Virgilio Scattolini may not have been the biggest liar ever to walk the face of the earth. But he was certainly the biggest liar ever to have his lies regularly and avidly read by the president of the United States.
While he was riding high, Scattolini was pulling in upwards of $1,000 a month— equal to about ten times that in today’s money—selling the innermost secrets of the Vatican to two different offices of the OSS in wartime Rome. To the OSS’s secret intelligence branch, he was “Vessel.” To its counterespionage branch, he was “Dusty.” It would be months before the OSS figured out it was paying twice for the same information. It would take equally long for American officials to realize that every scrap provided by this incredibly prolific source was pure, unadulterated bunk.
A short, fat Florentine with an insinuating manner and a damp handshake, Scattolini knew more than a little about the lucrative aspects of creative writing. A few decades earlier he had produced two steamy pornographic novels featuring the goings-on of Roman whores, lascivious monks, and willing servant girls. The second book became a huge bestseller.
No one knows quite why Scattolini suddenly abandoned these talents for a life of outward piety; some suggest it was his marriage to a beautiful and devout Catholic woman. He started attending mass daily, became a minor lay official in the Franciscan order, and wrote a poem in praise of the pope, which won him a position on the staff of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. But when the editor learned that his new reporter was the very same Virgilio Scattolini who had written Such Women and Amazons of the Bidet, he was promptly fired.
Out of work and now with a family to support, Scattolini applied his literary imagination in a new direction. L’Osservatore Romano each day published a schedule of the pope’s audiences. Scattolini started writing memoranda that described in detail the pope’s conversations with the more important visitors and selling them to Rome’s legion of shadowy information brokers. With the arrival of American forces in June 1944, he began emphasizing topics of interest to Washington.
By January 1945 Scattolini’s reports, fed via intermediaries, were pouring in to the OSS offices in Rome at the rate of a dozen or more a month. They were an absolute gold mine: details of a new Japanese battleship, reports on the declining morale of Japanese workers, feelers from Tokyo for mediation by the Holy See to end the war.
OSS officials were ecstatic. Spy chief William “Wild Bill” Donovan proudly forwarded more than a dozen of the Vessel reports directly to FDR. Grace Tully, the president’s private secretary, wrote back, “The President finds this material most interesting and reads every one carefully.”
Inevitably, Scattolini began overreaching. One of his reports revealed that papal officials were preparing to construct a secret airstrip within the Vatican gardens. So enamored was the OSS with its prize source that it swallowed even that one— ignoring (as historian David Alvarez points out in Spies in the Vatican) the obvious physical impossibility of a plane landing on a runway “less than one hundred yards long, laid out on the side of a hill, and surrounded by multistory buildings including St. Peter’s Basilica, the highest structure in Rome.”
What finally did Scattolini in was a transcript he sold the OSS of an audience between the pope and the American Vatican representative, Myron Taylor, in which Taylor discussed a secret meeting he had held with the Japanese ambassador. This was news not only to a shocked State Department but to Taylor himself when confronted. By mid-February 1945, OSS officials in Washington were warning Rome that the Vessel product “has earmarks of being concocted by a not too clever manufacturer of sales information.”
The OSS tied itself in further knots for over a year convincing itself that Vessel and Dusty were part of a masterful counterespionage ploy by some foreign intelligence service hoping to penetrate the OSS, and so it kept paying Scattolini $500 a month in the hopes of unraveling the conspiracy. But in the end all it found was one very creative, and considerably richer, Italian liar whose only real legacy, as a later CIA postmortem concluded, was “misinforming and thoroughly confusing” gullible American policymakers.
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.