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Is The US Gunning For Berlusconi?

Author bio: 
Richard Cottrell

The evidence is mounting that Silvio Berlusconi is indeed Italy's take on Zine El-Abidine, the recently deposed Tunisian dictator, in waiting. He's outlived his usefulness to powerful backers like the US, the EU and NATO (not excluding organized crime -- a fifth of GDP) thanks to the onset of advanced dottiness and some rather clear evidence that he may be short-circuiting upstairs, sparks flying literally like mad around the cranial lobes.

I was until very recently convinced the old circus master could rout his tormentors as so many times before. He yet might but the odds are rapidly shortening. Under-estimating Berlusconi's Houdini-like escapology tricks is a long-established cul-de-sac which has swallowed many of his detractors. What may be different now is that rather fond admiration for his clowning and sexual exploits is gradually turning to pity for a seedy old crooner pictured in the unfolding revelations as an open-all-hours walking ATM machine for hard-up broads. Plus, a very possibly decisive external factor we come to in a moment, which even those Italian newspapers Berlusconi doesn't own seem to have skipped.

It is not clear whether a hyper-active sex drive lures Italy's real-life Godfather to sleazy pastiche smooching and groping, or the obsession that lounging around with scantily dressed sprites as often as he can is a way of postponing ageing, the potion of eternal potency and youth. I suspect however that his estranged wife, the fragrant former starlet Veronica Lario, was close to the truth in calling her husband 'a very sick man.'

For sure he does not appear to be looking for beauty matched with brains. One doesn't imagine the finer points of Pavarotti cropping up too frequently in the candle-lit after-dinner chats in one of his numerous luxurious pads.

Yet, what the mercilessly-leaked tape conversations reveal is how utterly bored this carnival parade of floozies really are, ritually going through the motions with the octogenarian-nudging, increasingly tragic Lothario. His main attraction, it seems clear, lies in the bundles of notes that fly from his wallet like confetti, rather than Cupid's darts.

But all of this is to ignore the really important performer on the brass pole, so to speak, in these precise circumstances.

The Central Intelligence Agency is legendary for regarding Italy as a bought and paid-for slice of real estate since the end of WW2. Bill Colby, CIA director 1973-76, he who eventually encountered a strange and watery fate, used to openly boast the agency bought every Italian election since 1946. Certainly most Italians, even those favorable to Berlusconi, have few doubts America is the real power in the land.

In this scenario, Signor Berlusconi is Italy's Ben Ali, with the difference he is being politically butchered in slow motion by cranking up the ridicule register. Given this is obviously a psy-ops caper hatched in Langley Virginia, playing on the well-known fissionable and hyper-active elements of his personality.

And why? Here's one glaring motive for starters. The fervent acolyte of Mussolini and usually pliant US puppy dog has committed the cardinal sin of indulging in a dangerous liaison on the wrong side of the blanket: namely, flirting too warmly with Comrade Putin. This is playing with fire and closer to treachery than political heresy. US policy is to keep Putin and Russia in general shut firmly in a box. US animosity towards "the reds" remains undimmed, Cold War or not. So the "especially cordial relationship" which sprang up between the two leaders has thoroughly unnerved American diplomats, who regard this Rome-Moscow axis as fraught with political perils.

The alarm meter sounded panic over the recent sweetheart deal between Gazprom and Italy's giant energy firm ENI to construct the so-called South Stream pipeline set to shunt about 70 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to Europe every year. With Russia and Italy as joint senior partners and other host arrangements in the intermediate countries including Serbia and Bulgaria, plus a French connection, it's a big deal.

So, a nice one Silvio? Not quite. Signed very provocatively to American eyes, in Rome, by the then vice chairman of Gazprom and now Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, the deal is a slap in the face to the rival US-EU backed Nabucco project. Critics claim South Stream will give Russia a huge lever over Europe's fuel supplies, and Nabucco -- this is questionable, when the sums are done -- a smaller one.

Getting to the small print, it turns out that a significant amount of Nabucco gas will come from fields in Iraq. Whether that's any more reliable in the long run than Russian supplies, is a mute point. But in US geopolitical terms, Iraq trumps Russia, for perfectly obvious reasons which require no elaboration here.

Clearly this was quite a sharp stick to poke in Washington eyes. But it is eclipsed by the so-called Abu Omar affair, the daylight snatching in November 2006 of an Egyptian cleric on his way to the mosque in Milano, whereafter he was bundled on a secret rendition flight to Cairo and maltreated. The case pushed Italian-American relations to an unprecedented crisis point, because the posse of 28 CIA agents who performed the operation on Italian soil were subsequently charged and most of them convicted for kidnapping.

They invited their own their own fate, even according to Robert Seldon Lady, the ex CIA station boss in Milan. They scampered around the city like Keystone Cops, gabbling intimate details of the heist all over the cell network and arrogantly boasting loudly about their exploits while flashing credit cards in expensive restaurants, thus incriminating themselves. The Italian courts made remarkably short work of the case, for once. Late last year 23 accused were sentenced, in absentia of course, to various terms of behind bars, including even Lady himself, who got 9 years.

The United States acted with its customary arrogance in those countries who fail to pass muster when it comes to US interests prevailing over local sovereignty. While maintaining the fiction that the case did not actually exist, Washington nonetheless applied the thumb screws to the Berlusconi government and particularly the prime minister himself, to quash the case.

Of course, asking Berlusconi to give orders to his favorite pals in the judiciary ranks with Lady Gaga being rung up by the Pope to celebrate High Mass in St Peters the next Sunday. The Italian authorities had in fact been doing their complicit best to cover up the Omar affair, but the courts, ignoring the political bulldozer, ploughed on relentlessly. It seems Berlusconi personally ordered that internationally recognized extradition documents should not be dispatched to the US, a miserable fudge since the convicted men remain open to apprehension anywhere outside the States.

Is it any co-incidence that in the last six months of last year, an astonishing 100,000 calls to and from Berlusconi were tapped, a goodly proportion dealing with his private recreations? This was the period leading up to the final judgment in the courts. What is truly amazing is that the prime minister of Italy, a man well known for industrially eavesdropping on his own enemies, had no idea what was going on. Moreover, those who did kept clam.

Anyone with even a rough grasp of the espionage world knows that such a massive operation can only be conducted with the active compliance of the domestic wire-tapping apparatus run by intelligence organizations, not to mention control of embedded bugs in telephone networks. Italian intel services, civil and military, have long been fiefdoms of their US counterparts. So, Berlusconi's publicly voiced hint that someone big is on his tail starts to look credible.

He is up to his usual game of playing cat and mouse with the courts and the judges and back to his old balcony oratory, playing to the gallery that he still believes worships him. He will probably make a token appearance and deliver some histrionic demonstration in front of the despised judges. Since he personally controls so much of the Italian media, he has powerful means to manipulate the political conversation. But all this is to pass over relatively recent history in relations between Italy and the United States, which is what will really count in his end times.

Of all people, Berlusconi should know the risks of tangling with the imperial super power. In the 60's and 70's Italy was embroiled in the dirty war in its streets, known as the anni di piombi, the years of lead. My book Gladio: NATO's Dagger At The Heart of Europe explains how a band of secret soldiers, originally organized by the alliance for peace and progress to 'stay behind' and harass potential Soviet invaders, morphed into political guerillas in unholy alliance with the Mob and unreconstructed fascists, waging a phony war against a fake communist enemy within.

People going about their daily lives, going to the bank, waiting to catch a train to the seaside, were the chosen victims. Bombings like the huge one at Bologna railway station in August 1980 were the favorite tactic. The mayhem was always blamed on the urban revolutionaries calling themselves the Red Brigades, who were supposed to be under the orders of Moscow. As a forerunner to the current war on terror, the similarities in tactics are uncanny -- and suggestive.

This secret war was fought in other countries too -- Germany, France, Belgium, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus -- with equally bloody consequences. It became known as the 'strategy of tension', designed -- like the war on terror today -- to keep Europeans on tenterhooks and drive them towards safe right wing NATO-friendly governments. Italy received special attention because of the sheer size of the left-wing bloc, which raised to frantic minds in Washington the prospect of communist ministers in Rome spilling NATO's most precious secrets to the Kremlin.

A former Christian Democrat premier, the saintly and rather Kennedy-like figure Aldo Moro, who had the effrontery to propose an 'historic compromise' with the communists was swiftly, in Soviet parlance, liquidated in May 1968. The Red Brigades were elaborately stitched up to take the rap by a brilliant textbook psy-ops sting, while my book reveals the real perpetrators were actually a particularly vicious Roman criminal clan well-accustomed to contract orders from Gladio.

The young Berlusconi hovered on the sidelines of these affairs, still in his political short pants. But he was sufficiently promising to be initiated in the secretive conspiratorial club called Propaganda Due, thick with old Mussolini people and fellow travelers, whose chief -- indeed only -- function - was to plot the overthrow of the Italian state and replace it with born-again fascist power.

During this extremely rocky period there were at least three shots at putsch, each one with the covert backing of the United States and its obliging poodle, NATO.

All this expert schooling should teach Signor Berlusconi to watch his back, although clearly a shrinking band are bothering to watch his. To simmering American hostility, now add a second front and an equally dangerous one at that. The employers' organization Confindustria is rolling out the big corporate cannons to wound the staggering premier well below the belt, with the parlous state of Italy's stagnant economy. The bosses' president Emma Marcegaglia has just delivered the blunt warning, either get on with serious reforms inside six months, or "other choices will be made."

Italians know perfectly well from past experience what this choice of language means.

The eminence grise of the Italian corporate world is the suave aristocrat Luca Cordero Montezemolo, ex chief of Confindustria, and late Crown Prince of Fiat. Last year he announced to much trumpeting a new Christian Democratic think tank, himself at the helm. This is a political bandwagon waiting around the corner with the engine running. In November, as Berlusconi's woes began to conveniently multiply, he volunteered his "readiness to serve."

Montezemolo's brother is a favorite pet cardinal of Pope Benedict, which opens the connection to the Vatican, that foreign country not much bigger than Grand Central Station slap in the middle of Rome. So, a triumvirate of mighty players is ranged against the embattled Berlusconi: the self-appointed global superintendent, big business and the church. It will tax all his powers and more to see off that coalition.

In the circumstances he might be well advised to take a cue from the fate of Shakespeare's Richard the Third at Bosworth field, and hasten to swap his kingdom for a horse….before it is too late.