Monday, April 4, 2005

More than half the world’s population was not born or was less than 10 years old when a 23-year-old Turk named Mehmet Ali Agca shot the pope four times with a 9-mm pistol from a distance of 15 feet as the pope drove through a crowd of 20,000 in St. Peter’s Square.

In the round-theclock coverage of the Pope John Paul II’s death, remarkably little was said about the plot, even less about those who wanted the pope dead ASAP.

It was the Polish pope’s election in 1978 and his first visit a year later to his homeland (where he had been archbishop of Cracow), and the millions that turned out to greet him, that set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin. Unlike Josef Stalin who sneered at the pope and his imaginary divisions, KGB chief Yuri Andropov (1967-1982) saw this anticommunist pope as a mortal danger to Soviet control over Eastern Europe.

In his Polish hometown homilies, the pope challenged Soviet communism’s collectivist ideology — and urged the Polish regime to confine itself to creating a safe environment for the exercise of individual liberty. A year later, the workers of Poland launched the Solidarity Movement under the leadership of Lech Walensa. This was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, its inner and outer empires, and communism itself.

The head of the French intelligence agency at the time was Alexandre de Marenches, one of the great spymasters of the post-World War II era. He told this reporter within days of the botched assassination about East European intelligence defectors who had pointed an accusing finger at the Bulgarian KGB, one of Moscow’s satellite services that specialized in ‘wet’ operations, spook jargon for contract killings.

Mainstream media quickly assumed the plot was the work of Turkish terrorists known as the Gray Wolves, a neo-Nazi group of former military and Islamist extremists. What was suspicious about this story is that it surfaced within hours of the arrest of Ali Agca. One investigative reporter suspected the Gray Wolves were brought in as plausible deniability for the real culprits.

Claire Sterling, a prize-winning journalist and author, had just published ‘The Terror Network’ when Ali Agca tried to kill the pope. Her articles were widely published in major U.S. magazines as she used her Rome base for 30 years to report in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Miss Sterling quickly saw the Bulgarian connection when it became known Ali Agca had made several trips to Sofia, Bulgaria, and stayed in a hotel favored by the Bulgarian KGB (DS). In Rome, he had also had contacts with a Bulgarian agent whose cover was the Bulgarian national airline office. In an earlier incarnation, he had escaped from a Turkish jail where he had been serving time for killing a newspaper editor.

‘The Time of the Assassin,’ published in 1983, was Miss Sterling’s in-depth look at the plot to kill Pope John Paul II and the subsequent investigation. She had no doubt the plot originated at 2 Dzerzhinsky Square, KGB headquarters in Moscow. The KGB assigned this super-wet operation to the Bulgarian DS, which functioned under its orders. The Bulgarians then looked for cover and deniability among the Turkish extremist group involved with the local KGB in lucrative drug smuggling routes through Bulgaria to Western Europe.

President Reagan and CIA Director Bill Casey decided to play down the Soviet link to what happened on St. Peter’s Square May 13, 1981. Mr. Reagan had just survived an assassination attempt as he left the Washington Hilton on March 30. Any administration hint of Soviet involvement in the plot to kill the pope might have pushed the two nuclear superpowers to the brink. Conspiracy buffs would have quickly concluded the KGB had also targeted Mr. Reagan.

The pope visited Ali Agca in prison where he served 19 years and is now in jail in Turkey for three years on an unrelated charge. The pontiff later told old friends on two occasions he was also satisfied the hand behind the plot was in Moscow.

During his trial, Ali Agca feigned madness by declaring he had acted on God’s instructions. He later claimed to be the new messiah and to have conspired with Vatican prelates who recognized him as deity. Italian psychiatrists concluded he had been instructed to play the fool as a way of hiding Bulgaria’s — and Moscow’s — tracks.

The Italian examining magistrate in charge of the investigation, Ferdinando Imposimato, told Italian radio a week ago, ?I believe Agca said many true things, but then he tried to torpedo the trial after being threatened inside prison by a Bulgarian agent who got inside to make sure he would retract his allegations.?

Last week, Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most influential daily, disclosed new documents found in the files of former East German intelligence services, which confirm the 1981 assassination plot was ordered by the Soviet KGB and then assigned to the Bulgarian satellite service.

Metodi Andreev, a former official in charge of the Bulgarian KGB’s files, said he had seen correspondence between Stasi, the East German service, and the Bulgarian spooks. These included an order from the KGB to pull out all the stops to bury Bulgaria’s connection to the plot.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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