The KGB and the Pope: Is the Case Closed Yet?


Back in 2004, while I was living in Sweden, a number of friends advised me to see a BBC-produced, three-part documentary called The Power of Nightmares (PON). In it, filmmaker Adam Curtis made some bold and heterodox claims: al-Qaeda didn't really exist, the current terror threat was more neoconservative invention than reality, and the roots of the current scare-mongering could be found in the intelligence battles of the Cold War. (Incidentally, Curtis made a follow-up film, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, arguing that free-market economists like James Buchanan and Friedrich Hayek created "a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures [leading] to today's idea of freedom.")

The film appealed because it dealt, in part, with a subject I had long been interested in and had written a fair deal about. In part one of PON, Curtis claims that CIA director William Casey cooked the intelligence books after reading a book called The Terror Network, which argued that the Soviets were actively involved in funding and training disparate terror groups across Europe and the Middle East. It was a shaky argument and Curtis seemed to possess only a passing familiarity with much of the source material, evidenced in the film's first cut, when it misidentified the book's author as Michael Ledeen. (It was, in fact, written by Claire Sterling, published by a major, non-ideological publisher, and excerpted in the Sunday New York Times magazine. And speaking of Sterling, make sure to check out this terrific blog post by Jesse Walker, who correctly argues that, far from conspiring to keep Sterling's accusations out of the "liberal media," the book was widely reviewed and publicized by NBC, the Times, and the New Republic, to name but a few.)

Sterling was aggressively supported by Cold Warriors and excoriated by those dubious, for obvious ideological reasons, of Soviet terror connections. One of Sterling's most vocal critics, who features prominently in the film and whose writing was clearly an inspiration for Curtis, is former CIA and State employee Mel Goodman, who dismissed Moscow's connections to groups in the Middle East and Europe as fantasy. Goodman, who's dislike of Bill Casey's deputy Robert Gates led a St. Petersburg Times reporter to conclude that his "visceral hatred" of the current Secretary of Defense "called into question his motives," told author Robert Parry that a 1985 report on the papal assassination plot connecting the operation to Moscow was the nadir of department politicization; the CIA had hit "rock bottom."The Sterlingization of intelligence was complete.

But here's the problem: It is increasingly certain that it was a Soviet operation. Historian Nigel West, author of a number of important books on Soviet intelligence, and the Italian government long ago determined that the KGB, via its proxies in Bulgaria, were deeply involved in the planning and execution of the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II. Back in 2005, the report produced by an Italian government commission was buttressed by a cache of files found deep in the East German Stasi archives.

And now, Der Spiegel presents further evidence of what we already knew (via this website, and with a hat tip to Jesse Walker):

The German weekly Der Spiegel has published a report indicating that Communist Germany's Ministry for State Security (Stasi) unleashed "one of the largest campaigns of misinformation in its history" in order to deflect investigations into the attempt on the life of John Paul II in 1981 towards Turkish extremists.

According to the ANSA news agency, the article features new documents discovered in German state archives that reveal that the Stasi "tried to help the Bulgarian secret service. The organization enrolled a young Turkish citizen, Ismet Erguen, who began her mission in Berlin in February of 1982.

"The documents show Erguen was involved until 1989, although today she denies ever having been an agent of the Stasi," the news report indicated.

"The head of the foreign information sector of the Stasi, Markus Wolf, who died in 2006 at the age of 83, received a request for help from the Bulgarians in 1981 after the arrest of Ali Agca, as they were concerned that the Western media were focusing on a supposed Soviet-Bulgarian link in the assassination attempt."

Der Spiegel claims that "the purpose was to divert suspicion towards the Gray Wolves, an extreme right-wing Turkish group."

Wolf was satisfied with Erguen's work because even today, "a legend exists according to which it was the Gray Wolves that gave orders to Agca," the newspaper reports.

For material conclusively connecting the KGB to the PFLP, IRA, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, and other guerilla groups, see the two-volumes of Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew's Mitrokhin archive.