Albert Camus in his essay “L’Exil d’Hélène” discusses contemporary disregard for the Greek value of limits. Camus writes that only the artist by his nature recognizes his limits, limits which the historic spirit disregards. The very idea of a super-secret organization like Gladio to remake the world in its own image reflects that same disregard for the Greek values that Camus so cherished.
When in the early 1970s an Italian right-wing journalist told me about a secret army training in Italy’s mountains, I scoffed at first thinking he was repeating a rumor picked up from some scoop-obsessed reporter. But my tune began changing when he gave it a name—“Stay Behind Army”—and explained it was a secret army to fight the Soviet armies which someday soon would invade West Europe. He gave me the name of a member of that secret army who would talk with me.
A few days later on a street corner near Rome’s Sapienza University I met a sleazy-looking Roman in his early twenties accompanied by a friend. Both of them kept looking around us, as if checking for tails. Their behavior was that of men on the run, yet men of destiny. They talked readily. And I, without realizing it, was being shown a speck of a new planet. Speaking softly in a crisp language with their Rome accents, they told me they had just finished a military training course in the nearby Abruzzi Mountains after having done basic training in Sardinia. Several times they used the term “Secret Army”, lowering their voices and glancing around each time they pronounced the words. And no, they answered, the organizers would not allow journalist visits, and that yes, the secret army was well equipped and ready.
Years later, in the late 1980s or early 90s, it happened by chance that I met in a Rome hotel bar an American who knew details about that secret army. I was sitting on a stool at the bar of the luxurious Grand Hotel waiting for an appointment with a well-known writer when the man sat down on the stool next to me. I recognized William Colby from pictures of him in the press announcing the presence in Rome for a conference of the former Director of the CIA. I nodded, said hello, and we chatted bar talk until the chat turned into a short interview, which I subsequently published in the European press. I told him I knew who he was, and as we spoke I asked him point-blank about the mysterious Stay-Behind Army.
To my surprise Colby almost boasted that the covert action branch of the CIA to which he was attached in the 1950s built throughout Western Europe what in intelligence trade parlance were known as ‘Stay-Behind Nets’, in Italy known as Gladio, the headquarters of which was in Rome. In that post-war period Colby was a young intelligence officer assigned to the CIA station in the US Rome Embassy. Officially the network was clandestine, he related, ready to be called into action as sabotage forces when the time came, confirming the few words of those two young Romans of years earlier. Colby said that in 1951 the chief of the CIA in West Europe sent him to the field to help build the Stay-Behind network. ‘Our aim was the creation of an Italian nationalism capable of halting the slide to the left,’ he said, as if speaking of ancient Greek history.
Officially, Operation Gladio—the code name of the clandestine Stay-Behind Net—was founded on November 26, 1956, to defend Europe from invasion by Warsaw Pact nations. Gladio was a CIA Italian operation from the start and linked to NATO. However, it belonged heart and soul to the USA/CIA. Gladio was officially dissolved on July 27, 1990. Or, as is likely, the operation assumed another name. Al Qaeda is named as its successor.
After World War Two many top US military personnel had favored marching straight on to Moscow. Russia was their real enemy. Allied armed forces were still fresh. Western Intelligence knew of the enormous Soviet war losses and that the mood of the Russians was to return home. Moreover many coopted German military and intelligence leaders repeated over and again: ‘The time is now. Together we can crush Communist Russia.’ Yet, Allied leaders also knew well of the historical capacity of Russians to resist. Saner appraisals favored prudence. The long Cold War was the result.
Although it existed and was fought, for more discerning minds also the Cold War was a sham. A cover. If the Cold War was a certain guarantee of relative peace, the One World Order without limits was burgeoning in the minds of secret powers in the western world. Gladio was one of its newer weapons.
An occupied country atmosphere haunted Europe, especially Italy and Germany. US troops were everywhere and showed no signs of going back home. Unbeknownst to the troops and to Americans at home, the Gladio-Stay-Behind complex was growing. It had settled in for the long haul. Though Soviet tanks never arrived, Gladio helped keep occupied Europe in line. Terrorism was the means. Social unrest, changing borders and ethnic protests required attention. In the next years the rise of Socialist parties opened a new front: Gladio had to tame overly ambitious socialists like François Mitterrand, Willy Brandt and Olof Palme. Sweden’s Social Democratic Prime Minister, Palme, opposed the Vietnam War and maintained good relations with Castro’s Cuba, with Allende in Chile and the Communist bloc of nations. In 1986, Olof Palme was assassinated on the streets of Stockholm. His killer was never found.
Terrorism erupted in north Italy in the late 1950s when the separatist Committee For the Liberation of the South Tyrol, or BAS from the German Befreiungsausschuss Südtirol, spread terror in the Italian Tyrol and already in that early post-war terrorists were manipulated by the CIA as in Italy’s northern region. Tyrolean people loved the terror they believed was perpetrated in the name of secession from Italy and union with Austria—357 attacks causing the death of twenty-one people in thirty-two years of terror. But people did not know that BAS had become a CIA affair and in effect ran against their desire for secession. At first it had all seemed so easy to Tyroleans. A Rasputin-like priest, Michael Gamper, and nine militant activists founded BAS. Their goal: secession of South Tyrol from Italy and unification with Austria of the entire Tyrol, north and south. The CIA did not share that goal. In CIA minds, Tyrolean unification with Austria with its strong Communist Party (KPO) was a nightmare: it would open a corridor from Soviet-occupied Eastern Austria for Soviet tanks headed for Rome. As BAS distributed pamphlets and destroyed symbolic places, the CIA and NATO saw the mouth-watering opportunity BAS terrorism offered. BAS terrorists were international with close ties to Neo-Nazi organizations in Austria and Germany, they too infiltrated and used by the CIA. On Fire Night in June of 1961, BAS commandos destroyed thirty-seven electrical towers, interrupting the power supply of all of Upper Italy. That violence prompted a ready and willing NATO (now including the newly created secret army of Gladio) and Rome to intervene and crush the secessionist movement. Carrot and stick rule over mutinous Tyrolean-Italians. And according to the script US/NATO power had set things right: an early example of the strategy of tension at work. Create the terror. Then suppress the popular secessionist movement. Clearly the South Tyrol would remain Italian Alto Adige. There would be no secession here. It would not unite with North Tyrol. It would not become part of dangerous Austria. A whole panoply of evidence confirms the Tyrol-as-laboratory to test the CIA strategy of tension. No surprise that a decade later, Italy’s Marxist-Leninist Red Brigades imitated BAS tactics; in the end both Tyrolean terrorists and the Red Brigades were manipulated by Gladio. They were the actors in the strategy of tension. If the Gladio secret army conspiracy could function so well in Italy, they were organized in many other European countries.
North Italy made a model for Flemish terrorists in the late Fifties and the Sixties Belgium when Brussels was considered a most dangerous city. And again during Belgium’s “Bloody Eighties” and the Flemish rebellion against the French-speaking Wallon urge for power. Belgium’s own secret army worked as in Italy.
Tension strategy exists for the manipulation and control of public opinion: fear, propaganda, disinformation, psychological warfare, agents provocateurs … and false flag terrorist actions. Gladio’s raison d’etre in Italy: first organize terrorism and blame it on Communists; spread fear and then pass laws restricting the freedoms of the people. As they had done in the Alto Adige when people fell for the propaganda of the threat of a Soviet invasion: the scary image of Russian Cossacks watering their horses in Vatican fountains. But people never get it! They are afraid. More special laws are passed and thousands of leftists are imprisoned. Keep the populace afraid so that promises of security will be believed. You create fear with lies. And the state then suppresses dissent. The state media define Communists as the enemy. Anything is justified to crush them. Communism and terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists … and today ‘immigrants.’ Gladio made a major contribution to the creation of an obedient Europe … an obedience today finally at the rupture point because the USA has exceeded all limits.
People in Italy, in Europe—in the western world—know nothing about Gladio and the strategy of tension. They do not know why terrorism persists … nor who the real terrorists are. Italy’s parliamentary investigations of Gladio resulted in a 300-page report on Gladio operations in Italy and its connections with the United States. Yet people are ignorant of that report that explains Gladio and casts the blame on the USA for the terrorism in Italy in the years of lead in the 1970s and 80s. It shows that the massacres, bombings and paramilitary actions were organized by shadowy men within Italian state institutions—by men linked to American Intelligence. A bomb inside the Banca Nazionale dell’ Agricoltura on Milan’s Piazza Fontana on December 12, 1969 marked the continuation of the strategy of tension: the Piazza Fontana massacre. Sixteen dead, fifty-eight injured. The bombing took place at the height of the biggest strike wave that Italy had seen since the end of WWII.
Automobile and sheet metal workers were militant and aggressive in those times. Inflation drove prices to the sky. Trade unions dominated headlines. The word agitation was in wide use. Governments rose and fell as strikes and demonstrations became daily. Soaring interest rates, tottering governments, power outages and water rationing, second, third and fourth houses for the new rich and evictions for the poor. The people were incensed … until the bombs on Milan’s Piazza Fontana. Those bombs stopped the spread of agitation and the strike wave dead in its tracks. The police hauled suspected leftist sympathizers in for questioning and intimidated their families while the government passed emergency laws against suspected terrorists. Hand in hand, police and the media then blamed the Piazza Fontana bombing on a pathetic group of anarchists, the Bakunin Club, which anyway was already penetrated by the Italian secret services. An anarchist was pushed to his death from a fourth-story window of police headquarters in Milan.
More than twenty years after the bombing, official sources revealed that the bombs in the Piazza Fontana bank were placed by Gladio operating under the control of NATO intelligence worried that the strike wave would lead to the entry of the Italian Communist Party into the Rome government. Throughout the seventies and into the eighties NATO and Italian ruling circles were obsessed with keeping the Communists out of the government, exemplified by the abduction and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 for his attempts to bring the Italian Communist Party into the government coalition. The Moro murder was executed by the CIA/Gladio-run Red Brigades. The general public knew nothing about the real perpetrators: Gladio. They still do not.
A romantic time in Old Europe? Hardly. Soldiers in full battle dress patrolling the streets of Rome. Sirens screaming citywide day and night. Once in 1978 I returned from Iran with two of my Italian businessmen bosses and a potential, very Eastern-looking Iranian customer. It was the day Premier Moro was abducted by the infiltrated and CIA-manipulated Red Brigades. While we drove around the city police stopped us five times for identification and searches. Two Italians, an American and an Iranian in the same car were suspect. Tension was rife in Rome. The abduction of the Premier exemplified the strategy of tension method of social control.
It is a mystery that the people know nothing about Operation Gladio. Despite the 300-page Italian parliamentary report on it, despite mentions even in the New York Times, despite coincidences like William Colby’s free-and-easy revelations in a Rome bar, despite studies and articles about it in the leftist press, and despite decades of its nefarious activities worldwide which know no limits, people have remained ignorant about the US/NATO-run Operation Gladio.
Gaither Stewart is a Writer on Dandelion Salad. A veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press. His latest book is the essay anthology Babylon Falling: Essays About Waning Qualities and Studies of Failing Empires (Punto Press, 2017).
From the archives: