0n May 13,1981,
Mehmet Ali Agca, an escaped murderer from Turkey, raised
a pistol above his head in the piazza in front of St. Peter's
Basilica in Vatican City and shot and wounded Pope John
Paul 11. Captured at the scene by Italian police, he freely
admitted firing the shots and was tried and sentenced to
life imprisonment. Mr. Agca had previously confessed to
the political assassination of a well-known newspaper editor
in Istanbul and in February 1979 he had threatened in a
letter to kill Pope John Paul II, whom he accused of being
"the Commander of the Crusades" against Islam. So, investigating
agencies and the media quickly concluded that he acted as
a lone fanatic when he shot the Pope.
Now two well-documented books strongly
dispute this: conclusion. Paul Henze's "Plot to Kill the Pope"
and Claire Sterling's "Time of the Assassins" are both based
on extraordinary investigations into Balkan intrigues. They
both relentlessly trace the assassin's trail to Rome, beginning
with his dramatic escape from prison in Turkey in November
1979, and following his passage through Iran,, Bulgaria and
Germany. They give similar descriptions of the final arrangements
for the assassination, saying that Mr. Agca was picked up
at 3 P.M. that day by a Bulgarian, intelligence officer and
airline official named Sergei Antonov who was accompanied
by two Bulgarian diplomats. They handed him a gun and drove
him to St. Peter's Square to shoot the Pope. Both authors
reach the same conclusion - the papal assassination had been
organized and controlled by the Bulgarian secret service on
behalf of the Soviet Union's security agency, the K.G.B.,
and Mr. Agca merely served as a paid gunman.
These books also proceed from a common
origin, the Reader's Digest. Mr.. Henze, who was the Central
Intelligence Agency station chief in Turkey from 1974 to 1977,
was hired in the summer of 1981 by the Reader's Digest to
investigate Mr. Agca's background in Turkey and his connections
to Bulgaria. After Mr. Henze had completed his original investigation,
Mrs. Sterling was retained by the Reader's Digest to prepare
a magazine article about Mr. Agca. She then conducted her
own inquiry, drawing on high-level sources in Italian intelligence
she had used for her last book, "The Terror Network." Her
article, published in September 1982, reopened a debate in
the media about whether Mr. Agca really did act alone.
Mr. Henze continued to fuel the controversy
by selling his research on the Bulgarian connection to other
news organizations, including NBC (which broadcast its own
White Paper on the -plot in September 1982) and Newsweek.
He made it available later to The New York Times for a fee.,
He also wrote articles under his own name in The Christian
Science Monitor and Encounter. Both Mr. Henze and Mrs. Sterling
then expanded their investigations into these two books. In
her autobiographical account, Mrs. Sterling focuses on press
and government reactions to her disclosures about the, assassination
attempt. Mr. Henze writes about the wider geopolitical context
and motivation of the assassination attempt.
Although evidence, unlike acts of
faith, is contingent on external circumstances, Mrs. Sterling
and Mr. Henze both hold their evidence to be incontrovertible,
Mrs. Sterling insists that the "logic is inescapable," that
Mr. Agca had "come to Rome as a professional hit man, hired
by 'a Bulgarian spy ring," and Mr. Henze places the existence
of the plot "beyond debate."
Although they both rely on the Turkish
journalist Ugur Mumcu's investigation and into the Bulgarian
connection and repeatedly cite him as a source, they do not
even contend with the very different answer he arrives at
based on very much the same evidence. Mr. Mumcu concludes
in his book, "Agca Dosyasi," that Mr. Agca attempted the assassination
not on behalf of the Bulgarians or the K. G.B. but for a neofascist
Turkish terrorist organization called "The Grey Wolves" (whose
members literally howl like a wolf pack). Mrs. Sterling does
not even mention his conclusion, or his book about Mr. Agca,
while Mr. Henze pre-emptively dismisses the book on the grounds
that Mr. Mumcu is a "leftist. "
Mrs. Sterling and Mr. Henze base their
theory that the Bulgarians arranged the assassination attempt
on three main findings. First, they show that Mr. Agca received
considerable assistance from Turkish fugitives for many months
after he escaped from the Turkish prison where he had been
confined in 1979 - including money, a faked passport, hideouts,
contacts and the weapon to use against the Pope. Then they
establish that the immediate source of this support was a
group of Turkish arms smugglers based in Bulgaria. Finally,
they demonstrate that these Turkish smugglers had close liaisons
with the Bulgarian secret service.
To be sure, they support these findings
with convincing arguments and evidence. Even if these three
layers of conspiratorial connections are fully accepted, however,
they do not prove the case these authors are trying to make.
Organizations may support an individual without necessarily
controlling his actions. For example, because Lee Harvey Oswald
was employed by the Texas Book Depository, which, in turn,
was financed by the State of Texas, of which John Connally
was Governor, it would be absurd to draw the conclusion that
Oswald was acting on behalf of Governor Connally (who himself
was shot) in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Control cannot simply be deduced from the existence of a web
of indirect liaisons. To substantiate their theory, Mrs. Sterling
and Mr. Henze would have to show not merely that the Bulgarian
secret service was in contact with Turkish organizations that
dealt with Mr. Agca but that it purposefully controlled him,
directly or through intermediaries, when he shot the Pope.
The conflicting and confessions made
by Agca since he was captured by Italian police have little
probative value here. As Mrs. Sterling herself acknowledges,
Mr. Agca is a "practiced liar." After he had confessed on
television to murdering Abdi Ipekci, the editor of the newspaper
Milliyet, in Istanbul in 1979, he repeatedly changed his story
to implicate different groups and accommodate his interrogators.
In Rome two years later, he first claimed that he had acted
completely alone against the Pope. Then he named various Turkish
co-conspirators but subsequently admitted they were fabrications.
Eventually, after being shown photographs of suspected Bulgarian
intelligence agents, he identified some as his case officers,
including Mr. Antonov. During different stages of his interrogation,
he also claimed that he had been on missions to assassinate
Queen Elizabeth of England; Habib Bourguiba, the President
of Tunisia; Dom Mintoff, the Prime Minister of Malta; Simone
Weil, the President of the Council of Europe, and the Polish
Solidarity leader Lech Walesa - before the Pope was chosen
as his target. Since Mr. Agca himself is not credible as a
witness, his tangle of claims can only be sorted out - if
at all - on the basis of external evidence.
Certainly, there are a number of ways
in which the Sterling-Henze theory of Bulgarian control could
be substantiated by believable evidence. Those named by Mr.
Agca, such as Antonov, might confess provide details corroborating
Agca's charges. This seems unlikely, however, since these
individuals have now all returned to Bulgaria. Or the Italian
investigating magistrate, Judge Ilario Martella, could find
new evidence in secret testimony. But, barring such developments,
there is no reason to believe that Agca was under Bulgarian
control at the time of the assassination. If he had help,
and there is evidence that he did, Mr. Mumcu's evidence on
which both authors' factually relied, points directly to Agca's
own support group, the Grey Wolves.