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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.

How did the elite media react to these reports? Did The New York Times and its counterparts try to play catch-up by activating their international networks of investigative journalists and diplomatic connections?

No. Instead, a disturbing pattern of obfuscation and denial--first noticed by Michael Ledeen in a brilliant piece in Commentary ("The Bulgarian Connection and the Media," June 1983)--ensued. For example, as Ledeen noted, the Times carried a Reuters story about Sterling's work on page A12 on August 17, 1982. Two days later, and five pages earlier on page A7, the Times carried the Soviet Union's official disavowal of the plot and disapproval of Sterling's article. The article even quoted Moscow radio, "The absurdity and unfoundedness [sic] of this claim are obvious."

While the Times would give roughly equal weight to Sterling's research and the Soviet Union's formal disavowal, it would be much less neutral in its assessment of the NBC documentary that aired a month later. On the same day that the documentary would air (September 21) the Times carried a scathing review.

The Times patronizingly approved of NBC's association with "intelligent, seasoned correspondent[s]" such as Marvin Kalb and Bill McLaughlin, but did not think much of the show's conclusions. The Times's reviewer noted, "To be sure, what to do with disappointingly scanty evidence is a perennial problem for news executives who administer investigative undertakings." Citing Moscow radio's official denial, the Times's review ended with the caveat, "Soviet comment is not included in the NBC show."

This pattern continued until early 1983 when political heavyweights such as former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, went on the record endorsing the theory of Bulgarian-Soviet involvement. Only then did the Times and the elite media begin to honestly investigate. But even then the evidence was often downplayed or, remarkably, put in the context of arguments drawing moral equivalence between the CIA and the KGB.

THE CIA ALSO DID NOT want to investigate the possibility of Soviet complicity, or--even worse--the possibility that the Soviets had actually ordered the false flag operation. The idea of a state-sponsored terrorist attack, especially ordered by the Soviet Union, went against the agency's prevailing paradigm for understanding terrorist actions. Proof of Bulgarian-Soviet involvement may also have jeopardized the dove's desire for détente.

The CIA reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee on at least several occasions that there was no strong evidence of Bulgarian-Soviet involvement. But, the CIA's investigation (or lack thereof) infuriated many politicians. Senator Alfonse D'Amato was especially outraged at the CIA's handling of the matter. According to a Times article from February 1983, D'Amato thought the CIA's efforts were "shockingly inept" and that a senior agency official had told him that "not one person has been assigned to follow developments in the case."

Ironically enough, the most vocal critic of the CIA's investigation of the papal assassination plot (and the elite media's coverage) was Times op-ed columnist, William Safire. In a series of columns, spanning most of the decade, Safire laid out a devastating critique of the CIA's investigation. His columns offer a unique window into the mind(s) of a dysfunctional CIA refusing to investigate what Safire would later call, "The Crime of the Century."

Safire's account of a November 9, 1982 meeting between Italian Interior Minister Virginio Rognoni and the CIA's vice-chief of station in Rome, as witnessed by a staffer for the Senate Intelligence Committee, was the most startling of his reports. The CIA man asked, "What proof do you have?" Safire summarized Rognoni's response as follows:

The man in charge of Italy's internal security laid out the facts: that the gunman was a cold-blooded killer for hire, and not a fanatic or ideologue; that he was able to pass into Bulgaria easily on an Indian passport and take up residence in a first-class hotel, which requires secret service knowledge; that he entered penniless and came out with $50,000 from what is hardly a land of opportunity; that he was able to describe accurately the living quarters of the Bulgarian officials who were his controls and contacts; and that a flurry of electronic communication came out of the Bulgarian Embassy just before the attack on the Pope, similar to the activity that took place before an American general was abducted.

The CIA man's reaction: "You have no proof," he said to the bewilderment of the committee staffer. Rognoni fired back, "What proof do you want?" This evidence, plus numerous pieces of additional evidence, had led many in Western Europe to the proper conclusion. But the CIA had raised the standard of proof to unachievable levels. Levels that, as Safire noted, the "Soviet bloc will make impossible to meet."

The CIA's skepticism was not limited to close door meetings with Italian officials, however. Safire explained,

Meanwhile, in other capitals--and in Washington--middle-level CIA men with journalistic contacts have been pooh-poohing the story. In Rome, U.S. foreign service officers have been telling Italian diplomats that the investigation is an international embarrassment.

And there it was. Relying on CIA and State Department sources that had no interest in investigating Bulgarian-Soviet involvement in the assassination attempt, the elite media first refused to investigate the numerous threads of evidence and then downplayed evidence turned up by investigators outside of their clique.

The lessons to be drawn from this affair are numerous. Mistakes in the intelligence game are very easy to make. But, at the very least, every thread of evidence should be pulled and the evidence weighed.

Unfortunately, once again the elite media ignores a fantastic story.

Thomas Joscelyn is an economist who works on antitrust and security issues.