• U.S.

Europe Nato’s Secret Armies

3 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

The cold war was near absolute zero, the Korean War was raging, and the West could almost hear the Soviet tanks gunning their engines on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The U.S. and its European allies were determined not to be caught as unprepared as they had been when the Nazis invaded. So in the early 1950s they began training “stay behind” networks of volunteers. If the Soviet army rolled west, the groups were to gather intelligence, open escape routes and form resistance movements.

Originally advised and financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, many of the units and their clandestine arms caches were later taken over by the military intelligence organizations of West European countries and coordinated by a NATO committee. “It seemed like a pretty sensible business,” recalls Harry Rositzke, a retired CIA officer who handled anti- Soviet operations in Munich in the mid-1950s. “But then, we were all hysterical at the time.”

Nor has the emotion completely ebbed now that Europe is remaking itself. Last week in Italy and Belgium, investigators were looking into possible links between the clandestine networks and episodes of right-wing terrorism during the past 20 years. In Rome, Admiral Fulvio Martini, head of military intelligence, testified before a parliamentary committee. Italy’s paramilitary group, dubbed Gladio (Sword), had 622 members and 139 stockpiles of arms and explosives hidden around the country, Martini said. When the caches were gathered up in 1972, he added, 10 were found empty. One of them had contained eight kilos of plastic explosive, leading left-wing politicians to voice suspicion that the plastic had been used for the neofascist terrorism that plagued Italy in the 1970s and ’80s.

The Belgian government is investigating the possibility that its secret resistance members might have been responsible for a wave of terrorist raids on supermarkets near Brussels in which 27 people were killed between 1983 and 1985. As the accusations echoed across the Continent, France and Greece announced that their clandestine volunteer groups had been disbanded.

The existence of these secret organizations was first disclosed in 1976 by a U.S. Senate committee investigating CIA operations. Former CIA Director William Colby told the story in greater detail in his 1978 memoir, Honorable Men. His first assignment in the agency, Colby wrote, had been to organize stay-behind networks in Scandinavia.

In neutral Sweden and Finland, the groups were created without the governments’ knowledge. In NATO countries Norway and Denmark, the units were built with official cooperation. But in addition, Colby revealed, the CIA secretly formed its own backup networks in both Norway and Denmark. Still unknown are how many of these organizations are alive today and what they may have been up to lately.

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