U.S. negotiates with Austria to dig up CIA arms caches Hidden weapons meant to combat Soviet invasion

January 21, 1996|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON -- About 80 caches of U.S. weapons, hidden by CIA agents in Austria decades ago, pose a problem for U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers.

The caches, dating from the early years of the Cold War, contain mortars and submachine guns, explosives and radio equipment. They were part of a network of "stay-behind" supplies tucked away throughout Western Europe and intended to supply local guerrillas in case of a Soviet invasion.

Local paramilitaries, many with World War II resistance backgrounds, were trained to use them. These have been a cause of intermittent scandal in Europe.

In Italy, allegations have surfaced that the would-be guerrillas used their skills and perhaps their weapons to advance their domestic political agenda.

The stay-behind organizations remained in existence in a number of European countries at least until 1990. Late that year an uproar over the Italian group, code-named Gladio, embarrassed NATO and triggered moves in several other countries to phase out the groups.

The Austrian caches, however, appear to have rested undisturbed for 50 years. The U.S. government would now like to come clean to the Austrians.

Officials from the State Department and the CIA are consulting on the best way of doing so. The CIA reportedly has the locations of the caches and would divulge them to the Austrians.

The weapons-hiding operation goes back to the first years of the Cold War when Vienna, divided between the Western allies and Russia, was the main battleground of what Kim Philby later called "the silent war" between Western and Russian spies.

The U.S. government believed the risk of Stalin ordering an invasion of Western Europe was real.

The CIA began to prepare for wide-scale partisan warfare, usually recruiting former members of the anti-Nazi resistance or people of firmly anti-communist credentials.

In Austria, officials say, the caches were dug during U.S. military exercises. Covered by the confusion and noise of maneuvers, CIA operatives would stash weapons and equipment.

Anthony Cave Brown, an author who has written extensively on intelligence matters, said one favored location for the stay-behind caches was Allied war cemeteries. Few locals would pay attention to people digging in a graveyard, and the cemeteries were often cared for by a retired serviceman.

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