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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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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.