Gladio: the swift sword of NATO

Stay behind operations are intended to prepare a country to repel an enemy attack, setting up internal structures in a potential assault situation to operate in the enemy’s close hinterland in the first days of war. History of Italy’s Operation Gladio shows how far one can go using this idea in practice. Italian Communist Party (PCI), the most popular communist party in Western Europe, was prevented by all possible means from winning elections. As the Italians say, one cannot believe in conspiracy theories… unless they are related to Italy.

Operation Gladio might never have come to light had it not been for a surprising turn of events. Ennio Remondino, working for Italy’s TG, tried in 1989-90 to reconstruct the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister, the legendary Social Democrat Olof Palme. The results of his journalistic investigation, broadcasted in four episodes in June-July 1990, gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the CIA’s European operations with European governments, parties and organisations.

Remondino interviewed, among others, two witnesses who introduced themselves as former CIA agents:Richard Brenneke and Ibrahim Razin. In their testimony, they mentioned US intelligence funds to finance the activities of the anti-communist Masonic lodge Propaganda Due, known as P2. This included financiers, industrialists, members of the military apparatus, as well as politicians associated with the Democrazia Cristina (DC), Italy’s main conservative party, ruling Italy, with the help of various smaller coalition partners, from 1944 to 1994. The money was intended to provide the organisation with the means to destabilise Italy. Or, more precisely, to stop the activities of the PCI, which had enjoyed, thanks to its part in liberating the country from fascist occupation, the support of nearly half of the population. 

The whole affair has stirred up a mass of controversy. The director of TG1, Nuccio Fava, was forced to resign. In addition, the materials acquired by Remondino were taken from him. The truth regarding Operation Gladio may not have seen the light of day. However, at the same time, an Italian judge from Venice, Felice Casson, was investigating inaccuracies in the actions of the judiciary and the Carabinieri, in the investigation of the Peteano massacre of 31 May 1972. At the time, an anonymous report prompted five carabinieri to check a suspicious car. When the door was opened, the car exploded, killing three gendarmes.

Felice Casson did not have to look far. Already during the Peteano assassination trial, Vincenzo Vinciguerra, a member of the ‘Avanguardia Nazionale’, a neo-Nazi terrorist organisation, said:

“There is a secret force in Italy, parallel to the armed forces, made up of civilians and military, which is supposed to have the potential capacity to organise resistance to the Russian army in Italy. It is a secret super-organisation with a communications network, weapons and explosives and people trained to use them”.

All this seemed extremely likely. After all, Italy, located in the heart of the Mediterranean, was a frontline country just like Western Germany. It was bordered by land and sea by Albania and Yugoslavia, two, albeit problematic places for the USSR, countries of the Eastern Bloc. Italy’s strategic position could not be overestimated.

Il divo’s answer 

It did not take long for Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti of DC, the famous Il Divo, to respond. On 1 August, he said before the lower house of the Italian parliament:

“I consider it completely devoid of common sense to imagine that the Congress of the United States of America could authorise or, in any case, tacitly support a destabilisation operation conducted against a friendly and allied country such as Italy”. 

Curiously, the next day the master of Italian politics made a mistake. Or he tried to cover up the Gladio affair by introducing ferment into the case with misleading testimony. The very next day, on 2 August, he admitted before the Commission for Extrajudicial Executions that he knew of the existence of a secret paramilitary, stay-behind type organisation called ‘Gladio’. However, he pointed out that, according to information received from the security services, this organisation ceased to exist in 1972. In doing so, he allocated a twelve-page file to the Intelligence and Security Services Commission on 18 October, which disappeared a few days later. A short while later, they reappeared in a modified version that did not indicate the complicity of the US services, the existence of the organisation’s funds or the control of the Italian intelligence services over it. 

Moments later, on 24 October, Giulio Andreotti addresses the Chamber of Deputies to answer parliamentarians’ questions…. The presidents of the Republic, prime ministers and defence ministers knew of Gladio’s existence, but not the members of parliament. In his speech, Andreotti gave some facts about the organisation, while omitting the essence of the matter. 

He put all the responsibility, in a diplomatic style, on the P2 organisation, as well as on some personalities of Italian political life. This included Francesco Cossiga, former Prime Minister, and Minister of the Interior and then current DC President, known for his brutal crackdown on the 1977 student revolt. In doing so, Andreotti completely ignored the complicity of the secret services. Among other things, by limiting the organisation’s membership to civilians only, from 1,500 people to 622. 

This trick worked. All public opinion at the time focused on the president and the potential impeachment – which was eventually dismissed – and not on the anti-democratic organisation that was Gladio. 

Andreotti in 1978, together with other G7 leaders., first from the left.

Stay behind

Military as well as intelligence agreements to contain the popularity of communism in the Western Bloc countries had existed in various forms since around 1948. However, they took mature form a few years later. 

In 1952, the NATO Force Headquarters, which exists to this day, was established in Brussels and named ‘SHAPE’. This was the Allied Command in Europe, which at the time consisted of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and Norway. The, a bilateral agreement between Italian military intelligence and the CIA was signed on 28 November 1956. This is the official date of the birth of Operation Gladio, although in reality similar bodies and agreements had already existed much earlier. In 1972, the Italy-US bilateral agreement, dating back to 1952, was officially absorbed into NATO structures, and the bodies belonging to SHAPE gave rise to a body called the ‘Planning and Coordination Committee’, which oversaw another operational body called the ‘Secret Alliance Agreement’, dealing directly with stay behind operations. 

In each country, these secret networks had different names. In Switzerland it was “P26”, in Austria “OWSGV”, Belgium “SDRA8”. Denmark “Absalon”, in Germany “TD BJD” in Luxembourg simply “Stay-Behind”, in the Netherlands “I&O”, in Norway “ROC”, in Greece “LOK”, in Turkey “Counter-Guerrilla”, in Portugal “Aginter”. The codenames of the secret ‘armies’ in France, Finland, Spain and Sweden remain unknown.

So what was Gladio’s operational structure? After all, an attack by Warsaw Pact forces, a structure for which NATO was supposed to be the counterpart, never took place.

In spite of this, it had over a hundred secret sizable depots of ammunition, weapons, explosives and funds within the so-called Nasco network. Such a large infrastructure would have been sufficient for at least several thousand active or dormant agents, Gladio, however, officially had only a few hundred members. Despite a certain degree of secrecy, and the recognition of Gladio as ‘only’ one of the organisations within the NATO Stay behind structure, the traces and traces left by it are present in the darkest pages of the Italian Republic of the second half of the 20th century.  

The aforementioned Vincenzo Vinciguerra, when questioned about the Peteano massacre, stated that

“[this] super-organisation, given that a Soviet invasion could not realistically take place, undertook on behalf of NATO the task of preventing the political balance of the country from shifting to the left”.

This was to take place with the help of the secret services, the political forces (implicitly, one supposes, the Democrazia Cristiana party and party satellites) and the military. However, these words are not confirmed by the available, incomplete, documents of the Italian judiciary. There are, however, clues. The Italian services and the right-wing-controlled or blackmailed press – in Italy, the government had a monopoly on the production of the paper in those days – more than once, not twice, protected neo-fascists who then took part in a series of terrorist operations of which anarchists were falsely accused in order to discredit the left. 

Mother of the Years of Lead  

The most famous case is the massacre in Milan’s Piazza Fontana on 12 December 1969. A bomb planted in the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura killed 17 people and injured 88. This event was considered the ‘mother of all massacres’, the beginning of the period known today as Anni di piombo, years of lead. It was a time filled with neo-fascist and far-left terrorist attacks, often bearing the hallmarks of false flag operations: operations carried out by the secret services to discredit the ‘perpetrators’ identified by government sources and their ideological cronies.

It was then, in Milan 1969, that the services and the police claimed that the attack was staged by anarchists who, as it later turned out, had never had anything to do with it. One of them, Giuseppe Pinneli, ‘accidentally’ fell out of a police window during interrogation. In a similar case, it was officiallya left-wing student-worker organisation Lotta continua that murdered Milan police commissioner Luigi Calabressi in 1972, but even this turns out to be dubious. Certain traces seemed to lead towards neo-fascist terrorists, but this was quickly dropped. 

The alleged death of right-wing extremist Gianni Nardi, who officially died in a car accident on 10 September 1976 in Palma de Mallorca, allowed the investigation into the right-wing’s involvement in the murder of Commissioner Calabresi to be finally closed – leaving the odium of murder on Lotta continua. What seems ‘coincidental’ a certain Gianni Nardi appears on the available Gladio proscriptions under the initials 0565.

Gladio also appears to have been involved in the attack on Milan police headquarters on 17 May 1973, the anniversary of Calabrese’s assassination As part of the bomb blast, four people were killed and a further forty-five injured. The organiser of the bombing, Gianfranco Bertoli, testified that he had acted as a ‘Stirnerian’ anarchist and that his target was Mariano Rumor, then Minister of the Interior Ministry. As we know from another investigation in the early 2000s, Bertoli had been linked for years, before the assassination itself, to the Italian military intelligence service SIFAR. Moreover, he was a member of the Gladio organisation with the number 0735. In the service archives there are traces of payments made to Bertoli, appearing under the initials TRO31 and the alias ‘Negro’. But was he acting on behalf of the services in 1973? This is what the documents available to us do not tell us. 

Colpo di stato

Gladio’s tentacles also seem to extend to two planned coups d’état, one in 1964, the so-called Solo Plan, and the other in 1970, known as Tora Tora, authored by the fanatical fascist Junio Valerio Borghese, a supporter of the Italian Social Republic, or Salo Republic. 

The first was drafted by P2 member General De Lorenzo, head of the Carabinieri in 1964…. The Solo Plan was to come into force if the centre-left government, led by Aldo Moro of DC and supported by the Partito Socialista Italiana, did not reduce reformist demands. The plan was to be created under the jurisdiction of the President of the Republic, Antonio Segni. 

The whole plan came to light in 1967 when an article appeared in Espresso saying that three years earlier, the president as well as the head of the Carabinieri had concocted a plan that included not only the seizure of strategic targets in Italy’s main cities, but also the arrest of more than seven hundred communist and socialist leaders. This included trade union activists, leftist intellectuals and members of the left wing of DC, who were to be deported to Capo Marrangiu base in Sardinia. The media resonance led to a great debate in parliament, where it was decided to set up a special parliamentary commission: the investigation, chaired by Giuseppe Alessi, however, ruled out any thesis of a coup attempt. After several years, the case was covered by state secrecy. 

The second coup d’étathad been planned since 1969 by Junio Valerio Borghese under the acronym Fronte Nazionale in close connection with Ordine Nuovo and Avanguardia Nazionale, two terrorist organisations of Italian neo-Nazis. On 4 July 1970, the ‘National Junta’ was formed, supported by members of Propaganda Due, Cosa Nostra, officers and privates of the Carabinieri Corps and other military forces linked to the CIA. 

Interestingly, Junio Borghese had in his possession, in addition to an acclamation to the people, prepared in the event of the coup’s success, the programme documents of the future government. He strongly affirmed the junta’s pro-Atlantic loyalty and outlined a plan to implement a ‘Mediterranean pact’ with Spain, Portugal and Greece, all then ruled by authoritarian regimes, as well as opening diplomatic relations with Rhodesia and South Africa. Another pillar of the military junta was to be the loans granted by the US President to combat the economic crisis in the country in exchange for sending Italian troops to the Vietnam War and South East Asia. 

Tora Tora Tora

The implementation of the action began on the night of 7-8 December 1970 with the concentration of several hundred conspirators in Rome. Some of the Avanguardia Nazionale militiamen, led by Stefano Delle Chiaie and with the accompaniment of officials, entered the building of the Ministry of the Interior and the distribution to the conspirators of arms and ammunition stolen from the Ministry’s armoury began. Italian Air Force General Giuseppe Casero, a member of P2, and Colonel Giuseppe Lo Vecchio, also a member of P2, took up positions in the Ministry of Defence, while an armed group of 187 men from the State Forestry Corps, led by Major Luciano Berti, set out at night from the Forestry School in Cittaducale, took up positions in Via Olimpica near the RAI TV headquarters.

However, it was not only in Rome that the fascists were ready to storm. Militias, armed and uniformed, were also ready in Milan, Venice, Umbria, Tuscany and Calabria. Suddenly, however, the future duce that same night, at 01:49, ordered the immediate cancellation of the action. Why? Borghese refused to explain it even to his most trusted collaborators.There are several hypotheses, one of which states that the coup itself was intended from the start to be a sham, designed to send a signal to the government, as well as the opposition, saying that there was an immediate need for stability. The other states that Borghese was unsure of the final support of the US embassy. 

In support of this thesis, in an episode of the programme La storia siamo noi hosted by Giovanni Minoli and broadcast by RAI in 2010, the view was expressed that the stopping of the putsch was the result of an order coming from the US services, who would only have agreed to continue the putsch if the new political order had been headed by Giulio Andreotti, which, however, he refused to do. The end result of the putsch was that the DC government introduced emergency measures, partially suspending the rights of public assembly, which directly hit the left. It is thus possible that Borghese was, in any case, a pawn in a party much larger than himself, in which the Gladio network was probably used. 


Traditionally, Anni di piombo are considered ended with the assassination of Prime Minister Aldo Moro on 16 March 1978. Although further attacks took place until 1982, it seemed that all sides in the political conflict, even those remaining in hiding, had concluded that a certain limit had been crossed with Moro’s kidnapping.  Importantly, it is not enough to say that here too the presence of Gladio agents and equipment from their armoury, the so-called Nasco Network, was impressive. It has been established that at least fourteen days earlier, the Gladio structure was already aware of the hijacking. Some of the bullets fired in Via Fani, from where Moro was driven away, appear to have the same characteristics as those present in the Nasco deposits. On the morning of the kidnapping, quite by chance, the Colonel of Military Intelligence, SISMI, Camillo Guglielmi, an officer at Gladio’s base in Capo Marrargiu, was passing by… just when President Moro was about to be kidnapped by the Red Brigades. And there were many, many more traces of Gladio.

Some of the documents from the interrogation of Aldo Moro by the Brigadiers have disappeared, and General Carlo dalla Chiesa, who came into possession of them, was killed, officially by the Mafia in 1982. It is most likely that Moro was describing the Gladio structureto the Red Brigades. Giuseppe Santovito, director of SISMI’s military intelligence from 1978-81, is believed to have died as part of an operation to liquidate potential informants or journalists who might reveal the backstage. Arrested on 2 December 1983, he was immediately released under house arrest. He was accused of promoting confidential documents, concerning the services’ collaboration with terrorists, in collaboration with the press. Thus accusing him of treason. His sudden death on 6 February 1984 ended the investigation. 

The Gladio structure was officially disbanded by Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in November 1990, when he simultaneously made public the names of 622 ‘gladiators’. Some of them still proudly bear this name today. Some of the archives, as mentioned earlier, were then destroyed. This allowed the parliamentary committee, chaired by Tarcisio Gitti, to vote by a majority on a motion confirming the full legality of the structure.

Giulio Andreotti blocked at all costs the agreement with the terrorists who had kidnapped Aldo Moro. During his life, he was Prime Minister at the head of seven cabinets and multiple ministers of various departments of the Italian Republic. He lived out his days as a publicist and lifelong senator, dying in Rome on 6 May 2013. 

General Giovanni de Lorenzo, author of Plan Solo, died a natural death in Rome, on 26 April 1973, as did President Francesco Cossiga, who lived until 2010. Junio Valerio Borghese, creator of the Tora Tora Tora plot, fled to Spain where he remained until his death on 26 August 1974, despite the revocation of his arrest warrant in 1973. Vincenzo Vinciguerra is still alive today, having authored books on the Years of Lead. Richard Brenneke, the protagonist of the Ennio Remondino material, died in 2015, and the CIA denies any collaboration with him. The fate of Ibrahim Razini is unknown. Remondino himself, on the other hand, together with his former boss Niccio Fava, founded the journalistic blog RemoContro.

At the time of Anni di piombo, the figures available today show that 428 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured. The entire truth about these events will probably never be known.

The clock on the Bologna train station permanently shows 10.25: the hour when a bomb, planted by Neo-Fascists, exploded there on 2 August 1980.

Cover photo: Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura after the bomb explosion.

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