Gladio Stay-Behind Operation: An Italian Noir In Wartime

The Gladio stay-behind operation is not fiction, but a veritable secret spy story.

Gladio, strage di Bologna

The Gladio stay-behind operation is not fiction, but a veritable secret spy story

There is a red thread that binds the Italian Parliament with Langley in Virginia, headquarter of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This thread is so knotted and woven that over the course of half a century it has became an international noir, involving the fate of the world in a secret and paramilitary spy story. Everything begins and ends with the Cold War, when the world was divided into two blocks and the Italian boot acted as a watershed in the Mediterranean Sea. The newly formed NATO, in order to prevent a potential invasion into the allied European countries by the Soviet Union, created a stay-behind operation in western Europe, called Operation Gladio, which was largely funded by the CIA.

Remember this date: 1956. The Warsaw Pact was signed a year before between the Soviet Union and seven eastern European countries, reinforcing the militarization in Europe and balancing the NATO influence. It became immediately apparent that the Russians were serious in 1956, when the Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy tried to withdrawal Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Moscow’s reaction was bloody: Soviet troops invaded Hungary removing his government and killing about 2500 Hungarian citizens. Given that some Italian communist leaders such as Palmiro Togliatti, Luigi Longo and Giorgio Napolitano — the latter even became President of Italy for two terms — supported the Russian action, the US made Italy the Trojan horse of their stay-behind operation.

Silendo Libertatem Servo. This Latin saying, which means “By being silent, I protect liberty,” became a part  of the coat of arms and the motto of Operation Gladio, the all Italian stay-behind paramilitary organization. Operation Gladio was born just after the end of the Hungarian Revolution, in November 1956, and also involved European countries like the UK, France, Belgium and West Germany, a key part of the stay-behind clandestine network. Although officially Gladio wasn’t a part of NATO, being created by the Coordinating and Planning Committee and the Allied Coordination Committee, its role over the years reflected the geopolitical interests of the Atlantic pact. The direction of Gladio in Italy was in the hands of Giovanni De Lorenzo, then head of the Italian Military Secret Service (SIFAR).

The story of this military general explains a lot about Gladio and its entanglement with politics and Italian mysteries. Gladio, more than a paramilitary clandestine army to counteract Communism in Europe awaiting American reinforcements, played a dangerous role within Italy. If there was supposedly an external Communist threat, how come even Yugoslavia (a socialist dictatorship bordering Italy) joined the stay-behind network? The fact is that a secret structure of spies and paramilitaries can act outside the control of the official army and the organs of the state, and consequently affecting internal policy more than they ever thought possible.

The rise and fall of Gladio

Giovanni De Lorenzo went down in history as the chief author of the only coup d’état ever known in Italy, precisely in 1964. As commander of the Carabinieri (Italy’s national gendarmerie), De Lorenzo altered the hard contrast between Antonio Segni, then-President of Italy, and Aldo Moro, then Prime Minister, who had decided to enlarge his governmental coalition to include the Italian Communist Party. Antonio Segni, strongly opposed to communists, threatened Aldo Moro fearing a caretaker government supported by the military. However, the political skill of Moro and the fact that Segni later became ill and was replaced as President, meant that the coup d’état was avoided.

This supposed coup was discovered three years later, causing a political upheaval and doubts about the stay-behind operation coordinated from overseas. Shortly before his death in 1973, De Lorenzo attempted a career as a parliamentarian, first within the ranks of the Italian Democratic Party of Monarchist Unity and then as part of the Italian Social Movement. Because of his approach to this latter party, being the political heir of fascism in Italy, and his alleged membership in the Masonic lodge of Propaganda Due, De Lorenzo revealed new viewpoints about the ramifications of Gladio.

The Italian stay-behind operation was an uncontrollable, dangerous weapon during the Years of Lead, and its name appeared on several judicial inquiries. Further investigation into its anonymous members seem to underline a correlation with the greatest mysteries of Italy, including the abduction and killing of Aldo Moro, the Bologna massacre at the railway station, the Piazza della Loggia bombing in Brescia, attacks to law enforcement and — not to miss anything — links with the Sicilian Mafia. The judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, before being killed, were specifically investigating Gladio.

The secret of Gladio was made public in 1990, when the then Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti authorized the judiciary to access covert intelligence which had found weapon depots in northeastern Italy. The ‘Gladiators’ hid their weapons in this little patch of land, a stone’s throw from the Communist Yugoslavia led by the ambitious Marshal Josip Broz Tito. However, they were never used across the border of Gorizia, but they did serve to fuel the inner ‘Strategy of tension’.

The fall of Gladio followed that of the Berlin Wall, and when danger of a communist turn in Italy was averted, Giulio Andreotti felt free to report to the Chamber of Deputies the existence of Gladio. Italy was the first country of all of Europe to make its cell of the stay-behind network public. In addition, Andreotti, feeling less pressured by the USA, cast light on 40 years of Cold War experienced by the Italian Republic. Nevertheless, he also spread several shadows about the deeds of this clandestine paramilitary army, arousing indignation in left-wing parties and new court cases. But the appellate courts didn’t find the Gladio operation guilty of any criminal charges, and besides not considering it illegitimate. The only body able to argue the illegality of the international stay-behind network was the European Parliament. Finally the sword, the crest of Gladio, seems to be laid into a rock.

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