When would-be papal assassin Mehmet Ali Agca was pardoned by the Italian government and sent back to his native Turkey in June, a New York Times editorial (6/16/00) typified the prevailing U.S. media spin. The lead of the editorial described the commutation of Agca’s life sentence for the May 1981 papal shooting as “a reminder that cold-war mysteries may still lie buried in the archives of the former Soviet Union and the East bloc.”
Over the years, the Times and other U.S. news outlets vigorously promoted the theory that the Soviet KGB, acting through its Bulgarian secret service proxy, was behind Agca’s shooting of Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. Mass media fixation on the so-called “Bulgarian connection” persisted despite public testimony from ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman, who told the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1990 that CIA officials had pressured the agency to skew reports toward the notion of a Soviet plot to kill the pope. “The CIA had no evidence linking either the Soviets or the Bulgarians to the plot,” Goodman testified (InterPress Service, 10/2/91).
Nevertheless, the bogus Bulgarian connection proved to be one of the more efficacious Reagen-era disinformation schemes, reinforcing the notion of the Soviet Union as an evil empire while deflecting attention from potentially embarrassing ties between U.S. intelligence and ultra-right death squads in Turkey.
Reporting from Istanbul on the day Agca returned from Italy to serve out the remainder of a 10-year jail term for killing a Turkish newspaper editor (6/15/00), New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer mentioned what is by now common knowledge in Turkey: that Agca “was part of a network of neo-fascist gunmen…closely tied to far-right politicians, police commanders and intelligence officers.” In the same article, Kinzer noted that this network was exposed in 1996 “when a top police commander and a convicted heroin smuggler known for far-right views were killed in a car crash. Questions about what they were doing together led to a parliamentary investigation and a series of stunning disclosures.”
Although Kinzer didn’t identify him by name, the deceased smuggler was Abdullah Catli, erstwhile leader of the Gray Wolves, a neo-Nazi terrorist organization, which had stalked Turkey since the late 1960s. Catli ostensibly went underground in 1978, after police linked him to the murder of seven Turkish trade union activists.
It was Catli who safehoused Agca and provided him with the pistol he used. Catli admitted his role in September 1985 when he testified in Italy’s trial of three Bulgarians and four Turks for complicity in the papal death plot. Catli’s testimony about supplying the gun that nearly killed the pontiff was reported by Reuters (9/20/85, 9/23/85) and the New York Times (9/24/85), but once reported this pertinent fact was promptly forgotten by U.S. news media.
The undercoverage of Catli’s relationship with Agca is all the more inexcusable in light of a 1998 Turkish parliamentary report, disclosing the Turkish government’s sponsorship of neo-fascist death squads that waged a dirty war against Kurds and leftists through bombings, kidnappings and other terrorist attacks. According to the Wall Street Journal (1/26/98), much of the parliamentary inquiry focused on the activities of Abdullah Catli, who was said to have been on the payroll of the Turkish secret service since 1980, despite his status as a wanted fugitive.
Imagine if the Bulgarian government had released a report showing that the person who gave Ali Agca the papal assassination weapon was then on the payroll of the Bulgarian secret service. U.S. news media would have been all over the story, touting it as proof of a sinister Bulgarian connection. Substitute Turkey, a staunch U.S. ally, for Bulgaria, and the result is a deafening media silence.
Nor have U.S. news media shown much curiosity about the role that the U.S. government played behind the scenes in Turkey while the Gray Wolves perpetrated a wave of terrorist attacks that set the stage for a military coup on 1980. During this period, the Gray Wolves were armed and unleashed by the Counter-Guerrilla Organization, a section of the Turkish Army’s Special Warfare Department.
Headquartered in the U.S. Military Aid Mission building in Ankara, the Special Warfare Department received funds and training from U.S. advisors to establish paramilitary units that were supposed to engage in acts of sabotage and resistance in the event of a Soviet invasion. But instead of preparing for foreign enemies, these shadowy paramilitary operatives et their sights on domestic targets, according to retired Turkish army commander Talat Turhan (Le Monde Diplomatique, 3/97; Info-Turk, 11/90, 2/93).
Those who plotted to kill the pope were among the extremists who were fostered by the U.S.-backed operation. In American spy parlance, it’s called “blowback”–the unintended consequences of covert activity. Perhaps the lead of the New York Times editorial should have described Agca’s pardon as a reminder that cold-war mysteries still lie buried in the archives of the CIA and its Cold War allies.
Martin A. Lee, co-founder of FAIR and former editor of Extra!, is the author of The Beast Reawakens, a book on neo-fascism.