Papal Assassination: Did Agca Act Alone?

January 15, 1984

by Edward Jay Epstein

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.