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I’m very happy to host Alessandro Giorgi’s interview on the intelligence operations beyond the Iron Curtain as the first one of 2021! Indeed, I had the pleasure to meet Alessandro several times, when he presented his amazing research on several topics. First, we meet in Milan (ah, I start to get old and feel a certain nostalgia!). He was presenting his (back then) last book on the Vietnam War, which is a passion of mine. I knew about the event because it was sponsored by the Italian Society of Military History, of which Alessandro and I are both members. It was presented in the “sanctuary” of Milanese military history, the Libreria di Storia Militare (a place that I love and I encourage anybody to discover). I was struck by Alessandro’s knowledge, rigor, and… passion. He is one of the best speakers I ever encountered. The second time we met was still in Milan when I first heard his research on intelligence operations beyond the Iron Curtain. And again, I was ruptured by his storytelling. Along with me, there was a young friend of mine. He is a young fighter. Alessandro’s speech so struck him that he felt the need to read more about the Cold War. Then I realized that Giorgi’s really able to reach the heart of anybody who has the pleasure to hear him speak. From that moment on, I was only confirmed about my opinion. And then, I was pleased he readily accepted being part of Intelligence & Interview. Without further ados, it is then with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Alessandro: thank you!
1. Alessandro Giorgi, let’s start with the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the national and international readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?
I could probably be depicted as a passionate researcher and author of military history, security, and intelligence topics, who profited from his international business experience to establish relationships on one hand with the protagonists of some of those events, and on the other hand good networking with the top scholars. A good command of foreign languages helps in both establishing direct human contacts and consulting original documents. My executive position does not allow me to devote all the time I want to research.
2. Let’s start with a provocative but essential question. Why do military history and history of intelligence matter today?
The comprehension of the dynamics and the complexity of the international relations and strategic interactions, all of them based on the (ever-changing) balance of power, cannot be understood without a good knowledge of history and the unfolding of conflicts that led to the present scenario, not to mention the assessment of the future. Any civil servant active in the international, security, economical, technological, and industrial decision-making structures of his country, any international journalist, let alone a military leader, should have a solid knowledge of those dynamics and the cultural environment around which they unfolded. Furthermore, in theory, the knowledge of past mistakes should help the present decision-makers and leaders to avoid repeating them, but unfortunately, that’s normally a missed target.
3. I know you are a very passionate speaker, and I always appreciated the deep knowledge you have, especially in the WWII history, the Vietnam war, and intelligence operations beyond the iron curtain. How did you get so involved in those topics?
History at large, and military history in particular, with a focus on recent history (from World War 2 onward) has always been at the center of my research interest, since I was very young, not forgetting the economic and industrial aspects, given my economic college background and professional experience. The deeper involvement in intelligence and “unofficial military operations” after World War 2 started probably when, during my researches for the book on Vietnam, I investigated the Norwegian mercenaries hired by the CIA to command fast patrol boats to perform risky missions on the coast of North Vietnam. It triggered a series of researches and contacts with ex-members of various U.S. Government agencies. After that, the progressive discovery of the very active role of Italy, on an unofficial base, in the intelligence operations after WW2, and the large scale of those operations, with the utilization, by the various agencies, of veterans and volunteers of the most different provenience (Polish pilots, German sailors, Finnish skiers, just to name a few) exerted a great appeal to me. No spy-story can ever come even close to reality. I have to say that the access I could have to sources and people were real “force-multipliers”: research on one topic almost always makes me stumble on many others, just as interesting and research-worthy.
4. Let’s dive into the intelligence beyond the iron curtain. When did they start by who and why?
The Western powers in the immediate post-war did not know anything about what was really going on beyond the Iron Curtain, and for the tactical, strategic, or political reason, they all started to gather intelligence in any possible way.
If we take the period starting immediately after the war, the US and the UK were the first to move and with the largest deployment of human and technical resources, with the US on a larger scale, of course. There was the misconception that some Communist regime in the newly formed Eastern Bloc was not stable, or that the anti-Communist resistance movements in those countries or in part of the Soviet Union were much stronger than in reality, or were drawing much more popular support than they actually did. Truth is that, no matter what the people really thought, they have had more than enough of war and terror, to engage in an adventure which was, at best, chancy. Plus, most of the toughest anti-communist fighters were by then already dead, exiled, or in prison.
For geographical reasons, all the Western Allies near the border were automatically involved, at least from the logistic and support standpoints. Just after that, Italy, Norway, and all the Western Allies, jointly or separately, joined in. It is interesting to see the active role of countries, like the Scandinavian, that publicly was playing a low profile, of Belgium and the Netherlands who apparently had little interest in “border problems”.
The first long-range air flight inside the Soviet sky that included the drop of Ukrainian guerrillas was conducted by the US and dated 5 September 1949. Down south, the Britons infiltrated the first group of Albanian rebels by the sea a few weeks later, in October 1949. But human intelligence, aerial reconnaissance, and communication/signal intelligence started immediately after the end of the war.
5. Were those operations successful?
The operations conceived as long-term infiltration of rebels, dissidents, saboteurs, to establish or support existing or supposedly existing resistance movements were a total catastrophe. Either the infiltration of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five in the top ranks of the British intelligence, or the gross underestimation of the surveillance and control capabilities of the adversary, either the infiltration of the exile dissident groups by Eastern agents or the totally wrong assessment of the real situation inside the Eastern countries, not to mention the relative carelessness of the US and UK intelligence structures about the almost-never returning of the infiltrators and pawns considered as expendables, led to the death or capture of nearly all the agents and saboteurs.
On the other hand, the reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering missions, by air, sea, land, or Elint/Comint, were almost always a success.
6. How did the intelligence operations evolve during the first two decades of the Cold War?
If we limit ourselves to the European East-West confrontation, I would say that after the termination, by the mid-Fifties, of all the human infiltrations meant (as said, totally unsuccessfully) to politically destabilize, or simply “shake”, the Soviet satellites or annexed countries (particularly Poland, Albania, the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary), the operations turned to a more classical intelligence infiltration. The technical possibilities of high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and then the satellites provided (at least theoretically) better and real-time intelligence. The Elint/Sigint/Comint stations in the far north of Norway or in Turkey were established with American equipment, or directly by the Americans, to collect intelligence in that way. The technological superiority of the West played a part in this shift, of course. Time would later prove that human intelligence and cross-checking was a critical asset to validate or question the technical intelligence data collected.
What is interesting is also to see how the Eastern Bloc acted, first in the defensive, deception, counter-intelligence, and outright military counter-insurgency mode, to then shift to an increasingly active human external intelligence. Killing, or attempted killing, of eminent dissidents abroad became rather common, at least in the late Fifties. Being western nations mostly “open” societies, it was much easier for Eastern Bloc agents, double-agents, defectors and infiltrators, to move and operate.
7. What was the “peaceful” Italian role during those days? I know I framed the question in a provocative way!
As partially quoted in a previous answer, Italy, within the budgetary constraints of the time, played a very active (and I may say unexpectedly active) role. For example, in the infiltrations of Albanian agents, as opposed to the Americans who favored Polish mercenary pilots taking off from Greece, or the British who infiltrated by sea from Malta, the Italians used Italian national pilots taking off from Rome to parachute the Albanian agents.
There were Humint operations in Yugoslavia because the Trieste question was not solved, and Italy did not have any more first-hand information from beyond the border.
If you look at the CIA files, sometimes you may have the impression that the Americans, judging by their standards, overestimated the capabilities of their partners, assuming they could have the same broad perspectives and resources they had. In reality, Italy at the time had in service quite a few military and naval intelligence officers, veterans of WW2, who had the mentality and capability to plan and implement long-range intelligence operations. Just like the Swedish, who were (and are) “neutral and Scandinavians”, therefore playing publicly a low profile, Italy, having lost the war on one side and playing now the part of the “good guy” on the other, officially was flying low, but in reality, stroke hard just as all the others.
8. I know you have an entire repertoire of anecdotes and interesting stories. What is the most interesting one you would give to our readers?
For what concerns the fully ascertained episodes, I would quote two, among the most adventurous. One is the two Finnish veterans, ex-members of the long-range reconnaissance battalions of the Winter War and Continuation War, that were infiltrated by the Norwegian intelligence through the northern border with the USSR to do a reconnaissance mission on Soviet installations, stumbled on a Soviet border guard, had to kill him and managed to flee back, separately, on skis, escaping the Soviet patrols in pursuit. Another is about the German sailors, veterans of the Kriegsmarine, landing agents, on behalf of the British intelligence, on the Baltic coast, with stopovers in Sweden.
9. I’m really waiting to see a major book on the intelligence operations beyond the Iron Curtain. You already published two very thick books in Italian on the Vietnam War and the Second World War. Recently, you published a monograph on the chronology of WWII in English. Finally, I must say. I can only recommend it to our readers. Let’s be serious, though, addressing the obvious question. Why? Is not everything already said about it? Why another book on this subject and why in English?
About the comprehensive book on intelligence operations beyond the Iron Curtain, I don’t think I am unveiling a secret in telling you that it will be my next major book. The publishing industry times, as you know, are very vague, besides being very long, but before too long you will be able to review that one, too.
As for your question on the Chronology of Word War 2, first of all the English printed edition was the obvious step after the original Italian one to reach effectively the international markets. Until now, the English version was only available as an e-book. But, more on the substance of your question, believe it or not, a work like this is a never-ending process. A lot of new precious details have emerged, or have been de-classified, and many previously controversial points have been clarified, just as the fate of some protagonists quoted in the Chronology. Historical analysis is never an arrival point, it’s a process. If you have as a goal to write a detailed Chronology that tries to treat all the participants to the conflict at the same level, it is understandable that some details concerning “minor” countries have emerged only later. Last but not least, the economical and industrial data section, in terms of comparative costs and man-hours needed to produce weapons systems, is greatly enlarged and more complete.
10. Is it military still worth studying today? Why should our young students learn it? Is it an obsolete discipline?
The history of mankind, unfortunately, is in great part a history of conflicts. As already mentioned, international relations and strategic interactions between nations are based on the relative balance of power, and the history of the process and the culture that forged them is essential to understand them, just as architecture, economy, and philosophy.
The master-classes of military history I taught to, at the King’s College in London, at the Temple University in Philadelphia, or at the Dublin City University, just to name a few, were not made up of military. Particularly in London, most PhD students were interested in a career as civil servants in the government structures.
At the Università di Torino, it was part of the Modern History course, and at the Università Cattolica of Milan, my conferences were within the International Relations courses. What was surprising, or should I say re-assuring, was the incredible interest in these topics if presented in the right way, shown by 19-year old freshmen in their first year of college.
What I believe is that professional military themselves, who should be most interested in these topics, should have a much deeper formation in that, as opposed to what they actually have in reality.
As a politician, government official, or journalist, how could you try to evaluate today’s unrest in the Caucasus, without a substantial historical formation?
11. How can our readers follow you?
Well, my books can be found on the publisher’s website, as well as some top distributors’ websites and on platforms like Book Depository. For news and updating on my historical work and conferences, you can reach my Twitter profile, my facebook profile, and my linkedin profile under the “publications” section. You can find my books on Amazon, such as the last one.
Whichever proposal is welcome: I have written plenty of works that, not being 100% completed, still need to see the light, and maybe they cover some of the possible interests of your readers. On the other hand, they could suggest to me, or trigger some interest for further research, or either I may encourage them to work on that.
As I said to the master students I taught, there absolutely is room for honest historical work. Honest in the sense of intellectually honest, of course, not in the sense of “mediocre”. Have faith and have courage, follow your passion!
12. Five keywords that represent you?
Enthusiast, tenacious, (intellectually) curious, analytical, thoughtful.