Ostensibly a secret network of nearly 50 underground armed squads that would have organized resistance to an eventual Soviet invasion of Italy, Gladio (a gladio was the short, double-edged and pointed sword used in ancient Rome by the infantry and in the arena) is one of the many murky chapters in Italian Cold War history. The networks were discovered accidentally in 1990 during a judicial investigation in Venice into the murder of a policeman. Pressed by the leadership of the Partito Comunista Italiana/Italian Communist Party (PCI), who suspected that the squads had existed to organize subversive activity in the event of a Communist electoral victory, the then premier, Giulio Andreotti, first claimed that the networks had been disbanded in 1972. Subsequently, in October 1990, he was forced to admit that the squads were still in being. Furthermore, no fewer than 12 of the squads’150 arms caches had been rifled by unknown hands. In January 1991, the gladiators’names were revealed, and it swiftly became clear that a substantial proportion had links to neofascist groups.
   It is widely believed in Italy that Gladio was not a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) initiative, as the Andreotti government claimed, but was instead a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) undercover operation in collaboration with the Italian secret service to subvert a PCI government, even if legitimately elected. There are certainly some grounds for believing this hypothesis. NATO headquarters initially denied its involvement and only retracted its denial after arm-twisting by the Italian government. The only first-rank Italian politicians to have been fully informed of the networks were Andreotti and President Francesco Cossiga, both of whom were notoriously close to the secret services, while other equally important, but less conspiratorial, politicians, such as Amintore Fanfani, were seemingly not informed at all.
   Whatever the truth of Gladio’s origins and purpose, the discovery of the network immediately led to a major institutional crisis as Cossiga used every power at his command to suppress an independent inquiry into his role in the affair. Most disturbing of all, the revelation that the Italian state had been arming squads of right-wing extremists hinted at an ominous explanation for the wave of neofascist terrorism, the so-called strategia della tensione(strategy of tension) in the 1970s that culminated in the bomb attack at the Bolognarailway station on 2 August 1980.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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