Louis Freeh.

Maybe Louie took the Penn State gig because he felt JoePa was a mafia don.


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By Steve Coll
October 31, 1993
They had been over this before.

Always he refused to talk about it, sometimes with elaborate justifications, sometimes with bitterness, sometimes with hints and fragments of what he claimed to know. But on September 11, 1992, at a secret location in Washington selected by the U.S. Marshals Service, Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta finally broke his silence. He agreed for the first time to speak explicitly about Italian politics and politicians.

For years, Italy's anti-Mafia investigating magistrates had flown regularly to America to interview Buscetta, a former Sicilian Mafia soldier now a protected U.S. government witness. Buscetta had become during the 1980s the most valued Mafia informer on either side of the Atlantic. Italian magistrates interviewed him about hundreds of murders on the streets of Sicily, and about the secret interior structures of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, as it is called by its members. American investigators turned to Buscetta for inside information about heroin trafficking and links between Sicilian and U.S.-based Mafia families. About all this, Buscetta was forthcoming. He had decided to break his vows of omerta, or silence about Mafia affairs, in exchange for a new life in hiding in America and a new profession as a government witness. But for eight years, whenever Italian investigators moved to the subject of Italian politics -- to the crucial question of whether the Sicilian Mafia survived and flourished because of high-level protection in Rome -- Buscetta clammed up. Politics was just too dangerous to discuss, he insisted again and again. He would reveal all "only if the time is ripe," as he said in a 1988 interrogation.

Buscetta changed his mind because of his friendship with Giovanni Falcone, or so Buscetta claimed. Falcone was Italy's most celebrated and influential anti-Mafia prosecutor during the 1980s. Beginning in 1984, Buscetta and Falcone collaborated closely on Sicilian Mafia cases designed to break La Cosa Nostra's violent grip on southern Italy. Buscetta was a confessed criminal implicated in heroin deals on three continents. Falcone was a singularly dedicated servant of the Italian state. Yet the pair grew very close. They were both Sicilians. They understood and respected one another. And by choosing to work together against the Mafia, they had each put their lives at risk.

"First they'll try to kill me, then it will be your turn," Buscetta told Falcone at their first interrogation session, as Falcone recalled it. "And they won't give up until they succeed."

As it happened, Buscetta got the order wrong -- it was Falcone who went first. On May 23, 1992, as he drove from the airport to downtown Palermo, Sicily's concrete jungle, a massive car bomb detonated beneath a highway overpass. Falcone, his wife and three bodyguards died instantly. Two months later, another car bomb killed Falcone's main crime-fighting partner, Paolo Borsellino. These murders, Tommaso Buscetta apparently felt, were too much. And so, on that crisp, rain-washed day in Washington last fall, Buscetta began to talk about the high-ranking, long-serving Italian politicians who he said had hindered for decades efforts to put the Sicilian Mafia down.

"At this moment I think it is my moral duty to contribute to the investigations," Buscetta said that day to a pair of Italian interrogators who had flown in from Sicily. "I believe this would do right by Dr. Giovanni Falcone, for whom I have, even now, a great admiration because of what he has done in the interests of justice. The tragic murders of Falcone and Borsellino have deeply struck me. After painful reflection, this has made me review my previous attitude."

The words Buscetta then chose helped to set decisively in motion events that have since upended Italian society, rearranged Italy's electoral politics and virtually ruined the reputation of Giulio Andreotti -- he being the eminence grise of the postwar Italian state, seven times his country's prime minister and a friend and ally of U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon to George Bush.

Buscetta began by suggesting his audience in the Washington interview room would do well to sit back and relax. "I must say first of all that this matter must be seen as a very complex situation which requires a lot of time to explain and document . . ."

Yes, There Really Is a Corleone

Buscetta's story is certainly complex, not only in its own terms but because of the history from which it arises and the consequences it has lately produced.

This larger, sprawling tale stretches over more than a decade. It concerns the formation, rise, struggle and unfinished business of a transatlantic brotherhood of anti-Mafia investigators centered on two exceptional and ambitious public prosecutors: in Italy, Giovanni Falcone, and in America, Louis Freeh, installed on September 1 as FBI director. The story passes through two of the largest Mafia trials of the 1980s and has recently led -- though neither Falcone nor Freeh expected this -- to the drama of what Italians call their 1990s "revolution." A central aspect of this revolution is Italy's ongoing, volatile campaign to purge the Mafia from its midst and to cure a corrupt political culture where La Cosa Nostra has long found nourishment. That this upheaval arose in significant part from close, sometimes informal collaboration between Italian and American investigators is virtually unknown in the United States. In Italy, it is at present a topic of acute public controversy.

Buscetta and his testimony play but one part in this drama -- a role appearing heroic to some, venal and dubious to others. But to understand Buscetta's place, and the upheaval his words have lately helped to unleash, it is necessary first to travel to Corleone. And yes, there really is such a place. Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando have deeply engraved the Corleonesi, as Italians call them, in Western popular culture. But the fictional Godfather pales beside the original.

Corleone is a town of 13,000 nestled beneath a rock outcropping in the bare olive-brown mountains of interior Sicily. Narrow, shadowed cobblestone lanes slice through its terraced tenements and spill into dusty piazzas where townspeople gather at sunset to drink and gossip. Statues, faded ocher churches and idle construction cranes rise above the central square. The cranes are Corleone's most compelling civic symbols. For decades construction and public works in Sicily have provided foundations for Mafia enterprise and political graft. In Corleone during the postwar period, billions of lira were allocated by the Rome government -- and by the dominant southern Italian political party, Giulio Andreotti's Christian Democrats -- to construct such local projects as a highway to the sea, two dams for irrigation and a milk pasteurizing factory. Of these, only one dam ever functioned, and it provides no irrigation for Corleone's farmers because channels were never built. The milk factory sits idle and rusting. The highway was never completed. Such has been the political economy throughout Sicily and much of southern Italy: massive taxpayer spending, vast diversions caused by corruption and organized crime, and crumbling infrastructure.

For as long as there has been a Sicilian Mafia, Corleone has had a branch. But in 1981, the Corleonesi crime families -- led by a squat, mild-looking man named Salvatore "Tiny" Riina -- bid for power well beyond their provincial station. They broke an alliance with Sicily's Palermo-based crime families and embarked on open war for control of public graft rackets and international heroin operations. Hundreds died in shootouts and assassinations between 1981 and 1983. Because of their singular ruthlessness, the Corleonesi ultimately prevailed. "The Corleonesi were of a ferocity unseen before," recalls Dino Paternostro, quixotic director of Corleone's only anti-Mafia newspaper. "The Mafiosi in Palermo were caught by surprise when the Corleonesi made their move."

"The rivalries went back dozens of years and the war was simply the epilogue of an old story, the settling of old family and territorial scores," Falcone recalled in a long series of interviews with a French journalist published posthumously as a memoir. "From this terrifying bloodbath that cost hundreds of lives, La Cosa Nostra emerged . . . stronger than ever."

Among the victims of the Corleonesi triumph were 10 members of Tommaso Buscetta's family. Buscetta was allied to Mafia clans on the losing side. In September 1982, drive-by assassins killed his nephew and uncle in a Palermo glass factory. That same month, two of Buscetta's sons disappeared.

Buscetta escaped the carnage because he had troubles that kept him out of Sicily. These included outstanding arrest warrants and, more problematic, a penchant for changing wives. Sicilian Mafiosi are said to be permitted unlimited mistresses but are expected never to formally abandon their families. At the time of the Corleonesi-inspired war, Buscetta was in Brazil with his third wife. This probably hindered his Mafia career but it almost certainly saved his life.

Police arrested Buscetta in Brazil in October 1983. Falcone flew down from Sicily and Charles Rose, a federal narcotics prosecutor in Brooklyn, decamped separately from the United States. "We basically decided to pool our resources and work together," Rose says. That decision, born from a system of U.S.-Italian law enforcement cooperation then just a few years old, would produce many unexpected results.

Buscetta gave hints that he might cooperate against La Cosa Nostra, but he was worried about the safety of his remaining family. At one point he swallowed strychnine in an apparent suicide attempt. Falcone called the gesture "an act of love" by Buscetta for his Brazilian wife: "He wanted to stop causing her problems."

Negotiations involving Falcone, other Italian officials, the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI convinced Buscetta that he and his wife had a plausible life yet to live. The deal was complex and remains secret. Its effect was to permit Buscetta and his wife to enter the U.S. witness protection program while Buscetta served a brief period in detention. Then they relocated to a secret new life somewhere in America. In exchange, Buscetta agreed to spill his guts about the inner structures and manifold schemes of Sicilian-linked organized crime in Italy, America and elsewhere.

Why Buscetta turned state's evidence remains a topic of debate. Some believe he sought revenge against the Corleonesi. Others see him as a selfish and self-aggrandizing opportunist. Still others regard him as a pious convert to a righteous cause. Buscetta himself declared, "I am not an informer . . . I was a Mafioso and I am responsible for crimes for which I am ready to pay my debt."

The motivations of Buscetta and other Cosa Nostra "penitents," as they came to be known, captured the imagination of Italy's public. The language of repentance is deeply ingrained in Catholicism, dominant in Italian culture for centuries. In Italy's more contemporary, popular drive for political and social reform, repentance has acquired a further, powerful meaning associated with secular political change. Yet the motives of Mafia penitents like Buscetta did not matter very much to some of the anti-Mafia prosecutors who intended to exploit their information.

"All important decisions in a man's life usually have more than one motive," says Luciano Violante, chief of the Italian parliament's anti-Mafia commission. "I see the whole thing in terms of costs and benefits. Everything else belongs to the realm of literature."

A Transatlantic Brotherhood

Buscetta's conversion inspired a remarkable period of success against the Mafia in both Italy and the United States. Ten weeks after he began talking, Italian police swept through Sicily's countryside with arrest warrants for hundreds of leading Mafia members. Two days later, in a coordinated strike, U.S. police arrested 28 Americans and Italians in four states. Among those charged were senior members of Sicily's most powerful crime families and U.S.-based allies accused of smuggling $1.65 billion worth of heroin through Sicily to U.S. cities between 1979 and 1984.

The arrests led to the most celebrated Mafia trials in many years: the "Pizza Connection" cases in New York involving more than two dozen defendants, and the "Maxi Trial" in Palermo, in which 364 defendants were ultimately tried en masse for crimes arising from Mafia membership. For security reasons, the Sicilian accused were held during the proceedings in cages built in a courtroom bunker.

Preparation for these trials brought together two prosecutors from disparate worlds: Freeh, then a New York-based assistant U.S. attorney, and Falcone, then only beginning to acquire his reputation as the world's most formidable opponent of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. Both men sought to develop cases that would target La Cosa Nostra as an organization, as opposed to past efforts that struck piecemeal at its leaders. "The more we talked about it, the more similarity developed," Freeh recalls. On a personal level, he says, "I found a soul mate. I found somebody doing the exact same thing in Sicily under much more dangerous and difficult conditions."

Around Freeh and Falcone coalesced an intense, clannish, self-conscious group of energetic investigators bound by a sense of dangerous mission. The group included Italian police and prosecutors, federal prosecutors in New York and Washington, members of the FBI's organized crime strike force and others. From this brotherhood emerged numerous mechanisms for transatlantic law enforcement cooperation. The foundation was an Italian-American "working group" against the Mafia begun at the FBI's Quantico facility in 1981. By the mid-1980s, according to people involved, the group and its adjuncts had produced mutual assistance pacts, systems for intelligence sharing and exchanges of personnel virtually without input from the foreign policy arms of their governments.

Falcone was the most charismatic figure in this testosterone nexus. A broad-shouldered, thoughtful Sicilian with a flecked mustache and puckish eyes, he knew La Cosa Nostra because he had grown up in one of its bastions, a working-class Palermo neighborhood. Once, questioning a Mafioso, Falcone suddenly recognized the man as a boyhood Ping-Pong partner. Such intimacy provided advantage -- he could tackle the Mafia rationally, introspectively. "If we want to fight the Mafia organization efficiently, we must not transform it into a monster or think of it as an octopus or a cancer," he once said. "We must recognize that it resembles us."

Falcone's charm won affection from the Americans and his courage won respect. The U.S. Mafia had decided long before that killing police and prosecutors brought more trouble than benefit. The Sicilians had no such code. By the time of the Maxi Trial, Falcone lived like a prisoner. Surrounded by bodyguards, he rarely left his home or office. Once on a rare beach vacation he found 50 sticks of dynamite stuffed in the rocks outside his holiday cottage. He and his wife decided against children because it seemed unfair to put them at risk. Falcone loved traveling to America because he could walk the streets without bodyguards. "He could be free -- literally," remembers James C. Frier of the FBI's criminal division.

"I'm not Robin Hood," Falcone said. "I'm not a kamikaze pilot. I'm not a Trappist monk. I'm just working for the state in enemy territory."

Tommaso Buscetta's testimony gave Falcone the ammunition he sought. Buscetta informed about specific Mafia crimes in Italy and the States. He broke down La Cosa Nostra's barriers of secrecy. He provided organization and membership charts. He explained codes and interpreted systems of decision-making. But his most valued role, over time, was as a kind of oracle. His account of the Sicilian Mafia as a hierarchical, monolithic, highly rational enterprise became known as "the Buscetta theorem."

Falcone saw Buscetta as an "extremely enigmatic" figure. Yet he perceived "such warmth, such friendship between us sometimes." The record of Buscetta's testimony, all of it delivered in Sicilian and translated, paints the witness as a kind of Old World character prone to dramatic, high-minded pronouncements that tended to describe the world of Sicilian organized crime as akin to a medieval court. Small matters of personal honor and respect seemed crucial to Buscetta. Falcone recounted how, at the beginning of their relationship, their bond was sealed by an immensely subtle, almost ritualistic exchange over the terms by which Falcone offered Buscetta an open pack of cigarettes. Yet Buscetta was articulate and possessed of a subtle mind -- prosecutors spoke frequently of his "vision," meaning his ability to comprehend, distill and explain Sicilian organized crime in all of its facets, and to portray La Cosa Nostra as a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Still, Buscetta would not be drawn out on everything -- especially not politics. In one 1984 session, Buscetta told of a meeting he had once in Rome with "a member of parliament." But he refused to elaborate. "I am afraid my declarations might jeopardize the war against the Mafia, which has begun seriously in recent times," he told Falcone. "There are very serious facts which touch on political affairs . . . I will {seek} to avoid disturbing the equilibrium {because} this could lead to a halt in the judicial investigations."

It is unusual for a cooperating witness to be allowed to decide to withhold information. But under Italian law at that time, because he was technically a defendant as well as a witness, Buscetta had the right. For their part, the American investigators felt Italian politics was a matter for the Italians, and they respected Falcone's decision not to press the point. The American prosecutors' priority, like Falcone's, was to obtain criminal convictions from Buscetta's testimony.

Here too there were some doubts about the star witness. In the Pizza Connection trials Buscetta denied on the witness stand that he had ever dealt narcotics or committed other serious crimes himself. He almost certainly withheld details about crimes committed by friends and allies, according to prosecutors. His testimony about his own crimes was "simply not credible," says one U.S. prosecutor involved. "From what we knew about him and his history," Freeh says, "it seemed to me that he had a lot more information that he was not forthcoming with, knowledge of specific narcotics deals. Still, Freeh and many others involved regarded Buscetta's core testimony about La Cosa Nostra's membership, structure and activities as "one hundred percent accurate," as Freeh puts it, a judgment based on corroborating testimony and evidence. Most important for the challenges at hand, Buscetta's convincing, sweeping performances in both the Pizza Connection and Maxi trials helped to secure convictions against virtually all the defendants.

With this, Buscetta himself became a minor celebrity. On April 11, 1988, from behind a screen, he advised a U.S. Senate subcommittee in Washington about how to defeat his former brethren. "The Mafiosi are not romantic figures like you see in the movies," he told the committee. "I think there is only one way to overcome the Cosa Nostra, and that is to educate the people, to let them see what these men really are, and how dangerous they are to a civilized society."

'The System Would Reject That Kind of Information'

For all the success U.S.-Italian law enforcement cooperation produced by the end of the 1980s, it also exposed anomalies. The most obvious was the gap between the Mafia's importance in America and Italy. In America, the Mafia had become solely a law enforcement problem. Its crimes, while serious, no longer seriously poisoned state structures. In cultural terms, Americans saw the mob virtually as an amusement. In Italy none of this was true. In Sicily and elsewhere the Mafia was part and parcel of the state. It siphoned government spending, manipulated government programs, laundered profits through land and major banks, murdered leading political figures and intimidated the populace. To some of Falcone's colleagues, the most vexing evidence of this penetration was that many Corleonesi convicted in the Maxi Trial remained free either on generous bail terms or because Sicilian police claimed they could not find the fugitives in their midst.

Moreover, Italy's efforts to defeat the Mafia were highly politicized. Italy's democratic constitution is less than 50 years old; its politics remain volatile and fragile. During the Cold War, Italy was the only NATO member to have a Communist Party strong enough to seriously worry anti-communist strategists. Part of the Italian Communists' domestic electoral stance was a vehement commitment to battling the Sicilian Mafia. The Communists described the mob as a vanguard of fascism. Many investigating magistrates who tackled the Mafia were members or sympathizers of the Communist Party. In Italy's noisy, self-dramatizing political culture, fighting La Cosa Nostra was thus seen at times as a form of politics as usual -- and pro-communist politics at that.

Within this polarized climate it was long whispered, even presumed, that the Sicilian Mafia flourished at least in part because of connections to Giulio Andreotti's Christian Democrats, the most conservative mainstream political party in Italy and a prime foil for the Communists. The presumptions arose in part from the consistent success Andreotti's party enjoyed in highly competitive Sicilian elections. Wild charges about the Mafia's political sponsors in Rome surfaced repeatedly. But these charges came to nothing. To many Italians, exhausted by bad government and violent crime, this did not prove the charges were false, only that the conspiracy ran deep. Buscetta's refusal to speak of politics touched on this suspicion -- he said explicitly that if he tried to testify against politicians, the weight of the Italian state would soon crush both him and Falcone.

While officially agnostic about Mafia links to Italian politics, some American prosecutors in the transatlantic brotherhood thought Buscetta was right. "You have to be realistic -- what could the system take all at once?" recalls Richard Martin, who worked closely with Falcone as a federal prosecutor on the Pizza Connection cases and as U.S. legal attache in Rome. Buscetta's "assessment was that the Italian system would reject that kind of information," Martin says. "I think he was correct."

Washington's foreign policy apparatus had its own concerns. The main worry about Italy in the postwar years was to keep it in the NATO camp. Bob Woodward reported in Veil that former CIA director William Casey persuaded Saudi Arabia to funnel $2 million to Italy to help hold off the Communists. There were other, similar efforts, such as a secret CIA program, born in the early years of the Cold War, to bury around Italy weapons and explosives that could be dug up and used if the Communists ever seized power. Andreotti's Christian Democrats participated in this latter program, according to what Andreotti eventually told Italy's parliament. But this sort of U.S. engagement with Italy occurred on a higher plane than Sicilian ward politics. U.S. officials insist -- and there is no public evidence to suggest otherwise -- that they never had concrete, independent evidence about links between the Mafia and senior, pro-Western, Sicily-linked Italian politicians such as Andreotti.

In any event, by the end of the 1980s, two distinct strains in U.S. policy toward Italy were converging. With Mikhail Gorbachev ascendant in Moscow, the strategic thinkers were less worried about the Red bogy and more concerned about international drug trafficking. Mean-time, separately, the prosecutor-to-prosecutor brotherhood, centered on Falcone, was gaining momentum on its own.

A stubborn rationalist, Falcone never succumbed to conspiracy theories about the Mafia and politics, yet he did believe that Italian politicians collaborated with the mob. "We should not be astonished by the discovery that some politicians discreetly come to terms with La Cosa Nostra and make their own arrangements with them, given that the Mafia governs by controlling territory, which inevitably also means influencing political opinion . . . It is well known that the Mafia controls most of the votes in Sicily," Falcone said. Still, he was careful never to open legal cases he thought he might lose. Whether solely for lack of evidence or also out of concern about Italy's politicized judiciary, Falcone never brought formal charges against a senior Italian politician.

Falcone "knew you were never going to get Buscetta to say, 'Yes, we made Andreotti a member,' " says Richard Martin. "He knew it was a far more subtle relationship . . . What he was hoping to accomplish was to make the real activities of the Mafia so transparent that nobody could associate with them -- to prosecute, but also to have the public react."

'Why Can't You Protect This Wonderful Man?'

It required Falcone's murder to produce that public reaction.

Falcone's funeral at Palermo's Basilica of San Domenico on May 25, 1992, three days after his death in the car bomb blast, was a nearly revolutionary event, one of those galvanizing public moments comparable in the Sicilian context to Boris Yeltsin's climb atop a tank during the 1991 Soviet coup attempt.

It rained. But thousands upon thousands of Sicilians poured from their homes anyway, marching, weeping, jeering politicians, shouting. In the Basilica sanctuary, Falcone's childhood friend and investigative partner, Paolo Borsellino, laid his hands on the coffin and told anti-Mafia magistrates gathered in front, "Whoever feels they can't go all the way should feel free to seek a transfer, because this is our destiny."

In the first row was Peter Secchia, a Michigan businessman who was the Bush administration's ambassador to Italy. Falcone had dined at Secchia's Rome residence the night before his murder. Now Secchia stood between two senior ministers in the Rome government. "People were coming up and abusing them during the funeral," he remembers. "They were being threatened and abused and questioned, 'Why can't you protect this wonderful man?' After the funeral was over, the Italians were taken out the back by a very big security force. There was always the question of riots. I stayed in the church by myself . . . There were chants, there were screams. People were very upset with the whole system in Italy . . . They held my arm, dug in."

In Washington and New York, American members of the transatlantic prosecution teams reacted to Falcone's murder with revulsion and anger. "It sent chills through you," says the FBI's Frier. "You felt sick to your stomach." Louis Freeh's reaction was shaped in part by his conviction that the Mafia killed Falcone not only because he was a threat to them in Sicily but because Falcone was the key link to the American FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Justice Department, whose combined resources were providing Italian police with investigative tools they had never before enjoyed. "In that respect, it {Falcone's murder} was an attack directed against the FBI and all American law enforcement," Freeh says. "In that way it goes beyond my personal relationship" with Falcone.

In response, immediately after the bombing, the United States pledged forensic, surveillance and technological aid to Italian police in their efforts to find Falcone's killers.

In this pressured, reactive atmosphere something inside the Sicilian Cosa Nostra snapped. Palermo anti-Mafia magistrates say they have now learned that within La Cosa Nostra there was no solid consensus about the extreme decision to kill Falcone, and two months later, Borsellino as well. To some Mafiosi these acts and their aftermath offered final confirmation of a self-destructive strain in the era of Corleonesi rule, investigators say. These disillusioned members decided to get out before it was too late.

Beginning that summer of 1992, unprecedented numbers of Mafiosi -- first enemies of the Corleonesi, eventually Corleone insiders themselves -- began to turn state's evidence. In June, Leonardo Messina, a Mafioso in charge of dealing with government contracts for his family in Sicily, began to cooperate. In July, Gaspare Mutolo, senior aide to a notable Mafia boss, agreed to join the government's cause. On September 1, a driver for the fugitive Corleonesi leader Tiny Riina came in from the cold. Nor did these new turncoats confine their statements to instances of Mafia murder and mayhem. They began to rat on politicians in Giulio Andreotti's party.

All this shaped the crucial interview with Buscetta in Washington on September 11, when Buscetta at last agreed to break his silence about Italian politics. "The struggle has reached a decisive turning point," Buscetta explained two months later. "I hope the state can finally adopt a strategy in unity . . . I think this could be the right time to defeat the Mafia."

Uncle to the Mob?

When Buscetta and other Mafia penitents began to talk about politics late in 1992, the Italian postwar state was already in the early throes of a nervous breakdown. Falcone's murder and the reaction to it in Sicily and elsewhere were key elements of the impending crisis. But that was not all of it. In more prosperous, more stable northern Italy, a second wave of profound scandals unconnected to the Mafia was breaking and rolling toward Rome. These were the cases of business bribery, political payoffs and public sector corruption uncovered by investigating magistrate Antonio di Pietro. His investigations showed that nearly all the Cold War-era political parties, including Andreotti's, routinely extracted bribes and commissions as the price for doing business with the Italian state. Hundreds of politicians, including scores of leading national figures, were implicated in these cases. More than 2,000 businessmen and politicians were eventually arrested and jailed pending formal charges or trial. These Milan-centered investigations coincided with the precipitous rise of a previously obscure populist political movement called the Northern League. The league's appeal flowed not only from its promises of a new era of clean government in Italy but also from its secessionist-tinted campaign to halt the flow of the prosperous north's taxes and subsidies to Italy's south. Chauvinist Northern League leaders argued with some justification that billions of lira in wealth created in the north had been siphoned, wasted and stolen in the poorer south, and especially in Sicily, where La Cosa Nostra transformed public finance into its own illicit treasury.

This wider context of Italian upheaval provided momentum to efforts by Sicilian magistrates to crack La Cosa Nostra and expose its relationships to politicians, especially to Andreotti's long-dominant Christian Democrats.

At first, nearly all the statements about politics taken from squealing Mafiosi concerned not Andreotti himself, but his longtime lieutenant and political ally, Salvatore Lima, leader of the Christian Democrats in Sicily, a member of the European Parliament and for years the most influential politician on the island. Buscetta and other penitents testified that from the early 1960s on, Mafia members had regular and direct meetings with Lima. Mafia witnesses testified that Lima performed numerous services and favors, from fixing licenses and contracts to helping out relatives to promising that criminal proceedings against the Mafia would turn out favorably, which they often did. In exchange, the Mafia delivered votes to the Christian Democrats. These statements about Lima and local Sicilian Christian Democrat politicians were generally consistent, detailed and involved meetings in which the witnesses said they had personally participated.

Buscetta, for example, explained in Washington that Lima was the "member of parliament" he met in Rome, to whom he had alluded eight years earlier. He also testified that as far back as 1962, when Lima was embarking on a visit to New York, Buscetta provided him with a letter of introduction to the famed U.S. Mafia leaders Joe Bonanno and Carlo Gambino. Buscetta described the overall links between La Cosa Nostra and the Christian Democrats not as hierarchical or monolithic, but rather as loose, transactional, oriented toward mutual interest -- just as Falcone had always described them.

It was not, Buscetta testified that fall, "you will give me such and such and I will give you a thousand votes. This isn't true, or it's never been customary. What is generally done is, you say, 'Honorable one, I will do things for you, and I hope when you become elected, you will not forget.' And then when the person does become elected . . . there's a manner of speaking with the honorable one which is, 'Either you do it or you do it.' And the honorable one does it. Always."

Lima was not around to answer these charges. In March 1992, he was shot through his car window while driving home in the Sicilian resort of Mondello, then finished off as he climbed from his car and staggered down the street.

The Mafia witnesses now explained that they believed Lima was assassinated by the Corleonesi, on orders of Tiny Riina, because at the end of Lima's career he defied the Mafia-linked system of political patronage Buscetta described. The witnesses testified that for the defendants held in courtroom cages during Falcone's Maxi Trial of the late 1980s, it was an article of faith -- supposedly passed down from mob bosses on the outside -- that Lima had promised to "fix" the trial's outcome on appeal so that harsh sentences would never be imposed. The witnesses said they were told while in jail to be patient, that Falcone's grand Maxi case was just for show.

Indeed, for a while the defendants took heart, the witnesses said. On appeal the Falcone-crafted "Buscetta theorem" about a unified Sicilian Cosa Nostra, which lay at the heart of the Maxi convictions, was initially thrown out. But in January 1992, Italy's Supreme Court unexpectedly reaffirmed the theorem, the Maxi convictions and all the harsh sentences. Andreotti was prime minister of Italy at the time, Lima the most powerful politician in Sicily. Thus, the Mafia witnesses said, they believed Lima was murdered in March for failing to keep his promise to the Corleonesi. Buscetta speculated that Lima's murder was intended further as a message to Andreotti, as a means to "denigrate" the statesman.

On one hand, Andreotti's relationship with Lima was so politically close that common sense suggested he knew about Lima's apparent longtime contacts with the Mafia. Yet, persistently asked whether Lima made promises specifically on behalf of Andreotti, or whether Andreotti was the power behind Lima, Buscetta and other Mafia penitents often declined to answer or said they didn't know. A few eventually named Andreotti. One witness, Leonardo Messina, said the statesman was known as "uncle" to the mob, but this testimony was secondhand or thirdhand hearsay, essentially prison cell gossip. For his part, Andreotti declared that he was innocent, that he had repeatedly fought against the Mafia while in public life, and that, so far as he ever knew, his longtime ally Lima had no connections to La Cosa Nostra.

Yet spurred by the murders of Falcone and Borsellino, whose faces now appeared on popular protest posters all over Sicily, the momentum of investigation rolled on. Last January, Tiny Riina was arrested in central Sicily after living for years beyond the Italian state's grasp. The boss of all Sicilian bosses had been ratted out by one of his aides.

Triumphant magistrates paraded Riina before television cameras, where he adopted a demeanor of cool defiance. Riina said among other things that he didn't know any politicians. But his incarceration encouraged the swelling ranks of Mafia turncoats. One of them, Gaspare Mutolo, told magistrates in March that he had decided to tell all about Italian politicians, including Andreotti, because while watching Riina on television, he detected that the Corleonesi boss was still trying to send signals to his political sponsors in the hope that they would rescue him. Moreover, Riina's public arrest advertised to Mafia informers that the man they most feared was now in jail. More of the penitents, including Mutolo, now named Andreotti as Lima's sponsor with the mob, though still none of these witnesses could offer more than hearsay against Andreotti himself.

On March 27, Palermo magistrates submitted extensive documents to the Italian Senate seeking to lift the immunity from prosecution granted to Andreotti as a life senator and outlining all the testimony received so far. The magistrates did not bring a formal indictment or criminal charges against Andreotti. In the Italian system, they were merely asking for authority to investigate a legally immune politician. That authority was granted amid scenes of tumult in the Italian Senate, where Andreotti dramatically raised his own hand in favor, saying that he welcomed any honest investigation that would establish his innocence.

Days later, Italian investigators were winging again to America, where they interviewed Buscetta as well as another Mafia witness in the U.S. protection program, Francesco Mannoia, a heroin chemist who turned state's evidence in 1989. Buscetta now openly named Andreotti as Lima's sponsor and suggested that Andreotti might also be guilty of ordering the 1979 murder of a journalist in Rome. Mannoia testified that on one occasion he personally saw Andreotti enter a Sicilian villa to meet with a senior Mafia boss -- the first such direct testimony by any witness. Ten days later, on April 16, another Mafia turncoat, Baldassare Di Maggio, told magistrates that he too personally witnessed a meeting between Andreotti and mob bosses.

From a legal standpoint, this is where matters stand today, so far as is publicly known. Two confessed Mafia members have testified to witnessing direct meetings between Andreotti and leaders of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. A third witness, a police superintendent, has reported that he saw Andreotti meet with the son of a Mafia boss at a hotel. Besides these three direct witnesses, half a dozen others, and especially Buscetta, have provided extensive hearsay testimony that Andreotti was known for decades as La Cosa Nostra's ultimate sponsor in Rome. Moreover, there is extensive direct testimony about Lima, Andreotti's Sicilian lieutenant, and his long-standing ties to the Mafia. Still, no criminal charges have been filed against Andreotti. Investigations continue.

This incomplete legal and evidentiary situation bears no relation to Andreotti's political and public fate. He is, simply, finished. Italy's public is in no mood these days to worry about the details. The testimony against Lima and Andreotti has been made available to the public by the Italian Senate. One enterprising publisher even rushed the testimony into paperback. These allegations, combined with revelations from other scandals, have virtually destroyed Andreotti's reputation as the preeminent Italian statesman of his time. His Christian Democratic Party has effectively dissolved and its remnants are now trying to compete for power on new political ground in a transformed Italy. Andreotti himself, says one Italian journalist, is seen today as "the Erich Honecker of Italy," a reference to the former East German leader tried for ordering the shooting deaths of people fleeing across the Berlin Wall.

'Rumor, Gossip and Prosecutorial Speculation'

" 'Bitter' is the most exact term," Giulio Andreotti said, explaining how he feels in the twilight of his public life. It was late last month, and he was sitting for an interview in his office at the Italian Senate in Rome. The room was airy, brocaded, cold. Overhead shone a fresco depicting opulence. In the painting's center, a golden-haired boy spilled coins from a bowl.

"I understand that after 40 years in public life, change is almost a law of physics," Andreotti continued. "But I cannot accept for myself that this change came about through damaging lies or through a legal procedure. So I am fighting back."

At 74, he does not look or sound as if there is much fight left in him. His body is shrinking. His shoulders, long stooped, are more hunched than ever. His thoughts are well ordered and his voice is steady, but it carries little force.

Some in Italy suggest Andreotti has felt betrayed by the U.S. government. But in the interview, he declared Washington blameless for his fate. He is critical of U.S. prosecutors who sanctioned the immunity terms that have allowed Mafia witnesses Buscetta and Mannoia to speak against him without, in Andreotti's view, sufficient fear of legal consequences. What strikes Andreotti as most ironic is that during the early 1980s, "I, as foreign minister, worked very hard at extraditing Buscetta from Brazil to the U.S."

Andreotti's "fighting back" consists partly of seeking his own American connection to offset the one developed by Italy's anti-Mafia prosecutors. Andreotti has retained Abraham Sofaer, formerly chief legal counsel in Ronald Reagan's State Department. Sofaer has prepared and circulated a 93-page brief attacking the allegations against Andreotti as "based on rumor, gossip and prosecutorial speculation" and as having "no credible support in fact or law." As a legal matter, there is little Sofaer can do in America other than request that the Justice Department review the immunity grants to Buscetta and Mannoia, which seems unlikely. A more important thrust of the brief appears to be its attempt to salvage some of Andreotti's reputation.

The brief points out repeatedly what is often absent from Italian press reports about Andreotti, namely that a considerable part of the testimony against him is hearsay and that no formal charges have yet been filed. As to the firsthand testimony of meetings between Andreotti and the mob, Sofaer dismisses these as implausible. Sofaer also cites the charge that Andreotti ordered the murder of the journalist in 1979 -- a tangled allegation that appears highly speculative at this stage -- as evidence of Italian prosecutorial recklessness. Andreotti, writes Sofaer, "is accused of the most heinous crimes imaginable, by the world's most heinous criminals, on the basis largely of what they claim to have heard other criminals say, and often without sufficient specificity to permit effective rebuttal."

Sofaer acknowledged in an interview that the testimony against Andreotti's longtime Sicilian lieutenant, Lima, is relatively solid. He argued, however, that this evidence cannot and should not be used to implicate Andreotti. As to the larger, obvious political issue -- that if the leader of Andreotti's political party in Sicily was a patron of the Mafia for decades, then surely Andreotti bears some responsibility -- Sofaer replied that politics are beyond his brief.

Andreotti himself defends Lima still. "I always thought that what was said about him and his links to the Mafia was a fruit of Sicilian political struggles. Nothing made me think that he had any links to the Mafia," he said. "If this does surface and is proved, then I will accept it and I will feel embittered."

The uncomfortable truth is that none of this is likely to be resolved definitively while Andreotti is still alive. Nor, even if the evidence were judged in Andreotti's favor, would Italy's public likely forgive him. Too much has passed now. Andreotti is the leading symbol of a postwar generation of politicians whose peaceful overthrow has become the most concrete objective of Italy's recent turmoil.

Andreotti addresses this fact in a muted, resigned voice. "Since March, when the first allegation surfaced, my life has changed considerably," he said beneath his office fresco. "I hope this will go by quickly, but I now have concerns I didn't have before. It's changed my vision very much. It's changed my life very much."

'We Should Not Fool Ourselves'

What other changes have come of this are not so easy to declare. Certainly the Sicilian Mafia is today in a state of disarray and under a degree of pressure it has not known since the Second World War. But whether La Cosa Nostra is on the verge of a decisive defeat is by no means sure. Certainly too Italy's stagnant politics have been injected with hope and dynamism. But to what degree this "revolution" will produce a new political system, as opposed to new faces atop old structures, is unclear as well. National elections to be held late this year or early in 1994 are the likely next step.

The transatlantic prosecutorial brotherhood carries on, bolstered by Falcone's transformation in death into a nearly mythic hero in Italian culture. A biographical film, titled simply "Giovanni Falcone," was due in Italian theaters this month. On the American side, Louis Freeh has been sworn in as FBI director and has vowed to further the cause. During his installation ceremony at FBI headquarters in Washington in September, with President Clinton in attendance, Freeh cited Falcone twice in his short remarks as proof "that individual people can make . . . historic differences."

But in Corleone, isolated from bravura and change behind its cragged Sicilian peaks, history seems very much unfinished.

At Dino Paternostro's anti-Mafia monthly newspaper, New Cities, a poster of Falcone and Borsellino, emblazoned with the slogan "You Have Not Killed Them, Their Ideas Walk on Our Legs," stares defiantly at a street just off the town square. The newspaper's old office was burned to the ground in April. Yet, remarkably, Paternostro survives to carry on.

"Civil society today is able to move into places that would have been unthinkable before," he reflected one recent evening as Corleone's piazzas filled with pensioners and children. "With this new sensitivity among the public about the Mafia, we are beginning to find support, we are able to speak out . . . But we should not fool ourselves. Anti-Mafia forces are still a small minority. The average man -- most of them -- are still afraid of the Mafia, so they stay on the sidelines and look on."

Lately these average Corleonesi have watched a remarkable spectacle concerning the name of their main town square. For decades it was called Vittorio Emmanuele II Square, after the 19th-century Italian king. In July of this year, Corleone's commissioner -- the equivalent of mayor, but appointed by Sicily's regional government -- acceded to the demands of anti-Mafia activists and declared that henceforth the name would be changed to Falcone and Borsellino Square. Under pressure, the commissioner resigned at the end of July. The new commissioner's first act was to change the square's name back to Vittorio Emmanuele II. Anti-Mafia activists protested, and in September, the second commissioner was fired. His successor's first item of business is a proposal to name the square after Falcone and Borsellino again. As of this writing, the matter remains undecided.

Steve Coll, who is based in London, is an international investigative correspondent for The Post.