The article below reviews a fascinating book covering a turbulent period in Italian political history--the 1970s & 80s, where there seemed to be no stunt the Italian ruling class would not pull to retain their grip on the political/economic system. We at NFB have no trouble with rigorous research uncovering state malfeasance, as in Italy at this time. We do, however, think such accounts, even this one, should be subject to scrutiny themselves. Willan's contention that Negri was involved in the Red Brigades is a fanciful idea he does not substantiate. In correspondence after the book (to be put on this site when we get round to it), Willan was unable to flesh out his claims regarding Negri. I have a soft spot for Negri, and his attempts to update Leftism for the modern world. It was intriguing therefore, to encounter in 2007

renowned 9/11 cult 'theorist' Webster Griffin Tarpley, who has boasted of helping jail Negri. I made the mistake of alerting him before the meeting of my concern about this--so WGT was able, that day, to ensure no public questions were taken. That is by the by--but does serve to show NFB have no reason to take seriously cultist urging we 'look into' Operation Gladio or such like to justify their fantasies. The review below indicates we have long taken an informed interest in such matters. It first appeared in Lobster magazine issue 23 June 1992 p.28-30 Larry O'Hara 19/8/10

'Blinded by the light'--review of Phillip Willan's 'Puppet Masters: the Political Use of Terrorism in Italy' (Constable, London, 1991) by Larry O'Hara
This is a detailed and interesting book, dealing in a thorough (if partially flawed) way with a fascinating subject. It covers a wide array of interlocking subjects including the infamous P2 Masonic Lodge, under the command of Licio Gelli. The activities of this nefarious group were brought to a wider audience by the upsurge of political violence in Italy, starting with the (fascist imputed) Milan bank bombing in 1969, and two key traumatic episodes - the capture and ultimate murder of Christian Democrat (DC) party leader Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades (BR) in 1978, and the Bologna railway station bombing in 1980 when 85 died, which was attributed to neo-fascists at the time. Willan also casts light on the Italian end of 'Operation Gladio', the organisation ostensibly set up in 1947-8 to provide resistance to a Russian invasion, but whose real aim was to 'counter the internal threat of the PCI' (p. 358), and in whose membership neo-fascists were well represented. Willan uses a wide variety of sources - published and unpublished documents, court transcripts, interviews with magistrates and protagonists such as Gelli himself.

The thesis advanced by Willan is essentially that the rise of rightist 'terrorism' (a word whose analytical validity I don't accept, but he does, like most others) up to 1974 was sponsored by elements within the ruling bloc and the secret state in particular. He illustrates this by looking at incidents including the May 1972 killing of 3 carabineri near Peateano (using weapons from a Gladio arms dump), and the bombing of the Italicus express train in August 1974 (a P2 operation). Such close attention to particular episodes is one of the great strengths of this book: for the first time in English as far as I am aware, such episodes are dealt with in detail. The chapter on the Bologna bombing is exemplary in this respect, though unfortunately the only explanation he considers in detail is his own theorem that the secret services may 'have organised a "genuine" right-wing bombing at Bologna station in order to reinforce the idea that the Itavia disaster [when a civilian airliner had been shot down over Ustica killing 81 in a Libyan-U.S-French aerial dogfight] was caused by a bomb rather than a missile, and thus strengthen the alibi of whichever NATO air force had been responsible for the disaster' (p. 170). Evidence since his book was published has tended to confirm suspicions of a cover-up concerning the Itavia incident, and he is undoubtedly correct in stressing the importance of the planting of a suitcase of explosives in Bologna station in January 1981 by two secret service operatives, with the intention of delaying the investigation and framing Giorgio Vale, a member of the fascist NAR (Armed Revolutionary Cells). However this doesn't rule out some of the 9 other explanations he outlines but examines somewhat cursorily.

Domestic elements or NATO?

Willan leaves little room for doubt that the Italian secret state was centrally involved in the Bologna bombing: SISMI (the principal player) even identified the explosive used at Bologna as being T4 military explosive before forensic tests had identified it! (p. 171) The real question is though, who put them up to it and who else was involved? Ultimately, Willan is too ready to attribute to the USA and NATO the 'overall responsibility' for the political violence that was the strategy of tension (pp. 348-351). In fact as his evidence often shows, domestic elements needed no encouragement from abroad. This is not to deny the proven murderous capabilities of NATO and/or the CIA, but rather to point out thev are an all too easv target, and that the attribution needs to be specifically proved in each case. For such claims of a general nature have often been advanced by official Communist parties as an alibi for their own political failings.

There is little attempt at sociological explanation of terrorism, although Willan might replv that such speculation has been entered into by others (such as Leonard Weinberg) already. On the strategic level, while repeating the traditional view that the aim was to prevent the Italian Communist Party (PCI, now renamed PDS) taking power, he provides a convincing elaboration of its scope, presenting certain acts of terror such as the Christmas 1984 train bombing killing 15 on the Naples-Milan express as coded messages, heavy with complex symbolism, from one fraction of those involved in the previous phase of violence to their co-conspirators, seeking to restore their support and maintain their silence.

'Left-wing terrorsts more like marionettes'

When Willan moves from examining rightist terrorism to looking at that of the far left from 1974, he becomes most intriguing - and controversial. He puts it thus on p. 179: 'If many right-wing terrorists were glove-puppets, 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'. Some elements of his case he argues persuasively - for instance the possibility that with the 1974 arrest of the 'first generation' BR leaders Renato Curcio and Alberto Franceschini, their place may well have been taken by secret state assets such as Mario Moretti (someone whose frequent escapes from arrest sometimes verged on the miraculous), the mastermind of the Moro kidnap.

In his rigorous examination of the circumstances surrounding the kidnap, which took place on the very day that Moro was going to parliament to try and cement an 'Historic Compromise' with the PCI, Willan points to the whole episode as having been organised by the forces of the state itself. The investigation to find Moro while alive and to negotiate for his release seems to have been so structured as to deliberately fail: there are substantial grounds for thinking that the state knew where he was throughout his 55 day ordeal, but chose not to look in the right place, or to publicise the fact. Moro was most likely killed not just because he was about to conclude a deal with the relatively uncorrupt PCI, but because of what he knew about the murky past of the Christian Democrats and P2. Willan rightly makes great play of the non-disclosure by the BR of what Moro told them during his 'people's trial', as well as the disappearance of his confidential documents. Were the BR unit who captured Moro genuinely leftist would thev not have have publicised all this?

The Calogero theorem

So, I am prepared to go along with a lot of what Willan says about the BR after 1974 (while remaining convinced of the genuine motivation of most of their combatants). What I draw the line at though, is Willan's disgraceful and unsubstantiated slurs on the name, and more importantly, on the politics of Toni Negri. A founder of the Potere Operaia tendency, Negri went on to become a key theorist of the Worker's Autonomy movement, and remains one of the few inspirational figures on the European far left today. Willan, however, seeks to resuscitate the discredited 'Calogero theorem', named after the public prosecutor who first accused Negri of being the real mastermind behind the BR. Looking back at my contemporary records, I found that there were two versions of the theorem. In the first it was asserted that Negri had directed BR operations, including the Moro kidnap, even telephoning the Moro family an behalf of the BR. When, unsurprisingly, no evidence could be produced to back this up, Calogero concocted version two, that Negri was the 'intellectual inspiration' behind the BR. Key evidence for the prosecution was Negri's political writings, which certainly in places display an over-fondness for violent rhetoric. The real purpose of the Calogero theorem, however, as this shift of emphasis in the charges indicates, was to criminalise any opposition to the left of the PCI, something both the PCI and the Christian Democrats could enthusiastically agree on - an 'Historic Compromise' indeed.... In this light, the framing of Negri took place not just despite his differences with the BR, but because of them.

Willan adds a couple of twists to the theorem, most notably the astounding claim that Negri was a CIA asset. This is based on such 'facts' as the death of Negri's fascist brother at the hands of partisans in 1943 (when Negri was ten), and that he visited the USA 'and does not appear to have had any difficulty in obtaining a visa.... at a time when members of the Communist Party were routinely denied visas' (p. 187). I find it hard to believe that Willan does not know that U.S. immigration authorities, stuck in the Cold-War groove as they were (are?), only ever ask questions about Communist Party membership, their bureaucratic inflexibility such they can't even officially imagine the possibility of anything to the left of official Communism.
Other 'witnesses' Willan summons to back up his charges against Negri were themselves secret state assets or even employees, such as Mino Pecorelli and General Dalla Chiesa (both murdered, as so many actors in this theatre of the absurd have been). Dalla Chiesa, who is rightly credited by Willan with playing a crucial role in official anti-terrorist initiatives, hardly seems to have been unambiguously on the side of the angels. He may well have known all about the Moro kidnap at the time, but never disclosed it (p. 288), and his methods and agents are themselves surrounded in mystery (p. 285).

While Negri is included in the same chapter as a patchy analysis of an institution called the Hyperion Language School in Paris, which may well have been CIA-linked, and some of whose associates went on to become the 'second generation' BR leadership that is so suspect, Willan's hard evidence associating Negri with it is non-existent. The argument is that evidence linking Negri to the Hyperion was just about to come out when the story was blown by a secret service leak to 11 Corriere Delia Sera on 24 April 1979 (p. 188). Given the desperation of the state to criminalise Negri's politics, that the Rome police should have issued reports speculating on Negri's possible links with Hyperion (pp. 188 -193) is hardly proof of anything. Indeed, in the course of his vicious return to attacking Negri in the conclusion (pp.346-7), Willan is forced to admit that 'the precise relationship between Negri and the Red Brigades has never been fully clarified'. Quite.

For some, these tendentious passages about Negri would invalidate the rest of the book, making all his conclusions and investigations suspect, but I think that would be too hasty. Influenced as he is by the PCI, and implicitly sympathetic to them (something which might appear strange to Sunday Telegraph readers, for whom Willan writes occasional articles), Willan has a very understandable blind spot in his treatment of the far left. Given the PCI's support for NATO and capitalism, or as he puts it on p. 353, the 'threat of the PCI to the democratic order in Italy has consistently been overstated, while the party's progressive distancing of itself from its revolutionary roots passed virtually unremarked', he does not take on board the fact that this is precisely what the Italian far left legitimately (and in my view correctly) disliked about the 'Historic Compromise'.

He dismisses Negri and associates as practitioners of 'hysterical rantings.... preachers of evil' with 'delusionary ideas' (pp. 184-5). But given the PCI's move to the right, the far left was merely occupying vacated space. This lacuna in Willan's thought leads him to overlook the hypothesis that the 'strategy of tension' was not just (or even necessarily primarily) aimed at the PCI, who were indeed no trouble for the system, but the possibility that their participation in government may have encouraged the further development of forces to the_ left of, opposed to, and beyond the control of, the PCI and Christian Democrats. After all, the beginning of the rightist phase of the 'strategy of tension', the Milan Bank bombing of 1969, was concurrent with the intense industrial and social mobilisation of the 'Hot Autumn' - and was initially blamed on the far left.

Willan's restricted view (undoubtedly held in good faith--an important qualification) of the scope of legitimate political debate and discourse cannot allow for 'intelligent leaders of the extreme left, many of them university professors' being 'sincerely convinced' of the possibility of Marxist revolution in Italy (p. 186). Once you grant such a position can have been (indeed can still be!) held sincerely, and that the Italian ruling class were aware of this, then a lot of Willan's facts can be cast in a new light. For example, whereas Willan treats the utterances of Pecorelli with a respect bordering on awe (and assuredly they are of great significance), the sincerity of Negri's politics would indubitably account for the elliptical (and hence unanswerable in its own terms) smearing of Negri by such a secret state asset. Given such proven connections of Pecorelli's, the inclusion of Negri in one of his fantasy tales is on a par with the Quatrains of Nostradamus: after the event you can read anything you want in them, but the only truth is in the eye of the beholder.

A curious echo of McCarthyism

For someone so astute at times, Willan can be astonishingly naive, as when he suggests that a 1975 hint about Negri's forthcoming role in a secret state plot was a 'revelation one can only assume Pecorelli felt justified in making because of the limited circulation of his magazine and the coded language in which it was couched' (p. 187). But how about the obvious: Pecorelli being paid to circulate disinformation, entangling in advance an enemy of the system with the very nefarious goings-on Pecorelli himself was so privy to? The persecution of Negri and the whole 'area of autonomy' was very congenial for the PCI too, as it absolved them from any responsibility for those they had taken a hand in marginalising and/or excluding from the political system. No wonder they took on the role of witch-hunters in chief of Negri and others. It was not SISMI or P2 who tried to polarise opinion into being for the BR or the state, it was instead the PCI, in a curious echo of McCarthyism, who tried to reduce the complexities of Italian politics to this false antithesis, as a means of punishing and closing down the far left as a whole.

The secret-state manipulation of the BR at certain points, especially after 1974, can be easily fitted into my thesis. After all, what better way of delegitimising armed struggle in all circumstances than blurring the distinction between its role as one element in a popular revolutionary struggle (the considered position of much of the far left) and those who practised increasingly indiscriminate murder and kidnap, quite possibly some of it state-directed, cloaking it all in pseudo-Leninist military fetishism (the BR)? It could be said that in criticising Willan's book on this count, I am merely being partisan, so our views cancel out, but I would disagree. It is Willan who has failed to produce any real evidence linking Negri to the CIA, whereas I have merely sought to explain that failure. The frequent and friendly use Willan makes of the testimony of Franceschini, including his recent conversion to the 'Calogero theorem', while interesting, is not decisive. The views of Curcio and others who have not renounced their beliefs are given little prominence (though admittedly accorded some respect). In any event, not only might Franceschini have a complex mix of motives for his change of heart -psychological and spiritual exhaustion, the desire for early release and so on --the views of any member or ex-member of the BR cannot be treated as of too much weight analytically. After all, if they had been that politically sophisticated they would never have joined BR in the first place; there were a host of other more credible far left groupings around such as Potere Operaia or Lotta Continua.

Having got that substantial disagreement out of my system, I would nevertheless like to conclude by strongly recommending the book. These episodes in Italian history are of intrinsic interest, and this chronicle is a substantial contribution to English language accounts of them, undermining virtually all the extant literature in its well-documented central placing of the Italian 'secret services as active participants if not protagonists, in the strategy of tension', (p. 126) Furthermore (while agnostic on the issue myself) the events in the book indirectly provide a powerful argument against Proportional Representation, inasmuch as it could lead, like it has in Italy, to some parties never leaving power, merely jockeying for position. In the course of such negotiations, concealing (while threatening to disclose) evidence about the crimes of coalition partners is a far more useful counter than mere policy differences. This in itself is probably the major reason why virtually none of those who ordered or carried out the incidents of violence catalogued herein have ever been brought to justice.


After the Italian national elections in April 1992, in which all the major parties lost ground to the populist Northern League, who should the corrupt cess-pits that constitute the Christian Democrats and ill-named 'Socialists' have turned to at the time of writing to form a coalition? Why, the PDS, successors to the PCI, of course!

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About NFB Magazine

Welcome to Britain's premier parapolitical investigative magazine Notes from the Borderland (NFB). We have been producing the magazine since 1997 but some published material before then.

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