MILAN (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said Wednesday U.S. Attorney General William Barr was seeking information about the activities of FBI agents assigned to Italy in his meetings with Italian intelligence officials this summer.
Conte insisted on the complete legitimacy of both the meetings and his own role, during a press conference after testifying behind closed doors to the parliamentary intelligence committee in Rome.
The two meetings, in August and in September, related to a U.S. investigation into the origin of a probe into Russian election interference in the 2016 election won by President Trump.
Italian media reports have accused Conte of violating protocols in permitting the meetings.
Conte said Barr's request arrived via normal diplomatic channels for "a preliminary exchange of information with our intelligence aimed at verifying activities of American agents. This must be clear."
Conte argued that Italian law gives the country's premier sole responsibility for responding to intelligence requests, and that he could not seek, for example, preliminary clearance from the parliamentary intelligence committee or legally discuss the request with any minister or political leader.
Conte also emphasized that the Americans showed no interest in the activities of Italian intelligence, and that the Italian intelligence services were "completely extraneous to these events."
Conte said that Barr first held a "preliminary technical" meeting with intelligence officials in offices at Rome's Piazza Dante on Aug. 15. That was followed up with another meeting in the same offices on Sept. 27.
"I hate to disappoint you but there were no meetings in bars or hotels," Conte said, referring to media speculation. "They were all held in institutional settings."
Referring to domestic criticism that the meetings came at a moment when the previous Conte-led government was in crisis, Conte emphasized that the American request for the meetings was made in June — before Interior Minister Matteo Salvini sought to push Conte out of power — and that the request arrived by normal diplomatic channels.
"The request dates from June, and came not from President Trump, but from (Attorney General) Barr," Conte said. "President Trump never spoke to me about this investigation."
Conte also said he never had direct contact with Barr, either by phone or writing.
The Associated Press and other media have reported that Barr met with Italian government officials as part of an investigation into the origin of a probe into Russian election interference. The September meeting also included the U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is examining what led the U.S. to open a counterintelligence investigation on the Trump campaign and the roles that various countries played in the U.S. probe.
Conte said he wouldn't change a thing about the way he handled Barr's request.
"If we had refused to sit at a table, we would have created damage for our intelligence activity, besides creating a serious breach of loyalty with an historic ally," he said