Domenico Vecchioni: Cicero Operation. The most intriguing spy-story of the Second World War

(To Maria Grazia Labellarte)
23/07/18

Turkey, 26 October 1943. A very secret telegram transmitted by the local Embassy of the Third Reich for the German Foreign Ministry gave rise to the so-called "Operation Cicero", one of the most singular spy intrigues of the Second World War. In the message, Ambassador Franz von Papen reported having received the offer "from an employee of the Embassy of the United Kingdom - who claims to be the ambassador's personal waiter - to obtain photographs of secret documents".

The historical outline just mentioned belongs to the book "Operazione Cicero" written by Domenico Vecchione and published by Greco & Greco Editore. Ambassador and historian, Domenico Vecchioni has to his credit about thirty works of a popular and biographical nature. His last work, before "Operation Cicero", was "Saddam Hussein, Blood and Terror in Baghdad". He directs the necklaces Magnifications and Foreign Affairs at the Greco & Greco Editori. He collaborates regularly with Bbc History Italia.

Ambassador, the "Cicero Operation" is considered one of the most unique spy intrigues of World War II, would you explain why?

A story paradoxical and in some ways even fun, if there were not the state of war ... In short, we have a spy of Albanian origin - the British ambassador's personal waiter - who in Ankara in the 1943 risks his life to obtain secret documents from sell to the "competitor" German embassy. Berlin, however, does not believe that a simple waiter can be at the center of such an important international intrigue and is convinced that it is in fact a sophisticated misinformation operation of MI6, British espionage. Von Ribbentrop, Hitler's Foreign Minister, ultimately, will not take seriously the information (true, vital for the Germans) transmitted by the Albanian spy. He will believe so little that he will pay Cicero - so nicknamed because his papers were very eloquent ... - with false money! In short, Cicero provided true news, but they were considered fake, and received in return fake money, that the interested person instead believed absolutely authentic! Singular, no?

It has been written that the "contours" of this spy intrigue continue to fascinate even today, even after seventy-five years or so. Specifically which "contours" do we speak?

Meanwhile, the geographical frame and that is Turkey, a neutral country that both London and Berlin wanted to drag on their side. Then there is Ankara, the capital, city of international intrigue, where in the war were working spies of all kinds, double and triple agents, mysterious characters, brokers and unidentified fairers.

Then there is the diplomatic picture. The embassies of Germany and Great Britain, two countries at war, were making a ruthless diplomatic "competition" to gain the favors of the Turkish government ... Protagonists will be two great ambassadors (von Papen and Knatchbull-Hugessen), who in public displayed coolness and mutual dislike, but in private they were esteemed both professionally and personally ...

The singularity of the central character. A secret mission that is carried out by a "spy by chance", not a professional agent, but only a waiter who dreamed of becoming "rich, very rich". Precisely for this reason his company was considered by the Germans "too simple to be true".

The modalities of the action. Cicero took away the documents, which he then photographed in his little room, while the British ambassador was sleeping deeply, helped by powerful sleeping pills that he could not do without ...

How does a writer construct in his imagination a character like Cicero, the mysterious waiter "hero" of the humint?

Actually I did not invent anything ... Elyesa Bazna, a Turk of Albanian origin, called Cicero, is a really existent character. On the contrary, I tried to tell the story by taking advantage of the reflections of the myth created by the famous movie by Mankiewicz ("Operation Cicero"), where the great British actor, James Mason, played the role of the spy. Opera cinematographically speaking very valid, a film that you still look forward to today, more than sixty years after its release, a film however where the story of the Albanian waiter is abundantly fictional with the introduction of imaginary characters, some historical forcing and a final of absolute fantasy. Here I wanted to tell the true story of "spy by chance" ....

Currently, computer security specialists are the real protagonists of the scene of counterintelligence and information security. We talk a lot and rightly about data protection, cyber threats and vulnerabilities. Well, at this point that says in 2018 and next years, a quick and dutiful farewell is necessary to Cicero, James with his beautiful Bond girls and all the HUMINT that has contributed and contributes to the security of the Nations?

I do not think so ... Human intelligence seems more necessary than ever before! I'll give you an example to make me understand. If terrorists exchange messages through personal couriers or gather in a cave to decide an attack, there is no interception that takes! No one will ever know what they are plotting. Only the old infiltration system could give significant results. Of course, today espionage is mainly technical, electronic, cybernetic, etc. But human intervention is still necessary before the last decision.

In the 1983 in the Soviet Union at the Center for the Prevention of Nuclear Attacks, all indicators at one point gave unequivocal signals that a US nuclear attack had begun! If we were limited only to the "technical" examination of the data, it would have been very urgent to give the general alarm, but this would have triggered nuclear response procedures that could no longer be controlled. Fortunately for humanity, the head of the Center, Stanislav Petrov, an expert officer with an incredible cold blood, extraordinarily discerning, sensed that something was wrong. He immediately made further checks, sought new evidence and was convinced that it was an error in the Soviet sighting system. And he assumed the personal responsibility of NOT raising the alarm. Immense, tremendous responsibility! If he were wrong he would have irreparably damaged his country. But he was right, it was just a mistake, there was no nuclear attack in progress, world peace was safeguarded.