includes the Sistine Chapel, where the 115 eligible cardinals will vote, and their accommodations at the Santa Marta Hotel, which Pope John Paul II had built in 1996.

The selection of a new pope is a well-defined traditional process developed over centuries with clear voting procedures -- but little is known how the "princes of the church" reach their decision.

The next pope will influence more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide and set a new agenda -- raising the stakes for nations with close ties to the church.

For these reasons, the sky's the limit when it comes to spying on the Vatican.

Satellite cameras could zoom in on key buildings and grounds where the cardinals gather. Lasers could be pointed at windows to pick up their conversations.

"Surely many intelligence agencies in the world are trying to penetrate inside the Holy See [the Vatican]. They will do with special aircraft, for example, spy planes with ... lasers," says Andrea Margelletti of the Center for International Studies in Rome.

Miriam Tomponzi, a flamboyant private detective who practices in Rome, suggests classic, James Bond-style spy tricks could all be used -- a camera or a bug disguised as a cigarette lighter, a pen that's really a microphone.

"There's absolutely no doubt we could spy on the Vatican and the conclave," Tomponzi says.

But the security for this conclave has been years in the making.

The late pope was credited with bringing the Catholic Church into the Information Age. He used the Vatican's official Web site, launched in 1995, to publish his sermons and speeches.

The pope, who was famously photographed typing on his laptop computer, had his own e-mail account and used text messaging as a tool to get his message out. (Full story)

Therefore, it's little surprise the pope understood the importance of measures to keep the conclave's secrets from slipping out.

He issued counter-intelligence orders for the conclave banning cell phones, recorders, radios, televisions, electronic organizers -- all to protect cardinals from, in his words, "threats to their independent judgment."

Margelletti and other experts say the Vatican could take further precautionary measures, including jamming devices, thicker windows or sound-secure rooms.

Vatican observers say the pope also learned from being spied on for years by the communist regime in Poland.

"I think that now we have a Holy See much less vulnerable than ever," Margelletti says.

It may be less vulnerable to outside spying, but experts also say that won't make the Vatican free of internal intrigue as rival cardinals jockey for power in the shadows of the saints.


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