ROME—One of QAnon’s wildest conspiracy theories claimed that the U.S. presidential election had been stolen from Donald Trump with the help of two small-time Italian hackers who had somehow hijacked a satellite in order to change the results being counted on American voting machines.
It is now clear that this bizarro theory was not confined to the darker corners of the QAnon conspiracy network. The power of the U.S. State Department may have been pushed into action trying to prove that this was how President Biden stole the election.
An Italian prison official and a lawyer for the alleged hacking mastermind have told The Daily Beast that two Americans gained illicit access to one of the hackers inside an Italian prison—best known for its mafioso inmates—in the dying days of Trump’s term in office in a desperate bid to chase down this insane conspiracy.
The prospect of the U.S. State Department working on this theory was first raised last June when classified emails were released about the so-called #Italygate conspiracy, and fleshed out in Jonathan Karl’s book Betrayal, which scratches the surface of the controversy.
So convinced that the hackers were able to rig the satellites, Karl says Ezra Cohen, a Pentagon official at the time, was asked to contact the U.S. Embassy in Rome to deploy its defense attaché down to the southern port city of Salerno to interrogate hacker Arturo D’Elia and his partner in crime Antonio Rossi, who are serving time for hacking into an Italian military supply company. Cohen refused. Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, then director of the Defense Intelligence agency, later complied, according to Karl.
The plot proved untrue, though it still lives on as “fact” in the dark corners of QAanon’s conspiracy network and is now the focus of an internal investigation by the Italian bureau of prisons.
The Daily Beast caught up with D’Elia’s lawyer Nicola Naponiello, who confirmed the Americans’ visit and who said that his client was “terrified” that people he presumed were American secret service agents were there to investigate him. “He did not agree to be interrogated and, in fact, no one should have had access to him without going through me,” Naponiello said. “It is beyond absurd.“
He says he is sure that the Americans were hoping to convince his client that in fact he had somehow inadvertently triggered the voting machine results and that if he would just admit that it might have happened, they’d leave him alone. Instead, D’Elia called his lawyer who quickly filed a complaint with the prison.
The Italians, in their thirties, are convicted of hacking the computer system of Italian military supply company Leonardo, Spa., which had nothing to do with U.S. satellites, American voting machines, or any election.
According to Betrayal, a fake heiress named Michele Roosevelt Edwards, who changed her name to Michele Ballarin and who at one time tried to save the now-defunct Italian airline Alitalia from bankruptcy and negotiate the release of a cargo vessel from Somali pirates, had hatched the idea and got someone to whisper it into Trump’s ear at a party in Mar-a-Lago.
Between negotiating with pirates and dreaming up conspiracies, Ballarin once unsuccessfully petitioned Italian parliamentarians, promising them $100 million to relaunch Alitalia. It didn’t fly. She was equally unsuccessful with the cargo ship, and in fact the Ukrainian owners of the ship asked then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to call her off since her interference only raised the price of the ransom to $35 million, according to multiple accounts of the story.
The Italian bureau of prisons investigation is focused specifically on how the Americans entered the prison without authorization. The first lead points to a No-Vax parliamentarian, Sara Cunial, an Italian version of Marjorie Taylor Greene who was with the populist 5-Star movement at the time and who is alleged to have accompanied the Americans. She was close to then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who had tried in vain to raise his international profile by buddying up to Trump. Whether the “favor” came directly from him is the subject of at least one prong of the Italian prison investigation, which could take years to complete.
Cunial was later barred from the 5 Star party for saying the COVID vaccination was akin to “Nazi experiments” and calling the harsh lockdowns “imprisonment of the Italians.”
D’Elia gave a prison interview with his hometown newspaper in Eboli, provided to The Daily Beast by his lawyer, in which he described the encounter, saying he was only told that Cunial was visiting the prison and would like to see him. “But a strange thing then happened. While we were there, two subjects with American accents approached me,” he said. “It was clear they wanted to speak to me separately. I was surprised. They introduced the theme of the American elections, they were about to ask me things but I stopped them. I called the prison police. I reported the matter. In short, I tried to project myself. I realized that what was happening under my own eyes was absolutely not normal.”
He denies playing any role. “At first it seemed like a joke. But then it all became incredibly serious,” he said. “I didn’t steal anything. I didn’t pass anything to anyone. I just created malware.”
On the day of the visit—Jan. 19, 2021, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.—only Cunial is listed as a visitor to the prison. Parliamentarians can visit Italian prisons at any time without just cause to “check up” on things. Surveillance footage, however, shows that she did not enter the prison alone, according to an investigator in the prison probe who spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity. The prison probe lists three Americans, including a lawyer who may have acted as a translator, who were with Cunial on that day and whose intention was to “interrogate” the hacker.
Italian senator Enrico Borghi, with the PD or Democratic Party, has even suggested the Americans could be investigated for espionage. “What happened in the Salerno prison given that the Department of Prisons has strict protocol regarding inspections, was that completely ignored?” he said in a statement to La Repubblica. “How is it possible to have left the competent authorities in the dark? These are elements to be clarified given the importance of the story and above all to ascertain what the reasons are that led our colleague Cunial to act in this way, and by whom she was inspired and what international connections there are.”
According to Karl’s book, the U.S. embassy in Rome reported back that the conspiracy was indeed a hoax and that the defense attaché reported back to the Trump camp. “Neither prisoner had said anything at all about interfering with the election and their case was entirely unrelated to anything remotely involving the 2020 US presidential election,” Karl writes. “It’s unclear whether the defense attaché at the US embassy in Rome was actually dispatched to talk to the men in prison.”
In fact, according to the ongoing investigation, the defense attaché—or someone acting on his behalf–certainly was. Now it remains to be seen just how they got in and who gave them the keys.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Ezra Cohen, a Pentagon official at the time, refused the request to ask the Embassy in Rome to dispatch its defense attache. Instead, it was Lieutenant General Scott Berrier who heeded the request, per Karl’s book.