Commentary Magazine

The Bulgarian Connection and the Media

The attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in the spring of 1981 should have produced a frenzy of activity from our leading “investigative reporters.” The story had everything: the victim, one of the world’s most charismatic and powerful men, situated at a dramatic moment in history at the center of the struggle over the destiny of Poland and perhaps of the entire Soviet empire; a photogenic and exotic assassin with a violent and romantic background, including an escape from a prison in Turkey said to be escape-proof; and strong suspicions that the assassin might not have acted alone. Yet for nearly a year, only one American journalist took the time and effort to dig out the details that pointed an accusing finger at the Kremlin, and that journalist (Claire Sterling) has lived in Italy since the 1940’s. Almost all the rest accepted the “cover story” offered by a would-be assassin. As the evidence for a Soviet connection mounted, indeed, most looked the other way.

Within days of the shooting in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, a five-man team of New York Times correspondents in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States had concluded that Mehmet Ali Agca was associated with a “xenophobic, fanatically nationalistic, neofascist network steeped in violence,” namely, the National Action party of Turkey and related right-wing groups. Writing from Turkey, Times correspondent Marvine Howe described this “Rightist Web of Intrigue” in some detail, suggesting that the international network might well have provided Agca with the money and assistance necessary for his lengthy travels prior to his arrival in St. Peter’s Square on May 11.

This was the pattern for much of the comment on the assassination attempt. Thus, Georgie Anne Geyer of the Universal Press syndicate: “Ali Agca is a cold-eyed fanatic—a Turkish ultra-nationalist and religious zealot who hates the West and Christianity and sought the most effective way to attack them.” Thus, Joseph Kraft of the Washington Post: “Ali Agca . . . went after the Pope as a living symbol—indeed, the most prominent example—of the spirit that breaks down the barriers the Islamic fundamentalists seek to rebuild.” (Kraft concluded, however, that this sort of fundamentalist revolt “is not an organized terrorist conspiracy that can be stamped out by more police and vigilance.”) Thus, Joseph C. Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor: “There is every indication that the man who fired at the Pope was a criminal psychopath. If he had accomplices or an organization background it was apparently of a right-wing variety. There is no serious suggestion that the deed was motivated from Moscow or the man trained by Moscow or by its agents.”

These pieces, it should be recalled, were written against a precise political background: the recent charges by the then Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, that international terrorism, actively supported by the Soviet Union, was a major issue for the United States, and required strong action by all the countries of the West. Whether implicitly or explicitly, the shooting of the Pope constituted a sort of test case of Haig’s claims, and in rushing to conclude that Agca was a right-wing fanatic, American commentators may well have been placing their own response to those claims ahead of the evidence.

Admittedly, information was at first hard to come by, and one can perhaps forgive our journalists for failing to notice the elements in Agca’s career that pointed the correct way—above all, the fact that he had spent a considerable amount of time in Bulgaria. But for those who spoke Italian, and who had contacts in Rome, the matter was far from impenetrable. Indeed, one such journalist, George Armstrong, writing in the Christian Science Monitor just five days after the shooting, noted that “the hottest theory circulating in Rome today” took as its starting point the fact that “the two Poles the Soviets most fear are Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski and Karol Wojtyla.”

David Ottoway of the Washington Post also heard whispers about a plot coming from the East, although he did not give them much credence:

“It could be a Muslim group in opposition to the Catholic Church,” remarked a high-ranking Italian official, “or there could be a Polish connection,” he added, noting Agca alleged he was in Bulgaria after his escape from a Turkish prison in November 1979.

The Bulgarians must be upset enough by the alternative to Communism evolving in Poland and the strong backing of the Catholic Church, as well as of the Polish Pope, to the Solidarity independent union movement, to encourage Agca in his endeavor, according to this “hypothesis.”

One Western diplomatic source, however, called this theory “off the wall,” together with that holding some extremist Muslim group responsible.

Journalists elsewhere were not so eager, however, to overlook the one logical international connection, or to accept the idea that it was “off the wall.” On April 8, 1982, Thames Television in England broadcast a program charging, inter alia, that the KGB was involved in Agca’s efforts. The Thames show was the first to piece together the basic elements that would later appear—with a far greater degree of specificity—in Claire Sterling’s writing and in NBC News broadcasts: Agca’s involvement with Bulgarian/Turkish arms and drug smugglers; his long sojourn in Bulgaria; his acquisition of considerable quantities of money; the Soviet concern over Poland. Yet there was no follow-up in the American media.

In mid-September, the Rome court that sentenced Agca to life imprisonment published its verdict, and somewhat unexpectedly stated that he had not acted alone. Although no evidence existed as yet to “uncover the identity or the motives of the conspirators,” the court nonetheless stated that “Agca suddenly appeared among the crowd to execute, with almost bureaucratic coolness, a task entrusted to him by others in a plot obscured by hatred. . . .” This was carried by ABC television, but was not reported in our major publications, or by the other television networks. So far as they were concerned, the Agca case was closed.



Phase Two

Unlike the “elite” press, the Reader’s Digest was not inclined to drop the matter, especially since there were several good leads that had not been explored in depth. First was the matter of Agca’s stay in Bulgaria. Second was the discovery that Agca had contacts with the likes of Beker Celenk, a shadowy underworld figure who, although Turkish, lived in Bulgaria, whence he trafficked in drugs and arms with the clear connivance of Bulgarian authorities. Third was photographic evidence that Agca had not acted alone in St. Peter’s Square: there were many cameras in the piazza that day, and it was possible to identify a Turk standing next to Agca just before the shooting. Upon examination, he turned out to be Omar Ay, whose forged passport had been produced on the same day and in the same place as Agca’s. The two files stood side by side, in numerical sequence, in the Interior Ministry in Ankara.

These and other connections were identified and analyzed for the Reader’s Digest by Claire Sterling and by Paul Henze, a former official of the CIA and former staff member of the National Security Council during the Carter administration who is now at the Rand Corporation. Claire Sterling’s article appeared in the September 1982 Reader’s Digest; she is currently writing a detailed book on the subject. Much of Henze’s work was used by Marvin Kalb in an NBC News Special broadcast in the same month, and also by the Christian Science Monitor.

It was established by Claire Sterling, Paul Henze, and the NBC “White Paper on the Plot to Kill the Pope” that Agca had been involved in a network of Bulgarian and Turkish officials, smugglers, and Mafia characters; that he had lived in one of the most luxurious hotels in Sofia long enough to remove any reasonable doubt that he was “protected” by the Bulgarians; that he had opened secret bank accounts as early as 1977, and that after his escape from Turkey he spent over $50,000 in one year without ever cashing a check; that Agca’s network of Bulgarians and Turks provided him with money, with the gun he fired at the Pope, and with other forms of organizational assistance; and that the network extended to Bulgarians in Rome. Finally—and this was Marvin Kalb’s “scoop” for NBC (although at least some American government officials knew it earlier)—the Pope had sent a message to the Kremlin saying that if the Russians invaded Poland, he would stand with his people and take a leading role in the resistance to the Red Army.

Claire Sterling’s article attracted a fair amount of popular attention, but did not generate much follow-up from the “elite” press. On August 17, the New York Times ran a brief Reuters story about the Sterling article on page 12, and two days later carried the Soviet denial on page 7. There was no special investigation, no follow-up of the Times‘s earlier five-man research project.

It was somewhat harder to downplay Marvin Kalb’s program—Kalb is one of the media stars in Washington—yet many in the Washington press corps remained reluctant to credit his findings. I was working at the State Department when the NBC show was screened, and most of the correspondents I spoke to were hostile to the notion that the KGB might have been involved in the plot. This was not simply a matter of questioning the evidence—the material that Kalb and Claire Sterling had uncovered, while powerful for those willing to follow the logical and circumstantial trail, might not convince an American judge and jury “beyond any reasonable doubt”—but rather took the form of an objection in principle: doubt that “the Russians would do such a thing.” When I pointed to the history of political murder in the Soviet Union, and to the political assassinations throughout the world that appear to have been Soviet-directed (from Trotsky in Mexico to Bulgarian dissidents in London to the late premier of Afghanistan and the late president of North Yemen), the journalists insisted that the Pope was qualitatively different. Besides, Kalb’s program was too “cold war” in its implications.



Phase Three

On November 26, 1982, the New York Times announced the arrest of Sergei Ivanov Antonov—a Bulgarian airlines employee in Rome—for complicity in the shooting of the Pope. The next day the Times carried an interview with an Italian judge who said the available evidence did not justify a theory of international conspiracy. This established a pattern of sorts, whereby the actions of Italian magistrates were juxtaposed with a goodly amount of opinion from other Italians and (invariably unnamed) Western officials tending to diminish the credibility of the charges against the alleged conspirators.

On December 17, the Times‘s man in Rome, Henry Kamm, filed a story from Jerusalem claiming that “Israeli and West German intelligence and security sources with a special interest in international terrorism are skeptical of charges of a Bulgarian connection in last year’s attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II by a Turk.” When I asked Israeli officials if they could confirm Kamm’s account of their government’s skepticism, they responded by denying that any Israeli intelligence official had made such a statement. Indeed, within a few weeks—on January 2, 1983—a top Israeli military official announced in Tel Aviv that “Israel believed Italian assertions that there had been a Bulgarian connection—and a link to the Soviet Union—in the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.” This story, curiously enough, appeared only in the early edition of the Times; once again, so far as I know, there was no follow-up.

Whatever the nature of Kamm’s source, his treatment of the “Bulgarian connection” was not very aggressive. On December 30, he wrote that the evidence was insufficient to tie the Bulgarian secret police or the KGB to the shooting. And then in January, on a trip to Bulgaria, Kamm gave a remarkable picture of that country:

In addition to its unusual political stability and absence of dissidence and factionalism, Bulgaria basks in a reputation for economic progress rare in a time of recession and crushing foreign debt in other Communist countries. Its people’s standard of living has risen. Food and a broad range of consumer goods are in better supply than they have ever been before, and Sofia today, even at the height of winter, presents a more relaxed and prosperous appearance than it has in this correspondent’s 18 years of acquaintance.

How could such a bucolic and progressive country have been involved in an assassination attempt?

For the next several weeks, it seemed as if Times reporters could find no one in the Western world who believed that the evidence was convincing. At the State Department, the Times‘s Bernard Gwertzman got the official line: “United States intelligence officials remain intrigued but unconvinced by allegations in Italy that Bulgaria instigated the attempted assassination. . . .” Gwertzman floated a theory, which came from State Department officials, that the whole thing was simply the reflection of an internal Italian political debate:

Italian leaders are divided on the case. The Socialist party . . . has accused the Bulgarians, and by implication, the Soviet Union of instigating the plot against the Pope as well as in gunrunning, drug smuggling, and cooperation with Italian Red Brigades terrorists. But the dominant Christian Democrats have been more restrained.

The same point was made by the Washington Post‘s Rome stringer, Sari Gilbert.

Finally, there was the Times‘s editorial position, revealed on December 18. First, the strategic point:

If any nation was implicated, it erred foully and foolishly. Killing a Polish Pope would not have made Poland less rebellious; relying on the silence of a deranged zealot risks devastating exposure. Scruple aside, the command to eliminate a statesman is the last resort of a bankrupt diplomacy.

Second, the moral point:

When it comes to assassinations of state, Americans have reason to test the evidence soberly and to avoid excessive sanctimony. . . .

. . . when the Congo was in turmoil in 1960, [Eisenhower’s] angry words were taken by aides as an order to assassinate President Lumumba. In this and other cases, notably Fidel Castro’s, the CIA acted on murky authority that would preserve official “deniability” and came up with harebrained plots that, mercifully, failed. . . .

In a world of murderous bureaucracies, crimes of state are not so much ordered as implied. That Yuri Andropov willed an attack on John Paul II is possible but hardly proven. That his people became mired in a sleazy conspiracy on imagined authority is a likelihood Americans should be the first to understand.

Just about everything was wrong with this editorial. Crimes of state are certainly ordered. In the United States, not only an explicit presidential order but congressional approval is required for any covert action; even in Eisenhower’s day an explicit order would have been necessary. (In fact, since there is only the flimsiest evidence on which to hang the claim that the United States wanted, let alone attempted, the assassination of Lumumba, those who make this claim have to resort, as here, to the expedient of suggesting that Eisenhower somehow “implied” his wishes.) Furthermore, the Times—along with a surprising number of others—had the wrong culprit; a decision of such magnitude in the Kremlin would have to have been made at the Politburo level, not by the head of the KGB. Thus, it was Brezhnev and company (Andropov included, of course), who would have had to make the decision.

What about the strategic considerations? The Polish crisis threatened the entire Soviet empire (as it still does, albeit not with the same immediacy), and there were three crucial figures in the Solidarity phenomenon: Cardinal Wyszynski, Pope John Paul II, and Lech Walesa. The first was dying in Poland (and had been given six weeks to live as of the time of the Agca operation); both of the others appear to have been targeted by the Russians for assassination. The Times might believe that a movement deprived of its leaders remains as threatening as before, but many others would disagree. From the Kremlin’s standpoint, a Pope who might go to Poland to lead the resistance was a dangerous man indeed.

More to the point, neither the Times editorialists nor its correspondents seemed capable of understanding that the Agca case was only one among many, and that the weight of evidence in the hands of Italian judges was growing almost daily. As Claire Sterling wrote in the Wall Street Journal on December 22, the evidence was too great to be summarized in a brief newspaper story (and anyway could hardly be obtained by journalists who arrived late on the scene or who, like Henry Kamm, did not speak Italian and consequently had not established the kind of close relationship that would make information accessible). But the journalists were relying for the most part on the word of American officials, both in Washington and in Rome, and these continued to assert that the evidence was insufficient.

Why? In the first place, American officials were not particularly well informed. The evidence came from Italian judges, and the Italian judiciary is exceedingly independent. Even some officials of the Italian government were not abreast of the case, and had to depend upon the judges for what little they did know.

Then, too, we may assume that Americans in Rome suffered from the same professional jealousy that plagued the Italian secret service in the first few days after the arrest of Antonov, when even the Italians were deprecating the evidence. (They had not developed it themselves, and probably still did not know what it was.) It would have been difficult for an American official to admit to inquiring American journalists that their own government had not conducted an investigation of the plot to kill the Pope, and was moreover not aware of the information in the hands of Italian judges.

Added to this was an instinctive shying away from the politically unattractive notion that the Soviets would try to kill the Pope, together with an equally instinctive reluctance to transmit information damaging to the Soviet Union in the name of the American government. An extreme instance of this was presented by Vice President George Bush, who told a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor:

My view of Andropov is that some people make this KGB thing sound horrendous. Maybe I speak defensively as a former head of the CIA. But leave out the operational side of KGB—the naughty things they allegedly do. . . .

Thus, throughout December, while the Italians issued one charge after another, and the Italian press was filled with information about Bulgarian subversion in Italy, the readers of the New York Times, along with those of most leading dailies and weeklies, were unaware of the considerable body of evidence in the hands of Italian judges, did not realize that the Italians had arrested an alleged Bulgarian agent in a high position in a trade union that carried on contacts with Solidarity in Poland, and had not heard that the Bulgarians had been caught deeply involved in an enormous drugs- and arms-smuggling operation in northern Italy. Nor did they realize that the Bulgarian agent in question (Luigi Scricciolo) was providing information that matched what Agca had been saying under interrogation, thus giving the Italians further evidence of the existence of a Soviet-inspired plot to kill the Pope.



Phase Four

During the same week that the New York Times was urging Americans to refrain from thinking the worst of the Soviet Union, the mood of the “elite” press began to change. Of the three major networks, only CBS systematically ignored the story or gave it short shrift in its evening news broadcast. NBC, however, had been continuing its research, and was giving ample coverage to the arrest of Antonov and other unfolding developments. ABC, whose bureau in Rome had been by far the best in reporting on the Bulgarian connection, similarly covered events well. At the same time, the two weeklies, Time and Newsweek, visibly began to shift gears. In its last issue of the year (dated December 27), Time revealed that the Pope himself believed Agca to be part of a KGB plot, and went on to deal with the growing evidence.1

The following week, both Time and Newsweek devoted considerable space to an investigation of the new information. Newsweek moved a giant step toward accepting KGB involvement:

. . . there is reason to believe that the Bulgarian secret police recruited Agca, through Turkish intermediaries, into the ranks of its hired guns, and that he was armed and supported by the Bulgarians when he shot the Pope.

Time came to much the same conclusion: “The normally cautious Italian politicians exuded confidence that they possessed the evidence to incriminate, at the very least, the Bulgarian secret service.”

What had changed the minds of the weeklies? First, there had been the presentations to parliament by Italian ministers, above all Defense Minister Lagorio’s strong statement that the shooting of the Pope was “a true act of war in a time of peace.” (This did not, however, sway Henry Kamm, who in the New York Times of December 21 quoted a government official who said that Lagorio’s statements “reflected a desire by the Socialists to exploit the present public concern over Bulgaria for political advantage. . . .”) Second, the interlocking evidence was beginning to be appreciated, and the logic of the case was asserting itself. Even some previously skeptical columnists changed their minds: Joseph Kraft, for example, and Georgie Anne Geyer, who now explained that the Pope represented a systematic challenge to the Soviet empire (“a brilliant and sophisticated kind of infiltration—and it terrified and enraged the Soviets, for whom murder has historically been a normal tool of diplomacy”).

Furthermore, as Time had observed, the “normally cautious” Italians were taking a very hard position on the case, and this required some explanation. Historically, Italy has been quite soft on international terrorists; the normal treatment of Arab terrorists caught in flagrante on Italian soil has been to book them on a private flight to Tripoli or, in the old days, to Beirut. All of a sudden, several judges of impeccable reputation were refusing to drop charges and were holding firm in the teeth of some quite violent language coming from Sofia and Moscow. Would they act in this fashion without compelling evidence? Would they jeopardize Italy’s national interest (which includes, at a minimum, good commercial relations with the Soviet Union) without something approaching solid proof? And as the columnists thought it over, it seemed that even the official American reluctance to credit the Bulgarian connection represented a sort of confirmation.

As Flora Lewis wrote in the New York Times:

The sinister aura of this spy story too fantastic for fiction is enhanced, not diminished, by the remarkable caution of Western governments. Even President Reagan . . . is ducking the question of possible Kremlin complicity now. That is obviously because it is so dreadful to contemplate the consequences if more damaging facts do emerge. . . .

In saying this, however, Miss Lewis launched a new worry: if the Russians turned out to be guilty, it would be better for us all if we pretended they were not. Recalling that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria at Sarajevo had been instrumental in kicking off World War I, she warned that we must “prepare against impetuous action and an emotional response that could make St. Peter’s Square comparable to Sarajevo.”

In the weeks that followed, this theme—which could also be sensed behind the New York Times editorial of December 18 urging Americans “to test the evidence soberly”—was reiterated over and over again. Tracing the assassination plot back to the Kremlin, it was said, would endanger world peace, or a possible summit between Reagan and Andropov, or arms-control talks, or “good relations” in general. Indeed, by the end of January, Robert Toth of the Los Angeles Times was quoting an American official to the effect that “Reagan could never meet Andropov if it was proved unequivocally that the Bulgarians, and therefore the Soviet KGB, were behind the plot.” John Wallach of the Hearst News Service wrote that “some CIA officials have actively discouraged speculation of a Bulgarian or Soviet KGB plot against the Pope because they fear if such a link is firmly established, it could poison relations between the U.S. . . . and Andropov.”

The elite press had thus once again fallen victim to a double standard. It is inconceivable that the New York Times would urge the Kremlin to downplay evidence of American involvement in clandestine activity, even if no murder were involved. And would an American journalist accept the plea of an intelligence official to keep a story quiet if there were abundant evidence of American plotting to murder a foreign leader? In such a case, our journalists would bravely wave the banner of the people’s right to know, demand an end to official cover-ups, and insist that the truth must out. No such cry was heard from CBS (in fact, hardly anything about this story was to be heard from CBS), the New York Times (which did not repair its own investigative deficiency until late March 1983, when it published a long front-page article by Nicholas Gage detailing the links to Bulgaria), or even those publications like Time and Newsweek that had come to take the evidence seriously.



Journalists are not policy-makers. Their job is to give us an accurate picture of events and personalities so that we, citizens and officials alike, can make rational decisions. But when it came to the plot to kill the Pope, our journalists were not practicing journalism, they were trying to conduct policy. At first, they made an assessment: it would be irrational for the Russians to do such a thing, therefore they could not have done it. When the evidence became too great to ignore, the journalists shifted gears; yes, it seemed the Soviets were involved, but (since the consequences of this discovery might be dangerous) let us try to “limit the damage”—this was the point of trying to stop the trail at the Bulgarians’ door rather than following it to Moscow—or deny its significance altogether. As a last resort, invoke Realpolitik: our national interest demands good relations with the Soviet Union, and this must take precedence over revelations of international intrigue.

For years, a debate has been raging over the Soviet connection to international terrorism. After the Pope was shot, many journalists deprecated the idea of a KGB connection because to admit it would give added credibility to Secretary of State Haig’s claim that the Russians were behind a good deal of terrorism in the world. But in several articles in the past months, it has been casually revealed that most knowledgeable people in the West were thoroughly convinced of Soviet involvement in terrorism, particularly in Italy. Henry Kamm, after citing his unnamed Israeli source to undermine the theory of a Bulgarian connection, went on to provide considerable evidence of Communist-bloc involvement in international terrorism (even to the point of revealing that three of the most radical PLO leaders were then staying in the same Bulgarian hotel where Agca had lived for 50 days). Sari Gilbert, the Washington Post‘s correspondent in Rome, revealed on March 20 that the Italians were convinced of a long-standing connection between Eastern Europe (primarily Czechoslovakia) and the Red Brigades, a point also made by Time and Newsweek in their recent coverage. Thus, those who had been arguing for years that such a connection existed—and for doing so were subjected to scorn from their colleagues in the media—seem to have been vindicated.



But to accept the factual accuracy of a view is not the same thing as accepting its political implications. In the case of the Soviet connection to international terrorism, what needs to be explained is why the many leads were ignored for so many years, and why, when the truth was finally admitted, so little was done to search out its consequences. On the biggest story of the decade, an elite press that prides itself on its fearlessness in pursuit of the facts had the necessary facts available to it, yet sedulously declined to print them, or denied their significance, or refused to see their pertinence to an accurate account of global events. Whatever the source of this habit, which operates in many areas besides that of international terrorism, the result is a systematic distortion of reality.


1 In an attempt to “balance” this information, Time also quoted Italian Interior Minister Rognoni: “It is a matter of extremely serious facts, [but] only evidence, not proof has emerged.” Neither Time nor any other American publication ever pointed out that before becoming Interior Minister, Signor Rognoni was the President of the Italy-Palestine Friendship Association, and that he has never been particularly acute on the subject of international terrorism.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.