THE top American security agency spied on the future Pope Francis before and during the Vatican conclave at which he was chosen to succeed Benedict XVI, it has been claimed.
The National Security Agency (NSA) monitored telephone calls made to and from the residence in Rome where the then Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio stayed during the conclave, the secret election at which cardinals chose him as pontiff on March 13.
The claims were made by 'Panorama', an Italian weekly news magazine. It said the NSA monitored the telephone calls of many bishops and cardinals at the Vatican in the lead-up to the conclave, which was held amid tight security in the Sistine Chapel.
The information gleaned was then reportedly divided into four categories – 'leadership intentions', 'threats to financial system', 'foreign policy objectives' and 'human rights'.
The reports of the Vatican tapping came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her top foreign affairs and intelligence advisers to question officials in Washington in the escalating row over claims her phone was tapped.
The visit is one of a series of trips by high-ranking German and EU officials to the US this week after revelations of the scale of the US surveillance triggered outrage.
It also emerged yesterday that the Irish government raised concerns with the US authorities about the possible bugging of phone calls here. Eamon Gilmore's top official discussed the matter with the US Embassy in the summer.
At the time the calls in the Vatican were monitored, Benedict XVI was Pope, suggesting that the Vatican may also
have been monitored during the last few weeks of his papacy. The allegations follow a report on Cryptome, a website that gathers intelligence on surveillance, which claimed that the US intercepted 46 million telephone calls in Italy between December 10 last year and January 8 this year.
The monitoring of Vatican communications, including emails, continued after Benedict's resignation in February and encompassed the election of Pope Francis.
"It is feared that the great American ear continued to tap prelates' conversations up to the eve of the conclave," 'Panorama' magazine said.
It added that there were "suspicions that the conversations of the future Pope may have been monitored" but provided no hard evidence or quoted sources for the claim.
Archbishop Bergoglio was of interest to US diplomats and intelligence agencies as far back as 2005, when he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the papacy after the death of John Paul II.
According to US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks in March this year, the US embassy to the Holy See drew up a profile of him, describing him as a "wise pastor" who had been praised for his "humility".
Brent Hardt, the embassy's charge d'affaires, discussed the future Pope as one of 16 possible candidates, noting that he "has been reluctant to accept honours or hold high office and commutes to work on a bus".
The US agency also intercepted telephone calls relating to the selection of a new head of the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank, 'Panorama' said.
The NSA was reportedly also interested in intercepting communications relating to the 2012 Vatileaks scandal, in which Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict's butler, was caught stealing sensitive documents which lifted the lid on power struggles and alleged corruption at the heart of the Holy See.
Asked about the espionage claims, Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's spokesman, said: "We have heard nothing of this and in any case we have no concerns about it."
The US embassy to the Holy See referred queries to the State Department in Washington.
The reports came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her top foreign affairs and intelligence advisers to question officials in Washington in the escalating row over the allegations that they tapped her phone.
Mrs Merkel wants the United States to agree a 'no spying' deal with Berlin and Paris by the end of the year and to stop alleged espionage against two of Washington's closest EU allies.
"I can confirm that the two top aides from the chancellery are in Washington for talks today," said her spokesman, adding: "We are in a process of intense contact with our US partners on the intelligence and political levels."
The White House did not deny reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored Mrs Merkel's phone but said that no such surveillance was taking place now.
The visit comes a day after a European Union team met the head of the NSA, army General Keith Alexander, and US Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Later this week, the heads of Germany's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies will also travel to Washington.
European lawmaker Elmar Brok, a German national, told the German daily 'Bild' that his meeting with the US officials produced no breakthroughs but did generate good signals.
He said: "Our talks showed that the Americans recognise the immense political damage caused by this affair and are open to more transparency."
The US Congress is currently weighing up new legislative proposals which could limit some of the NSA's more expansive electronic intelligence collection programmes.
Meanwhile, in Brussels, an inquiry has been launched by the European Union into gifts which visiting delegations received at last month's summit in St Petersburg of leaders from the world's 20 top economies after newspaper reports alleged that Russia was trying to install spyware on computers to snoop on participants.
European Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent said that experts were looking into the handouts, which included USB sticks and were given out at the Group of 20 summit.
However, he said: "Analysis of hardware and software has not amounted to any serious security concerns."
He added that the investigation had not yet been completed.
Separately, reports claimed yesterday that the NSA secretly tapped into the main communications links that connect Yahoo and Google data centres around the world, enabling it to collect information from hundreds of millions of user accounts.
Google said it was "troubled by the allegations". Yahoo said it had not given the NSA or any agency access to data centres.
by Nick Squires