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Wire tap evidence should be admissible in court, attorney general Lord Goldsmith has told the Guardian newspaper after being briefed by his opposite number in the United States.

His comments were made on the same day that 20 police and security chiefs were arrested over the abuse of wiretaps in Italy.

"I do believe there are ways we can [admit wiretap evidence]," said Goldsmith. "Otherwise, we're depriving ourselves of a key tool to prosecute serious and organised crime and terrorism," he said in the paper today.

There are people in the police and security services who are said to have reservations about allowing wire tap evidence in court because they fear it might reveal the tools of their trade.

The report said Goldsmith realised it would be possible to establish safeguards to protect the privacy of the security services. The article did not mention any need to protect the privacy of ordinary citizens.

The attorney general came to this conclusion after meeting with US authorities including his peer, Alberto Gonzales, representatives of the FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission, lawyers and judges.

The only other fear Goldsmith expressed in the Guardian report was that snoopers would become inundated with requests to spy on people.

"We may need help from the legislature and the judges to avoid the agencies being swamped with irrelevant requests," he said.

Italian use of wiretaps is said by the Financial Times to be "ubiquitous" and leaks of transcripts to the press before a trial "habitual".

One of the people arrested over abuse of wiretaps yesterday was the former head of security at Telecom Italia, Giuliano Tavaroli. Pierguido Iezzi, head of security at the telco's owner Pirelli, was also arrested. Most of the other arrests were of police. Allegations included the operation of a secret "shadow" wiretap network.

The US representatives had told Goldsmith how wiretap evidence had allowed them to prosecute Mafia dons.

He subsequently hinted to the Guardian at a hardening of the state's view of suspects: "One of the key issues for me will be whether we've got the right attitude to prosecuting, whether prosecutors need to be, I won't say more aggressive, but more forward and forceful," he said. ®

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