Gladio is still opening wounds

Charles Richards, Independent, 1 December 1990, page 12

From Charles Richards in Rome

OPERATION GLADIO has been dismantled. General Paolo Inzerilli, chief of staff of the Italian security service Sismi, told the parliamentary commission on terrorism that the Prime Minister issued the order on Wednesday. A month ago the organisation, named after the Roman gladius or short, double-edged sword, had been frozen.

The gladiators may have been demobbed, but Gladio continues to make short, sharp stabs - mostly in the back - wielded and exploited to advance that most favoured of Italian pastimes, political intrigue.

Hearings continue. On Wednesday, the parliamentary committee on the secret services investigating the Gladio affair heard testimony from three former prime ministers - Amintore Fanfani, Ciriaco De Mita and Bettino Craxi. No wonder Giulio Andreotti, who heads the 49th government since the Second World War, greeted news of Margaret Thatcher's resignation with the quip: "We Italians do not find a change of prime ministers such a traumatic experience."

Mr Fanfani told the parliamentary body he knew nothing. Mr De Mita acknowledged he had been informed. Mr Craxi repeated that the whole issue was not clear. Politicians and ex-secret service chiefs have been filing in and out of this hearing and a parliamentary committee on terrorism. Traffic has been busy, too, through the chambers of Felice Casson and Carlo Mastelloni, the two tenacious investigating magistrates in Venice who are trying to uncover the truth about some unsolved terrorist attacks in the 1970s. Generals have spoken out on television and radio, forests of newsprint have been printed. But to date the ghosts of the gladiatori have not clambered out of their arena to cut short the political careers of any of the men who set up the organisation and kept it going.

There have of course been hints, suggestions, innuendoes, that members of Gladio were responsible for incidents in Italy's murky past. General Gerardo Serravalle, head of Gladio from 1971 to 1974, told a television programme that he now thought the explosion aboard the plane Argo 16 on 23 November 1973 was probably the work of gladiatori who were refusing to hand over their clandestine arms. Until then it was widely believed the sabotage was carried out by Mossad, the Israeli foreign secret service, in retaliation for the pro-Libyan Italian government's decision to expel, rather than try, five Arabs who had tried to blow up an Israeli air-liner. The Arabs had been spirited out of the country on board the Argo 16.

Admiral Stansfield Turner, the former head of the CIA, refused in a television interview to answer questions about Gladio. At the end of the interview, the questioner asked him about Licio Gelli, who headed the secret masonic lodge P2 whose members included military officers, politicians, industrialists and secret service chiefs. Admiral Turner ripped off his microphone and shouted: "I said, no questions about Gladio." A forced admission about the link between Gladio and P2, held responsible for right-wing terrorism? Or the confused reaction of a man no loner in command of the facts?

No political heads have had to roll, but then in Italy accountability does not feature in most politicians vocabulary. The affair has, however, already had political consequences. At the centre had been the man who has had his hands in every stage of Italian history since the war - Giulio Andreotti. The left has been gunning for him. He has given three different stories. He said first that Gladio never existed, then that it no longer existed, then that it it did, but was inoperative. Then it was revealed that he had donated a billiard table to the training barracks for Gladio on Sardinia, emblazoned with a plaque recording the gift.

Yet it was Mr Andreotti who made the first public declaration about Gladio, giving unsolicited testimony to the parliamentary committee on terrorism. Why? Was it because he realised the Venice magistrates were closing in, and he preferred a controlled explosion to one out of his hands?

The result has been to unite his own Christian Democrat party, which has re-elected the out-of-favour Mr De Mita from the party's left wing as chairman. For the left has closed ranks over Gladio, bringing to and end, however temporarily, the internal feuding. At the same time, the Socialist Mr Craxi, and the Republican Giovanni Spadolini, have been greatly embarrassed.

Their protestations that they knew nothing of Gladio, or that they had been under-informed, reveal something of their attitude to government during Mr Craxi's four years as prime minister from August 1983, when Mr Spadolini was his defence minister. How could a Socialist prime minister, for the first time with access to the greatest secrets of the state so long denied to his party, have failed to realise their importance and make political capital?

The Socialists' discomfiture also puts off prospects for closer ties with the Communists, desperately in need of an issue to rally around, as the Communist Party - the largest in Europe - seeks to maintain support while it undergoes its transformation of name and ideology. But once again the Communists have shown themselves a good party of opposition, rather than an alternative government. They organised rallies, demanding the truth.

President Francesco Cossiga told them to forget the "ghosts of the past". He was accused of over-stepping his constitutional role as head of state for all Italians, thus threatening his chances for the succession in 1992. And how could Italy forget the terrible roll of unsolved incidents: 16 killed at the Piazza Fontana in Milan on 12 December 1969; seven killed in the attack on a train at Gioia Tauro on 22 July 1970; eight killed at the Piazza Loggia, Brescia, on 28 May 1974; 12 killed on the Italicus train at San Benedetto Val di Sambro on 4 August 1974; 81 killed in the Itavia DC9 off Ustica on 27 June 1980; 85 killed at the Bologna station bombing on 2 August 1980; 15 killed on Train 904 at San Benedetto Val di Sambro on 23 December 1984?

For the moment, the answers have not been forthcoming. The conspiracy theorists - of whom Italy has many - say that is because everyone is implicated and no one wants the truth to come out.