GLADIO Europe's best kept secret

They were the agents who were to 'stay behind' if the Red Army overran Western Europe. But the network that was set up with the best intentions degenerated in some countries into a front for terrorism and far-right political agitation.Hugh O'Shaughnessy reports.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy, Observer, 7 June 1992, pages 53-54

The codename was Gladio and it was the most ambitious and secret operation in Western Europe since the Second World War. But now, with the Cold War over, it is ending on notes of pure farce.

The Belgian authorities have lost the code for getting in touch with their most secret agents, men who would have gone into action when the Soviet army swept into Flanders: they have no means of working it out again. One Belgian officer, Colonel Bernard Legrand, knows some of the names but he won't co-operate: it's confidential he says. The British and United States governments know how to break the code but won't tell the wretched Belgians.

At 10.15 on the morning of 31 January last year Colonel Jean Bodart of Belgian military intelligence landed in a Belgian air force plane at RAF Northolt. He collected 13 packages filled with cyphers and an old Remington type-writer from British intelligence and two hours later flew back to Brussels. The packages contained the names of the members of the Gladio network in Belgium. The Remington typewriter was part of the decoding equipment. But Belgian intelligence, whose skills at cryptography have sadly been allowed to get rusty, have wrestled in vain with the task of decyphering the names in the packages.

One day in 1984 a party of US Marines set out from an airport north of London. Highly trained men, each fluent in one Eastern European language, they parachuted to their secret rendezvous and were met by an agent, a local bank manager, who offered them guidance. They lived off the land for a fortnight, hiding from the local civilian population as they stalked towards their prey. Steathily they approached their objective and opened fire, killing a warrant officer. One of the Marines lost an eye in the operation.

Their language skills were not much use: the objective was the police station in the sleepy southern Belgian town of Vielsalm and none of the Marines spoke French. If they had, they could have saved one man's life and another man's eye.

The object of the exercise had been twofold: to jolt the local Belgian police into a higher state of alert and, no less important, to give the impression to the population at large that the comfortable and well-fed Kingdom of Belgium was on the brink of red revolution. Guns used in the operation were later planted by a shadowy Belgian intelligence outfit in the Brussels squat used by a Communist splinter group.

On such notes of opera buffa is Gladio being wound up. Mercifully for the reputations of all concerned perhaps, the farce is overlaying memories of large-scale incursions into terrorism and crime which transformed a clever plan to defend Western democracy into a scheme which, according to startling new evidence unearthed by Observer researchers in many countries, struck at the very roots of Western values of freedom and the rule of law.

Starting as an unexceptional piece of forward planning, it moved on to unauthorised political surveillance and then, finally, to the mounting of a series of outrages with the far Right which cost the lives of hundreds of innocent Europeans. The dead include at least one Western European leader, Aldo Moro of Italy. Much still remains to be investigated, particularly about Gladio's operations in Franco's Spain.

The strategy behind Gladio when it was set up in the late 1940s was impeccable. As Stalin consolidated his political and military power in Eastern Europe and promoted his version of totalitarianism where he could, the Western allies came together to prevent any recurrence of the debacles at the beginning of the Second World War when democracies were knocked over like nine-pins by the Wehrmacht.

In 1939 and 1940 the German army had been able to overrun its European neighbours with supreme ease. Polish cavalry was no match for German tanks, the Dutch surrendered after Rotterdam had been destroyed from the air, Paris was taken without difficulty, scarcely a shot was fired as the Nazis conquered Denmark. The Channel Islands, the only British soil Hitler conquered, had already been deemed indefensible.

As the swastika flew everywhere in Europe, from Brittany to the Russian steppes, it was only with the greatest difficulty and sacrifice that resistance movements were established from Britain which were eventually to be capable of harrying and sabotaging the German army of occupation and finally to collaborate with the Allied forces of liberation.

Such a lack of foresight, it was agreed in Western capitals, was never to be permitted again in the face of Stalin's threat, particularly after the Communist putsch in Prague in 1948. Under the aegis of Britain and the US, a secret network of recruits was to be set up all over the continent. They were to be provided with caches of radios, money and weapons.

If the Red Army did overrun Western Europe and Western armies were defeated and forced to flee, there would be someone left with intimate local knowledge who could receive orders from abroad, send out information and go into action against the Soviet occupation forces. They were not to be so many Captain Mainwarings, openly organised in Dad's Army outfits around the local drill hall, who could be easily rounded up by the Russians. Their role was to be serious and totally clandestine. They were to be known as 'stay-behinds'

This continent-wide operation, which became known as Gladio, also had the task of keeping an eye on what were considered domestic threats to Western democracies by agents of the Soviet Union. In the post-war years when Moscow-line Communist parties were strong, particularly in France and Italy, that task was challenging. It was to lead to particular abuses.

Although the networks were initially set up at the initiative of democratically elected national leaders, they soon took on and independent life of their own so that even commanders-in-chief, defence ministers, prime ministers and presidents were unaware of what they were doing.

The network and their caches were to remain ultra-secret until 1990. General Bernard Rogers, the former US commander of Nato, for instance, says he was unaware of the details. 'The organisation of any stay-behinds must have been at the national level and not at the Nato level,' he comments.

The lid was lifted a little in November 1990 by the Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who had strongly denied the existence of Gladio for well over a decade. In a statement to parliament in Rome, Andreotti became the first major politician to talk publicly of the project.

IT ALL started at the end of the last war. On 27 January 1949 Sir Stewart Menzies, head of MI6, set out the grand strategy in a top secret and personal letter to Paul-Henri Spaak, the Belgian Socialist Prime Minister who was later to become secretary-general of Nato. As the idea took shape, Sir Stewart wrote of Anglo-Belgian collaboration in particular:

The present object of this collaboration should be directed to two main aims:

a) The improvement of our information on the subject of Cominform and potential enemy activities in so far as they concern our two countries.

b) The preparation of appropriate intelligence and action organisations in the event of war.

At the same time the letter, a copy of which is in The Observer's possession, throws light on what became an increasingly important factor in the Gladio operation - the rivalry between the British and the Americans.

Menzies continued:

I have always regarded American participation in the defence of Western Europe as a matter of capital importance. I am however, convinced that all effort, American not excluded, must be integrated into an harmonious whole. Should, therefore, the Americans wish to pursue with your Service certain preparations to meet the needs of war, I regard it as essential - and I understand I have your agreement - that these activities should be co-ordinated with my own. Such co-ordination, moreover, will prevent undesirable repercussions with the Western Union chiefs of Staff. I have already indicated to the Head of the American Service that I am ready to work out plans for detailed co-operation with him on this basis, and I therefore suggest that any projects formulated by them should be referred back to Washington for subsequent discussion between the British and American Services in London.

The correspondence should, Menzies suggested, be regarded as 'highly secret'.

Early the following month Spaak wrote back to Menzies agreeing with his ideas but begging Britain and the US to get their act together.

I agree with you that it would be highly desirable that the three services (British, American and Belgian) should collaborate closely. If two of them, the American and the British, refuse that collaboration, the situation of the Belgian service would be extremely delicate and difficult.

Thus I feel it is indispensable that at the highest level there should be negotiations to settle this question...

In the event both powers helped to pay for the Gladio operations in Belgium. Senator Roger Lallemand, had of the parliamentary inquiry into Gladio set up in Belgium after Andreotti's revelations, recalls: 'What was striking about the Belgian stay-behinds was that the financing at the beginning was in part undertaken by the British and the Americans. We were able to note that the Belgian stay-behinds had received gold coins...The sums were quite large and in fact were stored away since they couldn't have been used.'

As the years went by, the stay-behind network, which ended up as a semi-detached operation of Nato, extended across Europe, the British taking the lead in Belgium, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and the Iberian peninsula, the Americans elsewhere. The fact that various powers involved were not members of Nato - did not hinder Gladio being extended to their territory. The names of all the stay-behinds were lodged for safe keeping in London and Boston, Massachusetts.

The extreme secrecy, and lack of supervision of the Gladio networks by elected governments meant that time and again they were to fall victim to right-wing extremists inside and outside the Western security services, who set their own political agendas and acted on them.

The way down that slippery slope was typified by the attitude of James Jesus Angleton, the CIA's chief of counter-intelligence. According to his biographer Tom Mangold, Angleton was convinced that Harold Wilson and Willy Brandt were Moscow agents. His black list of pro-Communists also included Henry Kissinger, the Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson and Averell Harriman, a former US Ambassador in Moscow and governor of New York.

A US military field manual published for the guidance of its officers stated: 'There may be times when host-country governments fall into passivity or indecision in face of Communist or Communist-inspired subversion and react with inadequate vigor to intelligence estimates transmitted by US agencies...In such cases US army intelligence must have the means of launching special operations which will convince host-country governments and public opinion of the reality of insurgent action and assess the counter-action.'

Although doubt has been cast on the authenticity of the text, Ray Cline, a former deputy director of the CIA who joined US intelligence as a young man during the Second World War, has no doubt it is genuine.

In Belgium, for instance, all evidence points to the fact that a US-born Gladio agent, Wood Gardiner, infiltrated the Belgian pacifist movement and persuaded some of its members in 1984 to steal shells from the missile base at Florenne. When the theft was discovered it did the pacifist cause no good at all.

More important were the apparently random shootings in Belgian supermarkets which ended with a particularly nasty incident in 1983 in the town of Aalst, a few miles from Brussels, which became known as the Brabant-Walloon massacres. Senator Lallemand has linked the killings to 'the work of foreign governments or of intelligence services working for foreigners, a terrorism aimed a destabilising democratic society'.

Martial Lekeu, a former member of the Belgian gendarmerie who was close to the investigation of the atrocities, that members of his own force were involved in the murders and that official inquiries into it were aborted.

The British authorities, leaders with Washington in the scheme, are refusing all comment on Gladio. But

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The secrets of Gladio

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information about Britain's role has come from parliamentary and other investigations carried out elsewhere in Europe.

Belgian documents, starting with Spaak's letter of 1949, show what a major role Britain has constantly played. Papers presented to the parliamentary inquiry set up in Belgium on Gladio show that in Belgium in 1981 and in Britain in 1982 Belgian personnel received training from British instructors. In April 1982 Belgians prepared for a Gladio exercise involving Britain and the US, codenamed Blackbird, which was called off at the last minute when Argentina invaded the Falklands.

In 1990 Colonel S. Schwebach of Belgian intelligence reported to his Defence Minister that an exercise called Waterland had taken place the previous year. In it, members of the Royal Marines Special Boat Squadron parachuted into the seas off the coast of Flanders, were guided ashore by Belgian civilians and went on to simulate the dynamiting of the massive canal locks at Zeebrugge.

There were even reports, so far unconfirmed, in Belgium that Belgian personnel had been part of a recent Gladio exercise in Britain aimed at demonstrating that Dover docks could be put out of action were the Russians to occupy Kent.

Britain was active too in the Gladio operation in Switzerland. Effrem Cattalan, who headed the Swiss P26 intelligence organisation and helped to organise Gladio in his country, told us how his organisation 'has English colleagues who instructed them in general training, like covert operations and parachute jumps at night in which England has had exceptionally good experience since the war'.

The British also collaborated, he said, with his predecessor at P26, Colonel Albert Bachmann, for the possible evacuation of the headquarters of a Swiss resistance movement to Britain, known as Operation Edelweiss. The report of the Swiss official investigation into the Gladio affair, led by Judge Pierre Cornu and published last September, shows that, with admirable meticulousness, a supply of Swiss army buttons and other insignia was lodged, against the day they might come in useful, in the safe of the Swiss embassy in Bryanston Square.

Discussions, the Swiss inquiry revealed, had also taken place between 1976 and 1979 about the evacuation of a Swiss government-in-exile to Ireland if the Russians had come over the Alps.

Unlike the Nato countries, Cattalan claimed, the Swiss banned British or other foreign military personnel from taking part in exercises on Swiss soil. According to the Swiss report, however, such exercises did take place, some codenamed Targum, probably annually between 1973 and 1979, certainly from 1982 to 1988. Others, called Cravat and Susanne, were held in 1976, 1978, 1983, 1986 and 1988.

The report frankly confesses that such were the links between the Swiss and the British officials and agents who dealt with the Gladio scheme that British intelligence knew more about Swiss plans than the Swiss government and high command.

No detail was too small for the Swiss judges. Their report expressed concern, for instance, that the issuing by Swiss officials of false documents to Swiss agents of Gladio who went abroad infringed federal law. It went on to point out that one Swiss Gladio agent who had used his false identity card to obtain a fishing licence in Britain had contravened Article Six of the Swiss penal code, which covers the punishment in Switzerland of crimes committed by Swiss abroad.

Meanwhile, at least one British family still mourns a victim of the darkest chapter of Gladio, a series of bombings a decade ago which were at first attributed to the Red Brigades.

The largest, at Bologna railway station on 2 August 1980, claimed 86 lives. Harry Mitchell, a civil servant, and his wife Shirley, of Bloomfield Road, Bath, lost their daughter Catherine, who was 21. She died in the blast with her 22-year-old fiance John Kolpinski, from Bristol. Her body was so disfigured that it was identified only by the Miss Selfridge label on her blouse.

The explosion was part of a series of atrocities which left at least 300 dead as bombs went off in the Piazza Fontana in Milan, on trains at Brescia and on the Naples-Milan express in a tunnel south of Bologna. The Mitchells are outraged that Britain is refusing to extradite back to Italy one of those sought for questioning about the crime, Roberto Fiore.

Fiore, now 33, has lived freely here in Pimlico since 1980, running a prosperous accommodation agency and mixing in extreme right, anti-semitic circles. There is strong suspicion that MI6 is grateful for information Fiore was able to give them about Lebanon, where he learnt some of his terrorist techniques, and is blocking efforts to question him.

The Mitchells got no satisfaction when they wrote about the Fiore affair to Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street in June 1985. But the other day they were been brought up to date on British government thnking. On 29 March, Sir Patrick Mayhew, then Attorney-General, explained in a letter to the Mitchells' MP, Chris Patten, how British justice could do nothing about sending Fiore back.

The Italian railway bombings were blamed on the extreme Left as part of a strategy to convince voters that the country was in a state of tension and that they had no alternative to voting the safe Christian Democrat ticket. All clues point to the fact that they were masterminded from within Gladio.

Francesco Cossiga, who stepped down from the presidency of Italy in April, helped to organise Gladio when he was Interior Minister. He recalls how Britain and the US collaborated in setting up the network in Italy in 1951, 'concerned with what might happen to Europe if it were invaded'.

He traces the official formalities at the inauguration of Gladio by the principal figures of the Atlantic Alliance. At the instigation of the Supreme Commander Allied Forces Europe, the first statute of the clandestine planning committee to oversee Gladio was approved.

'It was agreed that three countries, the US, France and Britain, would be permanent members and the rest would be associate members - that meant Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Greece and Turkey. Italy was invited to become an associate member. Italy turned down this invitation and instead asked to become an permanent member, but did not get an answer at the time. In 1956 Germany joined.' Cossiga adds: 'It was standard policy of Nato to deny the existence of anything that it had been agreed to keep secret.'

He described how he was Interior Minister when Moro was kidnapped. He contacted Merlyn Rees, then Britain's Home Secretary, for help and together they visited the SAS headquarters in Hereford. Thus Gladio in Italy was seeking help from British forces involved in training Gladio personnel so that the Italians could put an end to an Italian terrorist action launched with the knowledge of Gladio itself.

Decimo Garau, an army doctor and friend of Cossiga, told us how he had a week's training at Poole with British special services, practising parachute landings in the English Channel before visiting the SAS at Hereford.

No less important were the continuing concerns about the political strength of the Communists. Senator Libero Gualtieri, head of the Italian parliamentary inquiry into Gladio, told us: 'When Gladio was started, the Americans would often insist in their briefings, their meetings, that the organisation also had to be used to counter any insurgencies.'

Galtieri explained how the secret service tail soon began to wag the government dog. He cites the case of Amintore Fanfani, Prime Minister six times, and Giovanni Spadolini, also Prime Minister and Defence Minister, neither of whom was informed of Gladio. 'To a large extent Gladio was hidden from the politicians because we allowed a situation in which the secret services had the task of those in power and not vice versa.'

LICIO GELLI, head of the P2 freemasons' lodge, who fought for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, was one of the greyest eminences in post-war Italy. He later became enmeshed with the Vatican in the Banco Ambrosiano swindle. After the war, he was recruited by Canadian occupying forces to work in the 'stay-behind' operation being set up throughout Italy. There were, he told us, 250 Gladio squads, each consisting of nine men.

'Many came from the ranks of the mercenaries who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and many came from the fascist republic of Salo. They chose individuals who were proved anti-Communists. I know it was a well-constructed organisation. Had Communist strength grown in Italy, America would have assisted us, we would have unleashed another war and we would have been generously supplied with arms from the air.'

He is convinced that the Italian authorities let Aldo Moro go to his death. 'I think Moro could have been saved. Everything can be salvaged in Italy if someone wants to salvage it.'

Vincenzo Vinciguerra, a convinced Fascist who was a member of the extremist Ordine Nuovo organisation and had close links with Gladio, has testified to us of his personal involvement in such schemes. Now serving a long sentence in Parma prison for his part in the killing of three carabinieri in the village of Peteano, he talked despite the Italian authorities' efforts to prevent access to him.

'You had to attack civilians, the people, women children, innocent people, unknown people far removed from any political game,' he said. 'The reason was quite simple. They were supposed to force these people, the Italian public, to turn to the State to ask for greater security. This is the political logic that lies behind all the massacres and the bombings which remain unpunished, because the State cannot convict itself or declare itself responsible for what happened.'

Vinciguerra recounted how the authorities covered the traces after the killing of the three carabinieri. 'A whole mechanism came into action - that is, the carabinieri, the Minister of the Interior, the customs services and the military and civilian intelligence services accepted the ideological reasoning behind the attack.'

The commanders of the carabinieri foiled a thorough investigation of the Peteano affair for years, he claims. 'It was more convenient to cover it up than to turn on those who killed their comrades. All the members of the Red Brigades were known by the police, the carabinieri and the intelligence bureaux and on one made nay attempt to stop them. So you see, "revolutionary warfare" should not be seen as being directed against Western democracy but rather as the means of defence adopted by Western democracies and implemented cynically and indiscriminately.'

The gravest charge against the Gladio project is that it co-operated in - or at least did nothing to prevent - the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro, a former Prime Minister of Italy. Moro, a Catholic and Christian Democrat, was known for his view that the Italian Communist Party should be brought closer to government.

It is well known that Moro died in March 1978 at the hand of the Red Brigades. What is less understood, but borne out by a number of well-informed witnesses, is that the Red Brigades were deeply infiltrated by Western intelligence. At the time of Moro's killing the principal leaders of the Brigades were in prison. Colonel Oswald Le Winter of the CIA, who served as a US liaison officer with Gladio, goes as far as to say that the planning staff of the Brigades was made up of intelligence agents. From his prison cell, Vinciguerra agrees.

How was it that Colonel Guglielmi, a senior figure in Italian intelligence, was on hand in the Via Fani in Rome when Moro was kidnapped and his body-guards murdered? Why did Guglielmi say he was there by accident on the way to lunch with a friend when the kidnapping happened at nine o'clock in the morning? Why was it that the bullets which killed the bodyguards were of a type only used by the Italian special services?

As Gladio winds down and governments on the continent declare they have shut down their parts of the operation, the silence in Whitehall and the almost total lack of curiosity among MPs about an affair in which Britain was so centrally involved are remarkable. Perhaps John Major's new commitment to more openness in government will eventually produce some answers to the many Gladio riddles.

'The Ringmasters', the first of three weekly Observer Film Company programmes on Gladio in the 'Timewatch' series, will be shown on BBC2 on Wednesday at 8.15pm. They are directed by Allan Francovich and produced by Kimi Zabihyan.

Clarion notes

The text above was taken by Clarion directly from a copy of the Observer.

Like other newspaper articles on Gladio, it is (self-evidently) filled with contrived apologetics for Gladio and terrorism. To take just a few examples, on page 54 there is a photograph with the caption: "Aldo Moro's body is found in Rome in 1978. Could the secret services have prevented his kidnap?" In fact the real question - as the text of even this article makes clear - is not whether the "secret services" could have prevented his kidnap and murder but whether they were involved in murdering him. Gladio, the Observer asserts in the first paragraph, without a shred of supporting argument or evidence, "was set up with the best intentions". We are not told how the Observer was able to divine the intentions of the the network's creators. The description of US Marines invading Belgium in 1984 is so badly written that it is impossible to be sure what it means. Is O'Shaughnessy suggesting that they murdered a Belgian police officer? And afterwards were in a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice with planted evidence? And this he describes as a "farce" and "opera buffa".

On page 53 there are three photographs from right to left, a portrait photograph of an elderly man wearing glasses, rubble in a damaged building with men climbing over it, and another portrait photograph of a younger man. The caption reads: "A key figure in the 'stay-behind' operation, P2 Lodge head Licio Gelli, and (right) fascist terrorist Vincenzo Vinciguerra. Was Gladio involved in the bombing of Bologna railway station?(centre)/Photographs by Vladimir Sichov and Graham Macindoe"