The plot to kill the PopeJOHN OíSULLIVAN
This May will mark the 25 th anniversary of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. It took place on May 13, 1981 in St. Peterís Square in Rome. Only a few weeks earlier, on March 30, Ronald Reagan had survived an attempted assassination in Washington.
Both men were extraordinarily fortunate to survive. Not surprisingly, they regarded their survival as “providential” and felt ever afterwards that God had spared them for some great purpose. In the light of what both Pope and President later achieved, singly and jointly, it is hard to disagree with them.
Twenty-five years later, however, one great difference separates the two crimes. We know beyond any serious doubt that Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinkley, was indeed a lone gunman (unbalanced whether or not technically insane) who hoped his crime would attract the admiration of a Hollywood film star. We are uncertain about whether the Pope was wounded by a lone gunman or by a gunman supported by an international plot — and if by the latter, by what manner of plot.
One theory — which sounds more believable in today’s world of al Qaeda terrorism — is that the Pope’s attacker, Mehmet Ali Acga, was acting on behalf of a radical Islamist organization. He had denounced the Pope three years before as a “Commander of the Crusades” in a letter to a Turkish newspaper threatening to kill the prelate on a visit to Istanbul.
But Acga has made a series of contradictory claims since his arrest in 1981. Moreover, he emerged in the Turkish underground as a thug working for the highly nationalistic, semi-fascist and anti-Islamic Grey Wolves. (His first murder was of a liberal Turkish journalist.) And he escaped from prison with suspicious ease in a Turkey whose army and intelligence services were then bitterly hostile to Islamism.
Between his escape and the attempt on the Pope’s life, Acga moved easily around Western Europe, apparently flush with cash. Yet this terrorist tourism took place before there were large and self-consciously Muslim diasporas across Europe.
Indeed, at that time, the Middle Eastern terrorist organizations that might have given him aid and sanctuary were secular, often Marxist, and allied to Soviet-bloc regimes. In this terrorist network, there was even co-operation between groups that seemed ideologically incompatible such as the Red Brigades and, well, the Grey Wolves. And the network received money, guns and training from Soviet bloc intelligence agencies.
In 1981, therefore, it is much more likely that Acga was working for a secular terrorist group than a religious one — and that he himself may not have known who his real employers were.
At the time, his most likely true employer — the conspiracy of last resort — was the Kremlin. John Paul II, elected in late 1978, was a Pole whose first visit to Poland as Pope had electrified his countrymen and revealed that the Church had as much real power in that country as the Communist Party. The Polish people were more disposed to obey priests than commissars.
His famous words — “Be Not Afraid” — had also spread through the whole of communist eastern Europe, weakening the Soviet hold on its satellites. The Soviet Politburo, much better informed than Western intelligence agencies about the fragility of its evil empire, knew that the Pope was a serious threat. In particular, we know from minutes of the Politburo meetings (briefly available after the collapse of communism) that Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB, held the absurd and even naive belief that the Pope’s election was part of a Western intelligence plot to destabilize their rule. So the Politburo had a definite motive for ordering his death. They may even have felt justified in doing so: it was tit-for-tat in an intelligence war.
But motive is only one guide to solving a crime. If the Soviets ordered the Pope’s death, how did they propose to carry it out? In the 1980s, there was a theory that the Bulgarian intelligence service, acting for the Soviets, had hired Agca and placed him in position to attack the Pope but failed to spirit him away after the shooting because the crowd seized him too quickly.
If this theory is true, Agca is a fortunate man, since he would probably have been killed himself as soon as his employers got him safely out of the way. Dead assassins finger no plotters. But an Italian court in 1986 acquitted a Bulgarian airline employee, Sergei Antonov, of complicity in any such plot, partly because of his alibi that he was in his office when the Pope was shot.
With that acquittal, the trail went cold. Besides, most of the interested parties were not at all interested in establishing that the Soviets had ordered a papal assassination. According to Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, authors of a survey of John Paul II and his impact on history, the Pope himself preferred to consider that the Devil himself was behind it and anyone else was merely his intermediary. A high-level CIA official told a distinguished European anti-communist that the agency suspected a Soviet role but did not want to prove one since that would make negotiations with the U.S.S.R. impossible.
Only the Italians really wanted to bring the ultimate conspirators to book — and this month, an Italian parliamentary committee issued a report concluding that the Soviet Union was “beyond all reasonable doubt” responsible for the attempted assassination. The most striking new evidence was a photograph of Antonov that, according to computer tests, shows him present in the crowd at St. Peter’s Square at the time of the shooting.
From a legal standpoint, this evidence cannot now overturn Antonov’s 1986 acquittal. If it stands up under scrutiny, however, it does indeed establish the Politburo’s guilt — perhaps even beyond a reasonable doubt, as the Italians claim.
For the Bulgarians would not have dared carry out such an enormity without the explicit instructions of the Soviets. We know that because Bulgarian intelligence sought Soviet permission for their assassination of the émigré Bulgarian writer, Georgi Markov, in London. (The Soviets not only agreed; they supplied the poison for the poisoned umbrella.)
But there will never be evidence of a “smoking gun” standard to indict Andropov and the Politburo. Such decisions are never put down on paper; so it is not surprising that the Soviet files do not contain it.
Even much lesser decisions were shrouded by the Soviets in euphemisms. I have in front of me a Politburo decision, sensitive enough for it to be handwritten rather than entrusted to typists, that records the decision to invade Afghanistan. It is headed — rough translation — “Concerning the matter of A,” and it records that the Politburo accepts the advice of Andropov and others, empowers them to act on it, and also to make any such corrections as may be required. Only the most eagle-eyed researcher would understand its significance.
If even the decision to invade another country — which, after all, the Kremlin could scarcely deny — has to be wrapped in this bureaucratic bafflegab, imagine what secrecy they would employ to conceal the instructions to murder a Pope.
It would be comforting if such inquiries as these could be treated as ancient history. But as Vladimir Putin’s efforts to stifle democracy in modern Russia show, the veterans and heirs of this KGB tradition are now running the country again. The Agca affair appears to show how low they will sink to protect their interests.
John O’Sullivan, "The plot to kill the Pope." National Post, (Canada) 23 March, 2006.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. He is also editor-at-large of National Review where he served as editor-in-chief for nine years. He was editor of the distinguished foreign policy quarterly, the National Interest, from 2003 to 2005 and editor-in-chief of United Press International from 2000 to 2003.
O’Sullivan has published articles in Encounter, Commentary, Prospect, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Policy Review, the American Spectator, the Spectator (London), Quadrant, Hibernia and other journals. He is currently writing a book on the roles played by Pope John Paul II, President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher in the collapse of communism and the revival of Western market democracies.
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.