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U.S. spy agency denies that it eavesdropped on Vatican

A view of St Peter's Square as Pope Francis celebrates a mass in the Vatican October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
A view of St Peter's Square as Pope Francis celebrates a mass in the Vatican October 27, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

WASHINGTON/VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The National Security Agency, responsible for U.S. electronic eavesdropping, said on Wednesday that it does not target the Vatican and called an Italian media report that it had done so "not true."

Panorama magazine said on Wednesday that the NSA had eavesdropped on Vatican phone calls, possibly including when former Pope Benedict's successor was under discussion.

"The National Security Agency does not target the Vatican. Assertions that NSA has targeted the Vatican, published in Italy's Panorama magazine, are not true," NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said in a statement.

According to Panorama, which did not cite a source for its information, the NSA had monitored 46 million phone calls in Italy from December 10, 2012, to January 8, 2013, including conversations in and out of the Vatican.

In a press release before full publication on Thursday, Panorama said, "NSA had tapped the Pope."

The Holy See said it had no knowledge of any such activity. Asked to comment on 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."

Media reports based on revelations from Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who has been granted asylum in Russia, have said the agency had spied on French citizens over the same period in December and January.

Last week, the German government appeared to confirm that Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone had also been monitored by American spies. The issue has also caused Washington problems with Brazil and China.

Panorama said the recorded Vatican phone calls were catalogued by the NSA in four categories - leadership intentions, threats to the financial system, foreign policy objectives and human rights.

Benedict resigned on February 28 this year and his successor, Pope Francis, was elected on March 13.

"It is feared" that calls were listened to up until the start of the conclave that elected Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, Panorama said.

The magazine said there was also a suspicion that the Rome residence where some cardinals lived before the conclave, including the future pope, was monitored.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer and Warren Strobel; Editing by Philip Pullella, Angus MacSwan and Cynthia Osterman)

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