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Sunday, 22 September 2019 05:02

The Tragic ‘Years of Lead’: Puppetmasters Author Philip Willan Talks about the Manipulation of Terrorism, the Global War on the Left, and the Links between the JFK and Aldo Moro Assassinations

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Could it be that the terrible things that occurred in Italy in the postwar era were the result of the people responsible for running the show having cut their teeth on the real war, where it was clear that “anything went” in order to win?


A prolific journalist and regular contributor to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Philip Willan is author of The Last Supper: The Mafia, the Masons, and the Killing of Roberto Calvi (2007), recently revised and updated under the title The Vatican at War: From Blackfriars Bridge to Buenos Aires (2013). In 1991, he published what would eventually become a classic history on the crimes of politically-motivated violence that occurred during Italy’s horrendous Years of Lead. Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy is both an in-depth analysis and a chronicle of such events. Its publication date is also significant. Just a year before, Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti acknowledged the existence of a top-secret NATO operation, code-named Gladio. This clandestine network featured paramilitary groups that, in certain cases, employed rabidly right-wing operators whose sympathies lay closer to fascism and “black” terror than to democratic institutions. Questions concerning the interweaving threads between Gladio and right-wing terror constitute a principal theme running throughout Puppetmasters. The author also explores how left-wing or “red” terror was manipulated and possibly controlled by Western security forces in order to cripple Italy’s Communist Party and enfeeble the Socialist Party.

Willan’s approach is that of a scholar: balanced, even-handed, and firmly rooted to the facts. At the same time, this highly informative tome, which is packed with fascinating material on every page, remains eminently readable and engaging. It unfolds like a detective story; but, unlike most pulp fiction, there are pieces to this puzzle that will forever remain missing and strands that will be left dangling in a suggestive variety of patterns and shapes. (This includes the question of covert CIA involvement in Italy and how certain figures involved in this drama may also have played a role in the deaths of Aldo Moro and JFK.) In his own words: “The story of secret service manipulation of left-wing terrorism is highly controversial and will certainly never be told in full.”

The overarching theme of the tale is reflected in a quote from a book about marionettes that appears halfway through the account:

Finally, the profound difference that exists––even at a psychological level––between the two methods of moving the ‘wooden actor’ should be emphasized: the puppet constitutes a prolongation of the puppetmaster’s hand, a direct amplification of his movements; it is given life by the arm and fingers of the person maneuvering it. The marionette, in contrast, is moved in an indirect manner, which I have heard compared by some marionettists to the act of playing a stringed musical instrument: and it therefore requires attention of a rational type.

–– Italo Sordi, Introduction to Pëtr Bogatyrëv’s Il Teatro delle Marionette (The Marionette Theatre), Brescia, 1980.

Willan deftly fleshes out this idea in the context of his overall story: “If many right-wing terrorists were glove puppets,” he says, “with their manipulator’s hand inserted up their backs and controlling their every move,”

left-wing terrorists were more like marionettes, dancing on the end of invisible strings; their manipulation was an altogether subtler art. The ideal for the secret service marionette-masters was, after all, to use left-wing extremists to serve their conservative cause without any direct contact or collusion. This was their greatest theatrical exploit, to have their genuine adversaries unwittingly follow the secret service script. Nevertheless, a number of people involved in left-wing terrorism appear to have been in direct contact with Western secret services, marionettes controlled by real, if barely discernible, strings.

One figure that was in a position to know about such things was General Gianadelio Maletti, director of counter-espionage for Italy’s SID, or Defense Information Service. In a series of notes that were later confiscated by police in 1980 (and included in the P2 Commission report), Maletti contemplates how such manipulation may have been enacted. In an entry titled “Guard Dogs,” he rhetorically asks: “Is Italy the master of its own destiny?” After contemplating the role of foreign intel services in his native land (including the CIA, DIA, and FBI), Maletti wonders: “To what extent do our allies have an interest in maintaining an inefficient, corrupt, and therefore weak ruling class in power” in Italy, “an ‘awkward’ industrial rival of its Western partners in the 1960s.”

In a series of telegraphically rendered reflections, the final entry in the general’s document includes, among other things, a reference to Gladio. “The coup plots originate a long way off (1947-48 …) and they go far. The hypotheses of urban guerrilla warfare ... of the intervention of groups secretly trained by the ‘Parallel SID’ [Gladio]: who are the puppetmasters operating in Italy to keep the country tied to ‘choices’ made 30 years ago?” Note how the term choices is presented between quotation marks. With witting irony, Maletti is reminding us that these “choices” were not in fact “chosen” by Italy but, instead, were imposed upon her by an external power. Just to be perfectly clear, he adds: “The ‘hypothesis’” is “in fact no such thing” (i.e., it is a certainty). Maletti might have known a thing or two: both he and his boss, a bitter rival named General Vito Miceli, head of military intelligence, were imprisoned ”for protecting right-wing extremists.”

Like a main chord sung to lead an orchestral improvisation hovering beneath, the term puppetmasters appears at several notable points in the narrative. In this deftly staged opera played out between puppets and puppeteers, marionettes and marionettists, an obvious candidate for such a role appears in the figure of one Licio Gelli, Venerable Master of Propaganda Due: a masonic lodge that served as a secret “parallel government.”

In the interview that follows, Willan refers to Gelli as “the representative of American intelligence interests in Italy” who “might have been in a position to give instructions to the leaders of the Italian secret services.” He also remembers Gelli as an attention-seeking performer who loved to tantalize journalists by dangling cryptic, subtly worded, “sibylline” phrases. No wonder that, when Gelli was once asked in a carefully contrived, staged interview, “How do you reply to the question: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” he unhesitatingly replied: “A puppetmaster.” Indeed, as we shall see in a moment, the Venerable Master of Propaganda Due (P2) played a principal role in many of these pivotal and horrific events. Willan also raises the question of whether Prime Minister Andreotti’s decision to reveal the official Gladio network may have served as a smokescreen to divert attention away from some of the more diabolical forces at work behind the scenes during the Years of Lead, a period that even members of La Cosa Nostra refer to as the “tragedies.”

Rob Couteau: What led to your interest in Gladio? Were you living in Italy during the Years of Lead?

Philip Willan: I've had a base in Italy for more than fifty years. I came here with my parents when I was nine years old. My father worked at the Food and Agriculture Organization here at the United Nations. I went to boarding school and university in England, and I came over here for holidays while a lot of things were going on that I wasn't really aware of.

My family lived in a modern suburb of Rome called EUR. A lot of the time that I was staying with them I wouldn't even go into the center of Rome. I was very young and not particularly interested in the topics that would interest me later. Also, I was living in another environment when the left-wing protests were at their height. At a particular period in the 1970s, more or less every Saturday, large crowds would congregate in the center of Rome. There'd be violence, and the place would be full of tear gas, and there'd be fighting with the police. But I wouldn't be aware of that, because I’d be in school in the UK, or in the EUR, blithely unaware.

RC: I thought I might begin by asking about the strategy of tension. What are its origins, and who first coined the term?

PW: I think it was in an article by Leslie Finer for the Observer, coining the term to describe the particularly right-wing terrorism, coup plots, and terrorist bombings that had the effect of shoring up the Christian Democrat-dominated governments and ensuring there was no slippage into a left-wing or communist government.

RC: You refer to it as “an action of destabilizing in order to stabilize.”

PW: Yes. I think that sums it up, rather clearly and accurately, that this was going on.

RC: In 1965, the Alberto Pollio Institute held a three-day conference in Rome, “branded as the ‘momento zero’ of the strategy of tension.” It “endorsed the view that ‘the Third World War is already under way.’” What’s the historical significance of this meeting? And what came out of it over the years; what influence did it have?

PW: It laid the theoretical groundwork for what came afterward, and the variety of people attending was very significant as well. You had representatives of the military and the secret services. But also, young right-wing militants, and a very strong representation of extreme right-wing opinion among the participants and the speakers. So, it was an important moment in the sort of worlds that probably came together subsequently, to do what they felt was needed: to take stock and decide that they needed to do something. In their eyes, the Western system was under a permanent assault from communism in all sorts of forms and guises; therefore, they needed to “up their game” and respond in kind to the type of assault that they felt they were being subjected to.

RC: What was so special about postwar Italy that it attracted so much covert action and monkey business such as this?

PW: Italy's position made it a sort of fault line for conflict in multiple ways. For one thing, clearly, they'd been on the losing side in the war. They were governed immediately afterward by the Allied government Commission, dominated by the United States, and also with the British playing an important role, after the end of the war.

Italy itself had been divided. Mussolini, when he was firmly in control, had enormous support from the people; the resistance was a very minority activity to be involved in. In the latter stages, when there was the Armistice and the Italian government effectively changed sides, and Mussolini had his last-stand Republic of Salò all under complete control of the Germans, then many more Italians became involved in the resistance, and joined the partisans, and fought in the latter stages against Fascism. So, again: that fault line within Italy. More or less everybody had gone along with him for a long time, with a very small minority resisting from the very beginning. And then, larger numbers, particularly members of the Communist Party, being a strong component of the anti-Fascist resistance.

With a change of tide in the war, more and more people join in the winning side at the end. So you had a very bitter civil war in the last stages, and atrocities committed by Fascists against anti-Fascist Italians and Italian civilians. There were also reprisals against Fascists after the war. So there was a very bitter atmosphere in Italy as the conflict came to an end. And then, very quickly, maybe even before the “hot war” finished in the Second World War, there was this realignment for what was going to become the Cold War.

And then there was Italy’s strategic position in the Mediterranean. Because of the fact that, in the latter stages of the war, the communists had been leading players in the resistance, and the fact that, in the postwar years––particularly in the 1970s––the Italian Communist Party became the largest communist party in Western Europe, this was a major source of worry for the Western system.

And there were other fault lines. For example, the presence of the Vatican as a major anticommunist force: a global presence with global interests, and with its representatives suffering persecution behind the Iron Curtain. And itself divided to some extent: the Catholic Church divided by liberation theology and worker priests, and a component of the church sympathetic to left-wing causes; but probably, at the highest levels in the Vatican, there were some very conservative people, for whom it would be natural to be allied with United States. And working with the CIA, for example, to combat communism.

The other area of conflict and division for Italy revolved around the question of how to align itself in relation to the Middle East. It was a country that didn't have a great oil supply of its own, so it was dependent on oil imported from Arab-state oil-producing countries. There was also concern that Italy, and the Vatican, needed for Italy to have good relations with those countries, because there was a lot of concern for Christian minorities living in Islamic-dominated countries. And then, the other side was: sympathy with Israel, and close intelligence ties, and arms trading with Israel. So, there was this unresolved conflict. You know, “We want to be friends with everybody, so maybe we could be selling arms under the table to the PLO; but, at the same time, we’ll be helping Israel and collaborating with Mossad. A tricky balancing act. I think the Italian military intelligence service was very divided on this issue, as well. There was a faction that was in favor of Israel, and there was a faction that supported the Palestinian cause and wanted good relations with the Arab world.

RC: A very complex situation.

PW: Indeed, yes.

RC: You brought up the Vatican, so I'm going to jump ahead to a question I’d planned to ask at the very end. It seems very clear now that from 1945 to 1990, the Cold War period, there was a worldwide covert war against the left: something we don’t hear about at school. In The Last Supper, you refer to an “undeclared global war” and discuss the banking mechanisms at work behind it. These include the Vatican bank, called the IOR or Institute for Religious Works, run by Archbishop Marcinkus, which supported murderous right-wing regimes in Latin America. And then, banks run by Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi, such as Banco Ambrosiano, which had direct ties to the Vatican. You also include this incredible quote: you say that Carlo Bordoni, a money trader, testified that Propaganda Due (P2) member Michele Sindona was “involved in politico-financial operations” in “Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Taiwan, and Greece. In Greece … Sindona had been active in financing the Regime of the Colonels.” What role did these financial institutions, linked very strongly to the Vatican, play in this global war on the left?

PW: I think it provided a very useful conduit for funds they needed to support the right-wing causes and that were in conflict with communism. The IOR itself, by its very nature, had a global reach and was intended to support Catholic institutions, religious orders, monasteries and convents, and Catholic activities around the globe. But they also needed to be able to do that discreetly, because there would be parts of the world where Catholic activities might be sensitive or subject to prosecution. For example, in Islamic States. Or at that time, in countries behind the Iron Curtain. So, the mechanism was there to transfer money discreetly around the globe. And if there was a feeling that the right thing to do was to support Catholic activities that the CIA was involved in, combating communism around the globe, it was also a natural alliance between these institutions. Particularly with a man of Lithuanian descent such as Marcinkus, in charge of the Vatican Bank. He would have a natural affinity with his fellow countryman in the United States. But even more, there was sensitivity to the plight of Catholics who were left behind in Eastern Europe and in his own country of Lithuania. So, he was a natural for the role of CIA ally and assistant in this global battle.

In the case of Roberto Calvi and the Banco Ambrosiano, one of the theories as to why the bank went bankrupt was that they had given too much money to the Solidarity Trade Union, in Poland. And therefore, there was this big hole in the bank's finances. One of the theories behind Calvi’s murder, which left him hanging from scaffolding on the Blackfriar’s Bridge in London, was that some of this money was being laundered on behalf of the Mafia and possibly the Magliana crime gang in Rome. And when Calvi was unable to repay it, because it ended up supporting anti-Communist workers in Poland, these people didn't take kindly to being bilked by somebody and were consequently directly involved in his murder, in London.

RC: The Mafia does get a little touchy when it comes to money being paid back, doesn't it?

PW: [Laughs] Yes, it is an important issue for them. 

RC: You say that evidence submitted at Roberto Calvi’s murder trial shows that Calvi and Archbishop Marcinkus were both “involved in laundering drug money for Cosa Nostra, taking over a role that had previously belonged to Sindona,” whom you call a “Mafia-linked murderer.” Strange bedfellows with the Vatican! And you include some of the testimony of Richard Brenneke, who says that the CIA sold illegal drugs to the Mafia. You conclude that some of this subsequent money laundering may have intersected with the Vatican bank, and with banks controlled by P2 members Calvi and Sindona.

So, am I correct in understanding all this? Some of these laundered funds, which went through Vatican banks, were then channeled to Licio Gelli’s secret masonic lodge, Propaganda Due, to then pay for terrorism that killed ordinary citizens?

PW: I think it’s a fair assumption that this happened. I don't think we can actually trace concrete examples of it, and give instances of particular sums ending up in particular hands, and then being used to kill ordinary citizens on the street, or on trains, or railway stations in the country.

One of the areas where there’s a particularly strong suspicion that this happened is with the Bologna railway station bombing. There's a strong suspicion that it happened, and there are particular money flows that, it has been suggested, could have been connected to this atrocity.

When I spoke to Roberto Calvi’s son, Carlo Calvi, in Canada, it was a hypothesis that obviously was very upsetting for him: to think that his father could have been involved in something like that. But it was, I think, something he was prepared to contemplate if it helped to draw the truth: the true picture of what had happened. And if it also helped to identify the people who were responsible for his murder. It was a traumatic idea, but it was something he was prepared to contemplate, and discuss. And certainly, that he didn't rule out as being unthinkable.

RC: But the evidence submitted at the murder trial is pretty solid in terms of showing that the Vatican bank laundered Mafia money, correct?

PW: Yes, that is correct. The evidence was presented at the trial, and the judges of the various stages consented that it was factually correct. Yes, it is one of the findings of the trials.

RC: It's an amazing story. This I also found fascinating: You say that, from 1969 to 1976, in elections for the Chamber of Deputies, support for the Italian Communist Party or PCI steadily increased. During this same period, the “parabola of electoral support for the PCI was … paralleled by the amount of terrorist activity” in Italy. There were 398 attacks in 1969 and 2,513 during 1979. This is just mind-blowing. It seems clear now that only the right-wing could gain from this terror, and that the violence was coordinated by Western security forces, i.e., Operation Gladio. Are we correct to assume that some of this was paid for by these Vatican-linked banks?

PW: I think it's a fair assumption that they were actively involved in this global campaign. And that Propaganda Due was a strongly anticommunist organization, and it had key people in control of these institutions. So, it's logical to assume that their resources were available to P2 when they were needed and that they would have been used. So, yes, I think it's a fair assumption.

I think on the question of Gladio's involvement in all this, at least in the case of Italy, I know there are number of colleagues who believe that the official Gladio organization, which was revealed by Andreotti in 1990, may have been something of a smokescreen for other right-wing organizations that really did the dirty work. And that, instead, the official Gladio may have become a scapegoat for other people. It's a complicated question and still open for debate. But there is this suggestion that it's perhaps not correct to blame everything on the officially recognized Gladio that was set up in the immediate post-war years, and that had very few known members, according to the official accounts, but that it may have been used as a smokescreen for other organizations.

RC: But even given if that's true, the official Gladio did not bend over backward to try to stop the unofficial right-wing terrorists. And the CIA did not bend over backward to stop them either. I mean, they must have known about them, right?

PW: Yes, I think that is correct: that there almost certainly was a level of contact and complicity. I think one of the big questions that are still open about the role of the CIA is to what extent the CIA knew about things that were going to happen and did nothing to prevent them from happening. And to what extent it actually controlled the people who were doing these things and then and encouraged them and backed their activities. That, I think, is still is open for debate. And there may have been things that may have gone down in different ways in the different episodes. But there's a constant element, which tended to be that right-wing atrocities were supposed to set the stage for a right-wing coup. And, for one reason or another, the coup never actually went through, was never fully accomplished. But the people who were doing these things, what they were aiming for was a reaction of horror; revulsion on the part of the public; atrocities that were nearly always initially blamed on the left or on anarchists. And creating a climate where the people would have been happy to go along with a military government and were willing to support them.

RC: Regarding what you just said about the official and unofficial Gladio: you write that when General Serravalle first took command of the Italian Gladio in 1971, he was “shocked by the extremist views” expressed by many of the gladiators. Serravalle also “speculated that Gladio may have been made public ‘because it was the presentable part of the whole thing.’” He added: “By fixing the searchlights on Gladio, the shadows behind it will grow and will serve to conceal ‘the usual suspects.”’ What did he mean by this remark? Was referring to what you were just talking about?

PW: I think he was. He was probably a basically decent man who was uncomfortable with what was happening, and he was instrumental in trying to withdraw some of these weapons that had been hidden in underground caches around the country. And when he realized or suspected what was going on, he took action to try and prevent his organization from being complicit in those extreme activities. So, even within Gladio, it wasn't this monolith where they were all fanatics colluding. There were some people who had deep misgivings about it. And General Serravalle was one of them.

RC: And he was rewarded for all this, first by a probable assassination attempt: the plane he was supposed to be flying on blew up. And then he was fired after just a few years.

PW: Yes. I think, in many cases, people who registered their objection to what was happening, or became whistleblowers, did, in many cases, meet with mysterious, suspicious deaths. Not Serravalle himself. I suspect his career was probably cut short. But a number of other people who had sensitive information on the coup plots and links to the terrorist activities died in mysterious car accidents, or apparent suicides. A pretty large number came to a sticky end.

RC: In his book, Of Terrorism and the State, Gianfranco Sanguinetti writes that once a terrorist group has been infiltrated and taken over by the secret services, it “becomes nothing more than a defensive appendage of the State.” You add that, by 1974, most of the original leadership of the Red Brigades was imprisoned and subsequent leaders were “suspected of collusion with the secret services.” How would you characterize the differences between the old, original Red Brigades and the post-1974 group?

PW: The question of the manipulation and infiltration of left-wing terrorism in Italy is very complex and has not, by any means, been clarified so far. But I do think it's true that the first generation of Red Brigades were nearly all, unquestionably, idealists who dedicated their lives to the armed struggle. And who, in the early years, carried out acts of violence that were mainly demonstrative. There was an escalation over time, particularly with the new leaders after 1974. There was an escalation with the first generation, too, but I think they were less bloodthirsty and less ready to take human lives than their successors.

Clearly, in a conflict like that, there’s an almost inevitable escalation in any case: that lives are lost on both sides. Both sides commit atrocities, and the hatred grows as the conflict moves forward. But the question, really, is whether key figures in the leadership of the Red Brigades after 1974 might have been working for Italian secret services, or the CIA, or the CIA via Italian secret services. And that, obviously, has huge implications.

All of that comes to a head with the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, who was the mastermind behind the agreement for some form of power sharing with the Communist Party, known as the “Historic Compromise.” And who probably wanted Italy to move toward a situation where there could be a genuine democratic alternation, eventually, between the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party, as the two major political forces in the country, and who probably wasn't on the point of selling out to the extent that he was perceived abroad.

The country was moving to a situation where the Communist Party would give parliamentary support to a Christian Democrat-dominated government: that the Communist Party would actually support the government in parliament, which they had never agreed to do before. It's said that he felt he needed to explain this to Allied countries: that he was still in control; he wasn't opening the door to the communist enemy. And that it was a sort of recognition of force majeure: that the situation was such that they couldn't avoid this. But he needed to explain it to Allied leaders, and, effectively, he didn't have the time to do that.

And there, the question is whether the Red Brigades would want to kidnap and eliminate a political leader like Aldo Moro for their own genuine reasons; or whether, ultimately, Western- and United States anxiety about what Moro was doing was the real reason why they kidnapped him and held him for fifty-five days, and then executed him in cold blood at the end of that time.

RC: The short version of what I'm going to ask you is: Do you have any doubt that Red Brigades leader Mario Moretti was an agent of the state? The longer version involves things such as the Hyperion language school in Paris, where he made solo trips, about which an Italian police report states: “The Hyperion … is suspected of being the most important CIA office in Europe.” Also, there’s an interesting quote in this regard that you included by Gianfranco Sanguinetti: “All secret terrorist groups are organized and run by a hierarchy which is kept secret even from their own members.” What do you think about Moretti?

PW: There are very good reasons to be suspicious of him. At the same time, there’s the fact that he has spent many years in prison. There are suggestions that maybe his treatment in prison was somewhat privileged. I'm not sure if whether, now, he still returns to prison to sleep at night and is allowed out in the day, to work. But one of the big questions about these figures who are suspected of having worked for the CIA, or Italian intelligence, is how they accept to pay for what they did with long prison sentences. And, if they were working for the secret services, how, after all these years, it still hasn't emerged with clarity if that was this case: that they haven't been convincingly denounced by their fellow Red Brigades members and with plausible, convincing evidence to make it clear that, at the end of the day, they were working for the other side.

So, it remains an open question. But, clearly, it is very important and significant, because it completely changes the whole complexion of what happened. You know, they may have been useful idiots who served the interest of the opposite side; because they were naïve, and because they were sort of pushed in one direction or another. And obviously, it’s a completely different story if they were controlled and given their orders by the secret services. And particularly if those orders were to kidnap Aldo Moro and then to kill him. That would be a tremendous, extraordinary reality, if they had done that: secretly working for a Western intelligence organization.

RC: In that regard, you talk about how, in the May 2, 1978 edition of Mino Pecorelli’s rather hermetic magazine, Osservatore Politico [Political Observer], Mino predicts that the first generation of the Red Brigades, who were in prison, would barter their silence in exchange for a general amnesty. He concludes: “The Red Brigades acted on behalf of others, Italians or foreigners, Italians and foreigners.” Was he correct regarding the reason for their silence? And how prescient was he in this prediction?

PW: I think he was pretty prescient, actually. Because although many of them did spend many years in prison, eventually there was a kind of political settlement, and most of them were let out. In fact, one of the aspects where Italy, on the surface at least, comes out with considerable credit is how these people ultimately renounced the armed struggle, and paid a certain penalty of years in prison, and then were released and reintegrated into society.

There has been a sort of reconciliation effort, which is ongoing even now, with meetings between relatives of the victims and certain members of the Red Brigades who were the perpetrators. In many cases, representatives of the Catholic Church actually played an important role in this reconciliation. Which has been very significant in some ways in that, despite the fact that there have been very strong social tensions in Italy because of the economic crisis, and the fact that the Italian economy has not been growing for years, and that there have been violent demonstrations and social conflict, there's never been, so far, a return to the extreme conflict of terrorism. It's as though the country's been inoculated against that by the terrible experiences they had during the last century. But it’s one of these great puzzles as to what really did happen.

On the other hand, of course, one could equally see that if these people had been working for the secret services, it's the kind of thing they could never, ever publicly acknowledge. And the fact this secrecy has effectively held for all these years could be underpinned by the fact that lives would be at stake, one way or the other, if there was a public admission of what really happened. And assuming it's true that some of these people were used by the intelligence organizations, in theory the lives of the people who had betrayed their comrades could be directly at risk. And equally, with the people who perhaps know that they were betrayed: that would be a very dangerous allegation to make, and they might have to pay for it with their lives.

Mino Pecorelli, who was often very prescient and very well informed, paid for his excess of information and excessive candor with his life. He was shot dead in the street in Rome. And his death has remained substantially mysterious, and with this aura of mystery and sort of threat hanging around it. So, that also is an element of what perhaps we don't know: large chunks of the story. Those were dangerous times, and the danger hasn't entirely gone away perhaps.

RC: Aldo Moro visited the United State in the role of foreign minister in September 1974. His meeting with Henry Kissinger was described as “traumatic.” Moro’s widow confirms that he was threatened while he was there. Mino published several slightly veiled death threats against Moro. And then, on September 13, 1975, Mino Pecorelli’s magazine reported: “An official visiting Rome with [President Ford] told us: ‘I see darkness. There’s a Jacqueline in the future of your peninsula,’” referring to JFK’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. What do you feel are the parallels between John Kennedy’s and Aldo Moro’s assassinations, specifically in terms of their mutual political outlook and the forces at work behind their murder?

PW: I think there is a strong parallel between the two cases: that they were two leaders who wanted to open dialogue with the left and change the way things had been done in the past. And Moro, throughout his political career, had been involved with that kind of dialogue with the left. First, with the Socialist Party, in opening up to an alliance with them, which, in the 1960s, was seen as a very sinister development by members of the military establishment, and the intelligence services, and the far right. And so, he was the object of hostility, and threats, and even kidnap plots of the far-right from way back, because of his opening to the Socialists. And then he went a step further in the 1970s, when he was going so far as to open up a dialogue, and some measure of power sharing, with the Communist Party; and maybe conservative political forces saw that as going a step too far.

That is obviously paralleled by Kennedy's approach to global politics, and neocolonialism, and a desire for a new and more progressive future. And I think it’s interesting that the sort of conspiratorial forces that were arrayed against them contained shared elements. In the book by Michele Metta, which I noticed you mention in your article, he describes the forces arrayed around organizations such as the Centro Mondiale Commerciale (CMC) and Permindex, which involved all sorts of interests and forces that we know were involved in anticommunist activities and sometimes in violent and illegal activities, such as with P2.

Figures who had been important in the Fascist regime, people with all sorts of conspiratorial threads, run through these organizations and are brought together. And I think it's very interesting that Michele Metta’s documents show that board meetings of the CMC took place near the Spanish Steps in Rome in the offices of a lawyer who was a member of P2. And, already, that created a sort of symbiosis between those organizations. And Metta’s documents also seem to indicate a presence of Israeli intelligence interests and possible connections to Mossad.

It's very interesting that, in the highly conspiratorial period after the Second World War in Italy, you had someone like James Jesus Angleton playing a very significant role. He was somebody who, in his career, dealt with Italy and, clearly, with Cold War requirements in postwar Italy. He also dealt with the Vatican. And he also dealt with Israel. He had very close personal links to Mossad. And so he, in himself, tied together these various interests and forces and geographical areas. And he was also a hard-line anticommunist, who possibly eventually succumbed to a certain degree of paranoia.

So, figures like him, and the organizations that they came into contact with, were the kind of instruments that, if you needed to do what happened, they were ideally suited. And the question is: Can we prove the connections and prove that “Subject A” really did these things and he discussed what needed to be done in these particular fora, where we know these people had an opportunity to meet.

There's quite a lot of information available now about the sort of conspiratorial fora where the decisions very likely were made, and where they could have been made, and where the kinds of interests that were represented would want those kinds of actions and outcomes. As far as I'm aware, we don't have the things that make the connection that prove the crime and the order for it. But I do think that people such as Angleton represented exactly the interests and forces that were at work at that time. And it's very interesting that he brought together, through his own personal contacts and friendships, the people who could do the necessary and were in the necessary positions of power.

The other thing that I’ve thought for a long time is that the terrible things that occurred in Italy in the postwar era may have been the result of the people responsible for running the show having cut their teeth on the real war, where it was clear that “anything went” in order to win. You know: “No holds barred.” And it was an absolute struggle for survival, and you couldn’t be too prissy to get about what you did and how you did it. And that people with that experience and that mindset then ran the Cold War operations afterward. And they probably felt that the conflict that they were engaged upon was similarly vital. And again, the struggle for survival, and that you couldn’t be too particular about what you did and getting your hands dirty. And that mental conditioning of the warriors of the Second World War, who became the warriors of the Cold War, possibly explains certain things that most people in a democratic society would never have countenanced. But with these people, their history made them what they were and dictated that they were prepared to do these things for what they thought was a supremely important cause.

RC: The euphemism that they love to employ is “unorthodox.”

PW: Yes! [Laughs]

RC: I'm sure this is purely coincidental. But it’s strange that we have Licio Gelli’s mattress company, called Permaflex; and then we have this very shadowy institution that Metta talks about in his book, Permindex. Just wondering if that ever struck you as being odd.

PW: I never noticed that; it's never occurred to me. Yes, it’s an interesting coincidence.

RC: Moro’s former secretary, Sereno Freato, allegedly told the Moro Commission: “Find the people behind the Pecorelli murder and you will find those behind that of Aldo Moro.” This is an interesting statement, especially since Andreotti was initially convicted for the murder of Pecorelli in 2002, later overturned. What role do you believe Andreotti played in Moro’s death and in Operation Gladio? I know that's a hard question, because he's such a foxy figure, and he covered his trail so well. And it seems that there's not enough that we know about this incredibly important person.

PW: Yes, he is a really crucial figure in all of this. I think that he really was America's man in Italy and also the Vatican's man in Italy. He had a long career, and he was defense minister on numerous occasions and prime minister as well. He was prime minister when Moro was kidnapped. And we don't really know of anything that he personally did to try and save him, to save his party colleague.

As you mentioned, he was prosecuted for Pecorelli’s murder. First acquitted, then actually convicted on appeal, and then finally re-acquitted in the third stage of the justice system. So there was certainly strong reason to be suspicious of his role in relation to Pecorelli. And Pecorelli’s death is often linked to what he may have known about the Moro kidnapping and, particularly, if he had access to the full document that Moro wrote while he was prisoner, which we now have an incomplete version of, and where Moro launched a very bitter attack on Andreotti. And conceivably, there was more that was even more damaging to Andreotti; and that was the part that has been subtracted, and that has never emerged.

RC: As you say, Andreotti refused to do anything to help Aldo Moro when he was kidnapped, parallel to how the CIA refused to help in the search, which is just absolutely incredible!

What do you think Mino’s real motivation was, particularly in the later years of his life? Earlier on, it seems as if he's often working for blackmail purposes. You know, “I won't publish it if you buy this painting.” That sort of thing. But near the end, this former P2 member appears like a muckraking, investigative journalist, who's publishing things that clearly put his life in danger. What do you think was going on in his mind toward the end? Was there any self-righteous indignation, or am I being a completely naive American in thinking this?

PW: No, I think that’s probably right: that he really had the sort of journalistic bug, and that was why he published these things that he shouldn't have published. And he was looking for scoops, and he preferred to publish them if he could.

In fact, his reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated in more recent times. His sister is still alive and has devoted her life to campaigning for his rehabilitation. In one of the court cases concerning him, the judges actually say very respectful things about him: that he did have this enthusiasm for investigative journalism and was a very good investigator. And obviously, he had extraordinary sources. And that he had this natural desire to publish and be damned, and that he deserves credit for that.

RC: You refer to his “hermetic, elusive style.” You know, when I read these quotes by him, in part they almost strike me as a kind of cultivated, high avant-garde literature. They're incredibly witty, and the wordplay that he uses! For example, in 1975, he referred to Aldo Moro as “Moro … bondo,” as in the Italian word for moribund: “moribondo.” He loved wordplay, and he was a talented writer in many ways.

PW: Yes, I think that's right. He was a very brilliant individual. And he was, it seems, a very one-man show. There were other people who worked with him on the magazine. But they don't seem to have known what he was really up to, or what his sources were.

RC: You say he had a lot of sources with the secret services, too.

PW: That's right, yes. I think there was even a period when a secret service officer named Nicola Falde was directly in charge in the office.

RC: What did you mean when you said it's possible that he was threatened if he published certain things, but also threatened if he didn't publish certain things? Who was threatening him?

PW: I think that's something that he himself confided to his colleagues. It's quite likely that he found himself in the middle of one of these battles between secret service factions. There was a faction that was loyal to Moro, and there was a faction that was loyal to Andreotti. There were all sorts of issues over which the secret services could be divided: Israel, or the Arab states, or the PLO. He had access to very delicate information. And so, this idea that: if one faction wants something to come out, they entrust it to him; but it could be with the understanding that if it doesn't come out you will be in very serious trouble. Whereas, obviously, the idea that the people who don't want something to come out are going to do something nasty to you: that is more or less normal.

RC: I'm fascinated by your relationship with Licio Gelli. How many times did you meet with him in person?

PW: I must have met him about three or four times.

RC: How did you get him to warm up to you, and confide in you, to level that he did?

PW: It was interesting that, over time, you could see he was becoming increasingly relaxed in talking about these topics that, closer to the time, would have been very sensitive. He’d been very tight-lipped about a lot of these stories. And then it became such an ancient history, and the direct protagonist might be gone from the scene. You could see that he gradually became more and more relaxed. But I also think that, when he was older and living in his villa outside Arezzo, he enjoyed the attention of journalists coming to talk to him, maybe getting bored or lonely at a point. I certainly noticed that if you went to interview him with a television camera he loved that, and he would keep talking and be very much available. If it was just you and the tape recorder, it was less gratifying to him. But definitely, there was a period of thawing on his part, and eventually he could be more indiscreet.

RC: One P2 member claimed that Gelli reacted to the Moro murder by saying: “We have finally resolved the Moro problem.” What do you suspect Licio Gelli’s role was in Aldo Moro’s kidnap and death?

PW: If it's true that the intelligence services had a high-level person infiltrated into the Red Brigades leadership, then Gelli might well have known that and might have been running the show to some extent. Because it seems that, as the representative of American intelligence interests in Italy, he might have been in a position to give instructions to the leaders of the Italian secret services, so his organization would have been very much focused on what had happened. And that particular quote where he sort of assumes responsibility for what had happened––“The main part’s been done. Now let's see how it pans out”––is very significant and raises the question as to whether that operation was conducted on the orders of people like Gelli. [On the day that Moro was abducted, Gelli’s secretary Nara Lazzerini overheard him make this remark to two of his colleagues.]

RC: You say the Carabinieri raided his house early one morning. How long before this did Gelli leave the country? And was he tipped off?

PW: I think he’d left maybe a matter of weeks before. Possibly tipped off, or possibly a lucky coincidence for him.

RC: Do we know where he ended up in Latin America?

PW: He had a strong presence in Uruguay. He may also have had some sort of a presence, and possibly properties, in Brazil, as well. But definitely, Uruguay was a base for him, where he was protected and was well “in” with the regime. And of course, he had historically very strong links to Argentina, and to Peron, and to the anti-Communists …

RC: I believe he had dual citizenship with Argentina.

PW: Yes. He was the economic attaché at their embassy in Rome, and he had very strong links to freemasonry in Argentina. And particularly, he had a personal friendship with Emilio Massera, who was a member of P2 and was the head of the Navy there, which was the armed force that was one of the most heavily involved in torturing and killing dissidents in the “Dirty War” in Argentina.

RC: Well, Philip, that's quite a story. Just a couple of final questions: What do you think Ronald Stark’s main task was when––how convenient!––he was imprisoned in the same place as the Red Brigades? Was his main task to teach them a Morse code that Gladio was already familiar with, so they could listen in?

PW: I'm not sure. I mean, that's another very mysterious part of the story. Stark himself is a fascinating character. Again, it’s difficult to say whether he’s a criminal interested in making money from drugs, who now has to cut a deal with State organizations and do things for them as well. Or whether he was an intelligence operative who’s very convincing, whose deep cover was as this drug manufacturer and dealer. And, as well, what his connections might have been to Israel for the Mossad, on top of everything else. And whether his activities really made a difference in Italy. Or whether the intelligence that he gathered from talking to the Red Brigades leaders in prison, whether those were significant contacts, and he then passed the information back to the United States and also to Italian intelligence officers. And whether that influenced the outcome of what was happening. Or, as you say, if he could get them to adopt a code that could then be comfortably broken by Gladio or by the CIA. Clearly, that would be an important breakthrough.  

RC: Is there anything you could share with us that you've learned since beginning your new research on Aldo Moro's death?

PW: I think one of the things to come out of the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry is the possible involvement in the case of a building on a street called Via Massimi in Rome, which was actually owned, curiously enough, by the IOR. There was an extraordinary collection of people with a connection to the building or actually living there. It was on a hill and, at one stage, was the highest building overlooking Rome and not overlooked by any other building. Archbishop Marcinkus reportedly had an apartment there. And Cardinal Egidio Vagnozzi: an interesting character who had been the Vatican's diplomatic representative in the United States going back sometime, and involved in some sensitive diplomatic activities in relation to the United States. And also, somebody named Omar Yahia, who had Libyan intelligence contacts. And in particular, there was an office of a company called TumCo and the man behind it, John Tumpane. They were involved in American military logistics, particularly in servicing American airbases in Turkey, for example.

So there’s a sort of concentration of extraordinary characters in this building. It was almost too good to be true from the point of view of a novel writer. And the suggestion is that Moro may have been held there, in the early days of the kidnap. This seems to have been endorsed by the president of the Commission, who wrote a book with an Italian journalist, after the Commission completed its work. And that, at the very least, the cars used by the Red Brigades in the kidnap may have been concealed in the garage of this building. Interestingly enough, Mino Pecorelli has a cryptic reference to a “complicit garage.” He was promising further revelations about “the complicit garage” that was involved in the story. And if this does turn out to be true, it's an extraordinary development. Some people are still a bit skeptical about it, and there's still no real clarity on it.

To top everything else, the Commission had its own investigators work on this particular topic. And then, when they were concluding their work, they passed the information to the prosecutors in Rome, to continue. Which had the result that everything that they found out so far is covered by judicial secrecy. And may remain in that condition for a number of years.

RC: In perpetuity, no doubt!

PW: Yes! And the feeling is that the Rome magistrates know that their duty is to bury the sensitive aspects of the story. And they work very efficiently to achieve that.

RC: Well, we can end with the words of the unrepentant terrorist, Vincenzo Vinciguerra, who said: “the State cannot convict itself.”

PW: [Laughs] Indeed, a very sensible view. Well, it’s been a great pleasure talking to you.

RC: This has been such a great talk. Thanks so much for your time, Philip.

Last modified on Saturday, 05 October 2019 17:50
Rob Couteau

Positive reviews of Rob Couteau's literary works have appeared in Midwest Book Review, Publishers Weekly Booklife, and Barney Rosset's Evergreen Review. His interviews include conversations with Ray Bradbury, Last Exit to Brooklyn author Hubert Selby, LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann, Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda, Picasso's model and muse Sylvette David, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Justin Kaplan. His current research is focused on Operation Gladio and JFK's numerous foreign policy innovations.

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