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U.S. Attorney General Barr met Italian intelligence officials: newspaper

ROME (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General William Barr held two secret meetings with Italian intelligence agencies as part of an investigation by President Donald Trump’s administration into the origins of the inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 American election, Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper reported on Wednesday.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr participates in a presentation ceremony of the Medal of Valor and heroic commendations to civilians and police officers who responded to mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S. September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Erin Scott

Without citing its sources, the newspaper said Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte had authorized the two meetings in Rome with Gennaro Vecchione, head of the DIS intelligence service, as well as other officials in August and last week.

“I respect and take notice of what is reported in the media but if I have to make things clear I will do it exclusively in the appropriate forums. On the rest, no comment”, Vecchione said in a statement.

There was no comment from Conte’s office in Rome.

A political source told Reuters on Wednesday that Conte could be asked in coming weeks to respond before the parliamentary committee for security about the reported meetings.

U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with a scheme of hacking and propaganda to boost Republican Trump’s candidacy and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Mueller detailed a series of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

Trump, who is running for re-election next year, has called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and has repeatedly sought to discredit it.

Barr, a Trump appointee who is the top U.S. law enforcement official, is personally involved here in investigating Trump's complaints that he and his 2016 campaign were improperly targeted by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Barr in May appointed federal prosecutor John Durham to look into the matter. U.S. Democrats have called the investigation an effort to sully the conclusions of Mueller and U.S. intelligence agencies to benefit Trump politically, even as the House of Representatives pursues an impeachment inquiry arising from Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate domestic political rival Joe Biden.

U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said on Monday that Trump had contacted other countries to introduce Barr and Durham. Kupec did not name the countries in her statement, but U.S. media have said Barr made overtures to British intelligence and had visited Italy.

Corriere della Sera said Barr’s meetings focused on the origins of the U.S. Russia investigation and on the actions of Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese university professor, a key figure in the events that triggered the Russia probe.

Mifsud was teaching at a Rome university when the scandal erupted. His present whereabouts are unknown.

Former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, when he pleaded guilty last year to U.S. criminal charges arising from the Mueller investigation, acknowledged that Mifsud had told him in April 2016 that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton, three months before hacked emails started appearing online and harming the Clinton campaign.

Papadopoulos told Australian diplomat Alexander Downer in May 2016 that Russia had political dirt on Clinton. Australian officials passed that information to their U.S. counterparts two months later, helping trigger an FBI probe into Russian attempts to influence the Trump campaign.

The Corriere della Sera said Barr requested that the Italian agencies provide any documentation they had gathered.

Reporting by James Mackenzie, Angelo Amante, Domenico Lusi and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool