“As Thoreau observed, circumstantial evidence, like finding a trout in the milk, can be very persuasive. No trout has surfaced yet to support Italy’s charge that Bulgarian officials had a hand in the attempted assassination of the Pope.” — New York Times, December 18, 1982.
So sneered the New York Times at those who, during the Cold War, were uncovering the story of the Soviet Union’s hand in the attempt on the life of John Paul II. Fearful that the reputation of Moscow might be harmed, the Times went on to beseech Americans to “test the evidence soberly” and to warn them against “excessive sanctimony.” But there were journalists, including Robert L. Bartley and L. Gordon Crovitz of the Wall Street Journal and Claire Sterling of Reader’s Digest, who pursued the story that the Kremlin camarilla was acting through its Bulgarian puppets.
Even as more evidence that the Soviets were behind the attempt on the pope’s life emerged over the years, the Times continued to act as the Kremlin’s chief propagandist. During the 1985 trial of the would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, the paper asked in an August 15 editorial: “Why should anyone care what Mr. Agca says?” The editorial argued that “there is no credible independent corroboration of his claim that he was recruited by Bulgarian and Soviet secret police to eliminate a troublesome Polish Pope.” Rather, said the Times, the trial “has at least given weight to a simpler hypothesis — that the roots of this plot were in Turkey.”
In 1991 a Times columnist, Anthony Lewis, wrote that a 1985 CIA report on “the case for Soviet involvement” in the assassination had “tortured logic” and “read like a novelist’s fantasy of Red conspiracy.” He wrote that “William Casey, the Director of Central Intelligence then, was seized with the notion that the Russians were behind everything wrong in the world, including the attempt on the Pope’s life.” And as recently as 2003, the Times ran a piece by Milt Bearden, a CIA veteran, who wrote that a story he challenged “fell in the same category as the story of the KGB plotting the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II — too good a yarn to check or dispute.”
Well, after all these years the trout has surfaced — repeatedly. Last week, Poland’s highest-ranking cardinal confirmed that priests working in the Vatican spied on the pope for the secret services in Moscow and Warsaw. Cardinal Jozef Glemp said Pope John Paul II was “spied on, and how.” This followed March’s findings by an Italian parliamentary commission that “beyond any reasonable doubt” the Kremlin was guilty in the attempted murder of John Paul II. And its account confirms the direction in which the Wall Street Journal and Claire Sterling and others were pointing a generation ago. Russia, led today by an ex-colonel of the KGB, is still denying its involvement in the attempted assassination. The AP reported in March that a Russian foreign-intelligence spokesman, Boris Labusov, said that “all assertions of any kind of participation in the attempt on the pope’s life by Soviet special services, including foreign intelligence, are completely absurd.”
Why would the Soviets want to kill the pope? The Italians concluded that it was because of the pope’s support for freedom in Poland. It seems the successors of Stalin, who once asked Churchill “how many battalions does the Pope have,” were petrified by the nature of the battalions at the beck of the man who sat on the throne of Saint Peter. When John Paul II visited Poland in 1979 and told the oppressed Polish nation “Don’t be afraid,” millions took inspiration and defied the Communists and took to the streets. The Communists, led by then head of the KGB and Putin’s boss, Yuri Andropov, quavered in the face of the greatest of the weapons in the arsenal of the West, moral clarity, wielded by leaders like John Paul II, President Reagan, and Prime Minister Thatcher.
– Daniel Freedman is editor of the online edition of the New York Sun and blogs at www.itshinesforall.com.