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Crime of the Century

How the elite media and the CIA failed to Investigate the 1981 papal assassination attempt.

12:00 AM, Apr 7, 2005 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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A STUNNING REVELATION buzzed throughout Italy last week. According to two Italian newspapers, German government officials had found proof that the Soviet Union ordered the May 13, 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. The recently discovered documents--which are mainly correspondences between East German Stasi spies and their Bulgarian counterparts--reportedly discuss the Soviet assassination order as well as efforts to cover-up any traces of involvement by Bulgaria's spooks.

If the documents are as advertised, then they put an end to one of the great whodunits of the 20th century. The U.S. media has all but ignored this incredible story; which isn't, actually, much of a surprise.

Indeed, the elite media in this country never wanted to investigate the threads of evidence pointing to Bulgarian, and thus Soviet, involvement. What is surprising, however, is that in one of the greatest U.S. intelligence failures of all-time, neither did the CIA.

In the days following the attempt, a clean and simple narrative quickly emerged. The would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a member of the ultra-right Turkish neofascist group, the Grey Wolves. That part was true, but Italian investigators were also turning up evidence that Agca was really a false flag recruit for another group.

The New York Times quickly tried to squash any notion of a broader conspiracy. "Police Lack Clues to Foreign Links Of Suspect in Shooting of the Pope," read one front-page headline on May 17, 1981. Another front-page headline the next day blared, "Turks Say Suspect in Papal Attack Is Tied to Rightist Web of Intrigue."

Just over a week later the Times would produce an investigative piece spanning several nations and drawing on the reporting of nine journalists. Titled, "Trail of Mehmet Ali Agca: 6 Years of Neofascist Ties," the piece began, "For at least six years, Mehmet Ali Agca . . . has been associated with a xenophobic, fanatically nationalist, neofascist network steeped in violence . . . " [emphasis added]

The article continued, "reports by a team of New York Times correspondents in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States show a clear pattern of connections between the gaunt, taciturn Mr. Agca and an international alliance of right-wing Turkish extremists." [emphasis added]

Nor, according to the Times, was there any evidence of a conspiracy:

"Intensive investigations . . . have so far failed to turn up the slightest evidence of any 'international conspiracy' to murder the Pope, despite confident assertions of one by the Italian press a week ago. Mr. Agca is not known to have spoken to a single non-Turkish terrorist in the last year or so, let alone to have acted as the agent of any established group in the attack on John Paul." [emphasis added]

The Times admitted that Agca's "precise motives [were] unclear," but was confident that "much has been learned of the origins of this previously obscure young man" and that "a fairly complete picture has emerged of his remarkable Odyssey."

The Times message was clear: there is no evidence of a conspiracy and there is no need to investigate any further. The Times was not alone in its reporting. Similar reports were published by the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and virtually every other major newspaper investigating the story. All of the early reports painted Agca as "neofascist," or an "Islamic extremist," or as a lone wolf with ties to organized crime.

AND IF IT WERE UP TO the elite media the story would have ended there. But, something was wrong with this narrative. Too many threads of evidence pointed to a wider plot that involved the Soviet-controlled Bulgarian intelligence service.

Daily Italian newspapers, citing high level politicians and magistrate judges, regularly reported on the Bulgarian connection. However, in many ways prefiguring the rise of independent media investigators, it was not the elite U.S. media that would break news of the Bulgarian connection; it was Reader's Digest.

In August of 1982--fifteen months after the assassination attempt--terrorism expert Claire Sterling published the first comprehensive investigation of the Bulgarian connection. Having lived in Italy since the 1940's, Sterling was privy to the ongoing Italian investigations and not prone to accepting the U.S. media's official neo-fascist storyline. Synthesizing all of the known leads, Sterling produced a convincing argument that Agca was really under the direction of the Soviet bloc. Sterling's work was joined by another investigative piece in Reader's Digest by Paul Henze and both pieces were used to create an NBC documentary on the matter that aired in mid-September, 1982.