My recent post What If Everything You Know About Terrorism is Wrong?, which explained the important (and neglected) role of intelligence services behind a lot of terrorism, got considerable feedback. I highlighted the fact that the Russians invented the dark art of provocation, what they term provokatsiya, and still today Moscow is rather adept as such tactics.
Inevitably this led to mentioning of “false flag” operations, a term which is used casually, and almost always incorrectly, by the tinfoil-hat crowd. False flag ops do exist, but they are little understood by those unfamiliar with real-world espionage. Predictably, I got questions about U.S. intelligence and terrorism. The truth is that American counterterrorism operations lack anything like the nefariously imaginative flair that the Russians bring to the table; this neglect may be good for our democracy but I think we can learn something from the Russians here.
Like clockwork, I got questions about the shadowy Operation GLADIO, which is especially beloved by those seeking to “prove” U.S. and NATO malfeasance. The GLADIO myth is based in certain facts, namely that in the early days of the Cold War, when a Soviet invasion of Western Europe seemed like a real possibility, many European NATO countries established stay-behind networks that would operate in the event their lands wound up under the Kremlin’s heel.
Such stay-behind programs were wanted by European NATO members that had suffered occupation by Nazi Germany: setting up networks that would operate after capitulation was a “lesson learned” from the Second World War. These secret efforts were run by these countries’ intelligence services with assistance from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Most of these stay-behind programs languished in the latter half of the Cold War, as the threat of Soviet invasion loomed less ominously, but many NATO countries maintained some sort of secret program along these lines through the 1980’s.
The mythical GLADIO, the existence of which was leaked as early as 1990, became an obsession for some with the publication of the book NATO’s Secret Armies in 2005 by the Swiss historian Daniele Ganser. Although it was published by an academic press and possesses the footnotes one expects from such a turgid tome, Ganser’s work was lacking in academic standards. However, it made headlines with its explosive claims, especially that NATO-linked intelligence networks were responsible for acts of terrorism, particularly in Italy.
Such claims were met with enthusiasm by many Italians, including those on the Left who tend to see the CIA lurking behind every tree. (Let it be said that Italians of all political stripes love conspiracies to explain complex things, so much so that they have a word, dietrologia — roughly “behindology” — for this tendency.) Here at last was an explanation for the admittedly murky “years of lead” from the late 1960’s through the early 1980’s, when Italy was plagued by terrorism, including mysterious bombings that have never been officially resolved. Leftists had long fingered Italy’s intelligence services for what they termed a “strategy of tension” hiding behind some of that terrorism, and here comes Ganser to prove they were right, and the CIA was really behind it all. Needless to say, to certain Europeans this was catnip.
The only problem was that it isn’t true. With few exceptions, specialists in the history of intelligence considered Ganser’s book to be a shoddy work of scholarship. In the first place, he made no effort to hide his biases, noting that he considered CIA covert action to be “terrorist in nature.” Then there was the problem that Ganser was making incendiary assertions he could not prove, as he himself admitted to “not being able to find any official sources to support his charges of the CIA’s or any Western European government’s involvement with GLADIO.”
Peer reviews were harsh. One academic dismissed Ganser’s tome as “a journalistic book with a big spoonful of conspiracy theories,” while another concluded: “A detailed refutation of the many unfounded allegations that Ganser accepts as historical findings would fill an entire book.” Phil Davies, who is a bona fide expert on intelligence, expressed the book’s problem concisely:
marred by imagined conspiracies, exaggerated notions of the scale and impact of covert activities, misunderstandings of the management and coordination of operations within and between national governments, and… an almost complete failure to place the actions and decisions in question in the appropriate historical context…The underlying problem is that Ganser has not really undertaken the most basic necessary research to be able to discuss covert action and special operations effectively.
This is the polite British academic way of stating that Ganser is at best uninformed, at worst a charlatan. Lacking any grounding in this complex subject, Ganser leapt to conclusions for which he had no evidence, but for which presumably he knew there would be a hungry audience.
The CIA stated publicly that Ganser had no idea what he was talking about, and had seriously distorted facts, while the State Department took the unusual step of issuing a public statement attacking the book. The most serious matter it noted was Ganser’s use of a supposed U.S. Army Field Manual 30-31B that gave instructions on all sorts of nefarious activities. The problem is this document is a Soviet forgery, and has been known to be fake for decades. This “Field Manual” was cooked up by the KGB as a disinformation operation, and it became something of a sensation on the European Left in the 1970’s as “proof” of American malfeasance, being pushed by Kremlin mouthpieces like the CIA defector Phil Agee, the Edward Snowden of the polyester era.
There’s been ample evidence available for years about KGB Cold War dezinformatsiya, including forgeries like FM 30-31B. The so-called Mitrokhin Archive, compiled by a KGB archivist and brought to Britain after the fall of the Soviet Union, makes up two weighty volumes by the eminent intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, including considerable primary source documentation of KGB disinformation operations and how they worked.
Either Ganser has not bothered to read and understand these works, making him the least informed intelligence historian in all history, or he simply ignored evidence that did not suit his theories, for which he did not have any primary source evidence. Of course, this did nothing to tamp down enthusiasm for Ganser’s GLADIO theorizing by those who wanted such myths to be true.
To this day, almost any act of terrorism in Europe will be met with cries of “GLADIO!” in certain quarters, with implications — there is of course never any evidence — that the CIA is “really” behind the crime. Such is the cost of fiction masquerading as fact.
Daniele Ganser has gotten off the GLADIO beat, having milked the topic for all the fame and fortune it was worth, and unsurprisingly he has moved on to 9/11 Trutherism, another arena where the absence of evidence is no impediment to those who simply want to believe. His recent work has been in the field of — you knew this was coming — “peak oil.”