The Gladio File: did fear of communism throw West into the arms of terrorists?

Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian, 5 December 1990, page 12

As scandal unfolds, Whitehall's response is silence, writes Richard Norton-Taylor

A CHANCE discovery by an assiduous Italian magistrate investigating a neo-fascist terrorist attack has unearthed a secret paramilitary network run by units of the armed forces and intelligence services throughout western Europe.

Over the past few weeks, government after government, with the notable exception of the British, has been forced to admit that the organisation - whose original purpose was to set up resistance groups against occupying Warsaw Pact forces - still exists. It has come be to known as Operation Gladio, after its Italian branch.

Two threads have emerged. Ministers, let alone parliaments, knew nothing about the secret units; second, while nominally established as "stay-behind" sabotage groups to combat communist forces, in some countries they soon had internal political targets in their sights.

Representatives from these units have been meeting regularly in Brussels in the Allied Coordination Committee. This consists of civilian and military personnel, according to Italian and Belgian sources. Guy Coeme, the Belgian defence minister, has said it last met in Brussels in late October.

The network was not confined to Nato countries. An inquiry in Switzerland recently revealed the existence of a secret organisation, P26. It had 400 agents with access to guns and explosives with a German radio system, Harpoon, set up in 1985 to contact parallel groups in neighbouring countries.

One early task was to take over plans for a Swiss government-in-exile in south-west Ireland in the event of invasion. Another was to prepare for action against "subversion".

P26 was backed by P27, a private foreign intelligence agency funded partly by the government, and by a special unit of Swiss army intelligence which had built up files on nearly 8,000 "suspect persons" including "leftists", "bill stickers", "Jehovah's witnesses", people with "abnormal tendencies" and anti-nuclear demonstrators.

On November 14, the Swiss government hurriedly dissolved P26 - the head of which, it emerged, had been paid £100,000 a year.

Although the Ministry of Defence has repeatedly refused to comment on Britain's involvement, Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley, a former commander of Nato forces in northern Europe, has confirmed that a secret network of arms - to be handed out to a civilian guerrilla force in the event of an invasion - was set up in Britain after the war.

The Guardian has learned of a secret attempt to revive elements of a parallel post-war plan relating to overseas operations. In the early days of Mrs Thatcher's Conservative leadership, a group of former intelligence officers, inspired by the wartime Special Operations Executive, attempted to set up a secret unit as a kind of armed MI6 cell.

Those behind the scheme included Airey Neave, Mrs Thatcher's close adviser who was killed in a terrorist attack in 1979, and George Kennedy Young, a former deputy chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

Mrs Thatcher is said to have been initially enthusiastic but dropped the idea after the scandal surrounding the attack by the French secret service on the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, in New Zealand in 1985.

British co-operation with the Gladio network since the 1950s appears to have concentrated on offering training expertise for continental cells. Werner Carobbio, a member of the Swiss parliamentary inquiry, referred the Guardian to Swiss press reports that P26 personnel had received training in Britain.

General Gerardo Serravalle, a retired officer, told the Italian parliamentary inquiry that a Gladio unit trained in Britain in the early 1970s. General Fausto Fortunato, head of the Italian Gladio cell until 1964, referred to a "crucial" meeting of the network held in Britain, followed by others in France, Belgium and Luxembourg in the early 1960s.

Revelations about the Gladio network have provoked embarrassed reactions. Wilfried Martens, Belgium's prime minister almost continuously since 1979, has said he was never told about its network, now under investigation after allegations that it was linked to a series of terrorist attacks in the 1980s.

The Dutch prime minister, Ruud Lubbers, told parliament last month that a secret organisation had been set up inside the defence ministry in the 1950s originally to provide intelligence to a government in exile. Members of the cell are believed to have taken part recently in a training exercise in Sicily.

The French defence minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, has announced that the French section, code-named Gallio, had been dissolved by presidential decree.

The German section, set up with the help of second world war army veterans and the extreme rightwing Federation of German Youth, allegedly drew up plans to assassinate leading members of the opposition Social Democrat party in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion. The German government has promised to consider winding it up.

In Greece, where it was given the code-name, Sheepskin, a cell was set up by the CIA in the 1950s but was dismantled in 1988, according to the government. Officers in the underground unit were involved in the Colonels' coup in 1967.

In Turkey, Bulent Ecevit, prime minister at the time of the invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, has said he was informed at the time of a "special warfare" department within the headquarters of the general staff. He said he was told it had been financed until then by the US but needed funds from Ankara.

A former Italian Gladio officer has said Gladio agents were trained by US instructors at a military base in Spanish Canary Islands from 1966 to the mid-1970s. He said France proposed Spain for membership of the network in 1973 but Britain, Germany and the Netherlands blocked the move on the grounds that Spain was not a democracy.