• Davies, N. (2008) ‘Flat earth news’ Chatto and Windas: London
  • Friel, H. , Falk, R (2007) ‘Israel-Palestine On Record: How the New York Times misreports conflict in the Middle East’ Verso: London.
  • Chomsky, E., Herman, E.S. (1994) Manufacturing Consent: The political economy of the mass media. Vintage: London

Mehmet Ali Agca, the SHK Model, and the KGB-Bulgarian plot to kill the Pope


Chomsky, E., Herman, E.S. (1994) Manufacturing Consent: The political economy of the mass media. Vintage: London

On May 13th, 1981 Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish International attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II, during a precession in St. Peter’s square having shot several bullets that hit the Pope and critically wounded him. Agca was hastily reprimanded by members of the crowd, arrested, and tried. The motives and theories behind the assassination attempt was much discussed and talked about in the global media. The motivation and political ideal as viewed by a small monopoly and expressed in Chomsky’s and theoretical SHK model (Sterling, Henze and Kalb) helped spread the values of propaganda model across the vast majority of the mainstream global media:

“A dominant frame was eventually produced that interpreted the shooting of the pope in a manner especially helpful to then-current elite demands. A campaign quickly ensued in which the serviceable propaganda line was instilled in the public mind by repetition. Alternative frame s were ignored, and sources inclined towards other ways of looking at the issue were excluded from the mass media” (143).

Mehmet Ali Agca shot and seriously injured Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’ s square on May 13 1981. Agca was a Turkish Rightist and assassin long associated with the Gray Wolves, an extreme right wing Nationalist Action Party. Initial western news reports pointed out that Agca was a wanted criminal who had escaped a Turkish Prison in 1979, and that his durable political affiliations had been with the fascist right. (144)

Factors about how the truth of Agca’s motives was distorted for political aims:

“Two factors allowed a KGB-Bulgarian plot to be developed. The first was that in his travels and through Europe in the Gray Wolves underground, which carried him through twelve different countries Agca had stayed for a period in Bulgaria…There were therefore, some “links” between Agca and Bulgarians, minimal facts that would be put to good use…The second factor was Western elite needs and closely associated flare up of a carefully stoked anti-communist fervour in the West.” (144)

Tying terrorism to Soviet Union: Claire Sterling’s 1981 volume The Terror Network.

“Terrorism and Soviet evil were the centre pieces of the Reagan administration’s propaganda campaign that began in 1981, designed to support planned arms increase, placement of new missiles in Europe, and interventionist policies in the Third World. Thus the shooting of the Pope by Agca in May 1981 occurred at a time when important Western interests were looking for ways to tie the Soviet Union to “international terrorism” (145)

“…some rightist’s immediately seized the opportunity to locate the origins of the plot to the Soviet Bloc.” (145)

The Readers Digest saw the propaganda opportunity presented by the assassination attempt quite early, and hired both Paul Henze, a long-time CIA officer and propaganda specialist, and Claire Sterling to investigate the topic {in her September 1982 article in Readers Digest } , “The plot to Kill the Pope,” was the most important initiator of the Bulgarian Connection, and its ideas and those of Paul Henze formed the basis for the NBC-TV program “The Man Who Shot the Pope- A Study in Terrorism,” (September 21, 1982) (145)

The Sterling-Henze-Kalb (SHK) model in which Agca was an agent of the Bulgarians (and, indirectly, of the Soviet Union), quickly became the dominant frame of the mass media, through the great outreach of the Readers Digest and the NBC-TV program, and the ready, even eager, acceptance of this view by the other mainstream media. (145-146)

The mass media in our sample- Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, and CBS News- all accepted and used the SHK model from the beginning, and retained that loyalty to the end of the Rome trial in March 1986. (146)

The SHK model had the following essential elements:

1. Motive: Sterling’s Readers Digest article claimed that the “assassination attempt was a Soviet desire to weaken NATO: “The Turk was there at St Peter’s to signal Christendom that was Islamic Turkey was an alien and vaguely sinister country that did not belong to NATO.” This motive was accompanied by the contention that the shooting was to help quell the solidarity movement in Poland by removing its most important supporter.
2. The Proof of Soviet and Bulgarian Involvement: Before Agca’s confession and identification of the Bulgarians in November 1982, Agca had stayed in Bulgaria in the summer of 1980, and that Turkish drug traders with links to the Gray Wolves did business in Bulgaria- evidence of which the SHK model relied upon. The ideological assumptions: In November 1982, Agca named three Bulgarians as his alleged accomplices and claimed to have been hired by the Bulgarians to do the job. He offered no credible evidence and named no witnesses to any dealings with the Bulgarians, so that new “evidence” was simply Agca’s assertions, after seventeen months in an Italian prison.
3. The ideological assumptions: As the case looked extremely thin, especially before Agca’s new confession of November 1982, the gaps were filled by ideological assumptions: This is the kind of things the Soviets do. The Soviet Union and the Bulgaria have been actively striving to “destabilize” Turkey. If there is no hard evidence it is because the Soviets are consummate professionals who cover their tracks and maintain “plausible deniability”. The KGB hired Agca in Turkey and caused him to use a rightist cover to obscure the fact that he was a KGB agent. Although Agca travelled through eleven other countries, his stay in Bulgaria was crucial because Bulgaria is a totalitarian state and the police know everything; therefore they knew who Agca was, and they must have been using them for their own purposes. (146-147)

Problems with the SHK model

The basic Sterling-Henze-Kalb model suffered from a complete absence of credible evidence, a reliance on ideological premises, and internal inconsistencies. (147)

Sterling’s original suggestion that the Eastern bloc went to the trouble of locating a Turkish Fascist to shoot the Pope in order to make Turkey look bad, and thereby loosen its ties to NATO. That such a loosened tie would follow from a Turkish Fascist shooting the Pope is not sensible, nor is it likely that the conservative Soviet leadership would indulge in such a fanciful plan even if it had a greater possibility of “success”. (147)

SHK also maintained at various points that Agca may not even have known who hired him, so he couldn’t implicate the East. Later, when Agca claimed that he had been heavily involved with the Bulgarians in Rome, Sterling and Henze lapsed into silence on the failure of the KGB to maintain a semblance of plausible deniability. (147)

SHK finally settled firmly on the ideas that quelling the Polish solidarity movement was the real Soviet-Bulgarian motive. But this theory is as implausible as its predecessor, which when we take into account of timing and elementary cost-benefit analysis. Agca was allegedly recruited in Turkey long before the solidarity existed. In a variant Sterling version of the timing of his recruitment, Agca was hired by the Bulgarians in July 1980, which was still prior to the Gdansk shipyard strike, and thus before Solidarity appeared a credible threat to Soviet control. (148)

The supposed benefits from the act were not plausible. The assassination of the Pope, especially if blamed on the Soviet Union, would infuriate and unify the Poles and strengthen their opposition to a Soviet dominated regime. And the further costs in damaged relations with Western Europe-which were extremely important to the Soviet Union in 1981, with the gas pipeline being negotiated and with the placement of new U.S. missiles in Western Europe a major Soviet concern- would seem to militate against taking foolish risks. (148)

A second problem with the SHK Model is that Agca had threatened to kill the Pope in 1979 at a time of a papal visit to Turkey- again, long before solidarity existed. This suggests that Agca and the Turkish right had their own grievances against the Pope and a rationale for assassinating him that was independent of any Soviet influence. (148)

The only time this issue was ever raised in the mass media, on the “McNeil-Lehrer News Hour” of January 5, 1983, Paul Henze stated that in no uncertain terms that “there was no [press] opposition” to the pope’s visit in 1979. The Turkish journalist Ugur Mumcu, however, assembled a large collection of citations from the Turkish Rightist press of the time to demonstrate that Henze’s statement was false. (148)

A third problem for the SHK model was that Agca was a committed rightist, and therefore not a likely candidate for service to the Communist powers. (148)

While in prison, Agca addressed a letter to Alparsian Turkes, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party of Turkey, expressing his continued commitment and loyalty. This letter was bothersome to Sterling and Henze as it is inconsistent with their depiction of Agca as apolitical, and Sterling dismissed it without argument as a “laughably clumsy forgery”. A problem, however, is that Agca’s letter was introduced as evidence in a trial in Ankara by the Turkish military authorities, usually adequate proof for Sterling for authenticity. (149)

A fourth problem with the SNK model is the notion that because of the efficiency of the Bulgarian secret police, Agca’s presence in Sofia must have been known to them, and he must therefore have been on their payroll. This assumed efficiency is an ideological assumption unsupported by any evidence and contradicted by actual Bulgarian and Soviet performance. There is no evidence that the Bulgarians ever identified Agca, who was using a false passport. (149)

A fifth problem for the SHK model was the fact that Agca seemed to have gotten his gun through the Gray Wolves network, not from the Bulgarians, who presumably could of easily slipped it to him quite easily in Rome. In her Readers Digest article, Sterling traced Agca’s gun to Horst Grillmaier, an Austrian gun dealer who, according to Sterling, had fled behind the Iron curtain after May 13, 1981, to avoid questioning in the West. It turned out later, however, that Grilmaier was a former Nazi who specialized in supplying right-wing gun buyers; that he had not disappeared behind the iron curtain at all; and that the gun had disappeared through a number of intermediaries, to be transmitted to Agca by a Gray Wolves friend. Sterling handles the disintegration of the original Grilmaier line by simply shifting to a new conspiratorial ground: the clever Bulgarians had Agca purchase the gun through a known Fascist to strengthen the case that Agca was a right-winger who could not possibly be connected to Communist powers. (149-150)

In Sterling’s initial tale, the KGB wanted him to be caught- or at least to have his body identified- to discredit Turkey. With the shift to weakening Solidarity as the motive, the threat of disclosure of Bulgarian-Soviet involvement would seem less serious. Yet the Bulgarians and KGB hired Agca and then failed to kill him. Another anomaly was bringing Agca to Sofia for instructions. If he had already been recruited in Turkey, wouldn’t bringing him to Sofia be a foolish compromising of his carefully prepared “cover”? (150)

While Agca’s November 1982 confession that he had Bulgarian co-conspirators made the Bulgarian Connection instantly “true” for the Western media, it wrecked havoc with the SHK model and with the logic of “plausible deniability” if as Agca confessed, the Bulgarians connived with him in Rome, escorted him to St. Peter’s Square to plan the attack, entertained him at their apartments, and participated in the attack itself, what happens to the logic of “cover”? (150)

An Alternative Model:

The alternative model would take the same fact that SHK start out with- Agca’s stay in Sofia, Bulgaria- but interpret it differently. That visit violates principles of plausible deniability and would be especially foolish if the KGB had already recruited Agca in Turkey. On the other hand, it provides a Western propaganda system with the necessary tie between Agca’s terrorist attack in Rome and the Soviet bloc. (151)

…would immediately suggest to the objective press that he possibility that this “demand” might of elicited an appropriate “supply” from the imprisoned Agca. The lag in Agca’s naming of any Bulgarians-seventeen months after he entered an Italian prison and seven months after he agreed to “cooperate” with the investigating magistrate- is also highly suggestive. (151)

Sterling tried to explain this on the ground that had hopes that the Bulgarians would “spring him” and gave them time.; his successive elaborations of claims and subsequent retractions she explained in terms of Agca’s “signalling” to his alleged partners. (151)

Another suggestive feature of Agca’s confession was that it followed the creation of a wide media distribution of the SHK model. During the course of the investigation of the plot, it was revealed that the imprisoned Agca had access to newspapers, radio, television, among other modes of personal communication with the outside world. (151)

Investigation: Agca’s “desire for personal publicity seems unquenchable…At one point in the Italian investigation, he abruptly clammed up when the magistrates refused his demand that journalists be present as he ‘confessed'” (152)

SISMI’s involvement in helping Agca confess to a Bulgarian involvement:
“A London Sunday Times team pointed out in May 1983 that the secret services “visited Agca and warned him that once his solidarity confinement was over, ‘the authorities could no longer guarantee his safety.'” (153)

During the course of the Rome Trial, Giovanni Pandico,..[associated with the Mafia and with mafia leader Raphael Cutolo who had been in the same prison as Agca] claimed in an interview, that Agca had been coerced, persuaded and coached to implicate the Bulgarians by Cutolo, Santini and others. (153)

In sum, it is highly probable that Agca was offered a deal to talk, and it was made clear to him that the people with power over his well being wanted him to implicate the Bulgarians and the Soviet Union in an assassination attempt. He had access to the SHK Model even before he confessed. (154)

The mass media’s uncritical acceptance of the Bulgarian connection.

In this case, therefore , as a propaganda model would anticipate, the US mass media accepted the SHK model as valid, ignored the alternative model, and participated in a classic propaganda campaign that got the message of Bulgarian-Soviet guilt to the public. Some members of the mass media helped originate the claim of a Bulgarian Connection, while others participated only in disseminating the SHK line (155)

The outreach of these two statements asserting a Bulgarian Connection was great, and they were widely reported upon in the rest of the media in the form of a summary of their claims, with virtually no questions raised about their validity. With Agca’s November 1982 naming of the Bulgarians, the mass media began to report the Bulgarian Connection intensively. This reporting was carried out exclusively within the frame of the SHK model, and for most of the mass media no serious departures from this model occurred through the conclusion of the Rome trial in March 1986. (155)

Agca’s naming of the Bulgarians was the key fact that generated news coverage, providing the basis for reiterated details about the Bulgarians, explanations of the Bulgarian (and Soviet ) motive, and speculation about the political implications of the charges, if confirmed. A major characteristic of these news reports was their sheer superficiality, with the charges, never seriously examined but merely regurgitated and elaborated with odd facts and opinion, and with no departures from the SHK frame. (155)

Newsweek provides a prototype of news coverage within the SHK framework in its article of January 3 1983, “The plot to kill Pope John Paul II” The Bulgarian-Soviet motive as portrayed by the SHK is reiterated through quotes from congenial sources – “a precautionary and alternative solution to the invasion of Poland”- while nobody is quoted in discussing the cost and benefits, the nature of the Soviet leadership, or Western benefits from Agca’s confession. (155)

Newsweek nowhere discusses the seventeen month lag in Agca’s confession or his prison conditions, nor does it report in this (or any later) article the claims and information noted in the Sunday Times and the Italian press about inducements or coercive threats that might have been applied to Agca while in custody (156)

Agca’s evidence is given credibility by Newsweek through several devices: repeating his claims in several times in the core of the story; stressing in two separate sequences investigative judge Martella’s alleged honesty , conscientiousness, etc.; quoting from Italian officials who say they “have the evidence” that “Agca operated in close contact with the Bulgarians” (156)

Newsweek swallows intact a series of SHK ideological assumptions, such as “investigators [read Paul Henze] now think” Agca was probably using the Gray Wolves as a cover; Bulgaria and the Soviet Union have long been trying to destabilize Turkey through terrorism ” (quoting Henze directly) ; in Sofia , Agca’s presence “must of come to the attentions of the Bulgarian secret police” (156)

Newsweek states as establishing fact that “Agca had help from a huge set of Bulgarians,” although it provides no evidence for this except assertions by Agca, Italian officials, and Paul Henze. It reports numerous transactions with Bulgarians in Rome without mentioning the problem of plausible deniability. (156)

All of these expressions of opinion, doubts, interests, suppositions, and minor detail served to produce a lot of smoke- which kept the issue of possible Soviet involvement to the public. They steered quite clear of substantive issues that bore on motives, quality of evidence, and Turkish and Italian context. (157)

Sterling and Henze dominated media coverage by virtue of the very wide distribution of their articles and books on the case, and by their extensive and uncritical use of experts by the elite press, news magazines and talk shows. Sterling in addition to her Readers Digest Article had three substantial pieces in the Wall Street Journal and several articles in the New York Times. (157-158)

Sterling, Henze and Ledeen together accounted for 76 percent of the time in three shows on the subject on the “McNeil-Lehrer News Hour”. No tough questions were asked of them on these shows, and no dissident voices were heard, perhaps because Sterling and Henze refused to appear on television shows (or in college debates) with people who opposed their views, and Henze insisted on approving in advance any questions to be asked. Thus their initial dominance was further enhanced by coercive tactics. (158)

If we ask the deeper question of why these experts should predominate in the first place, we believe the answer must be found in the power of their sponsors and the congeniality of their views to the corporate community and mainstream media. (158)

Sterling was funded and published by Readers Digest, which gave her enormous outreach and immediate brand name recognition. (158)

The Reagan administration was also delighted with Sterling despite her frequent denunciations of the CIA and the State Department for their cowardice in failing to pursue terrorism and the Bulgarian Connection with sufficient aggressiveness!- and so were the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, CBS News and many others (158)

Again in conformity with a propaganda model, it was of no apparent concern to the mass media that Sterling, Henze, and Ledeen were exceptionally biased sources, immune to the rules of evidence and in fact, agents of disinformation. (159)

The NewYork Times allowed her [Sterling] front page space and a regular role as a reporter of news on the Bulgarian connection. By doing this, the Times guaranteed that editorial policy would control the news fit to print. This was displayed fully in Sterling’s front page news story of prosecutor Albano’s report on June 10th 1984. The most important new information in that report- that on June 28th, 1983, Agca had retracted a substantial part of his evidence against the Bulgarians- was omitted from Sterling’s story, although she coyly suggested that some undescribed points had been retraced that were already “corroborated”. (159)

Sterling’s numerous attacks on the murdered French activist-radical Henry Curiel resulted in suits of slande brough t against her in Paris. The NewYork Times has never mentioned these slander suits, which would put Sterling in a bad light not only because she lost them in whole or part, but also because of the insight they provide concerning her sources and methods…In her Terror Network, Sterling strongly intimates that Curiel was a KGB agent, but the French court, on the basis of documents provided by French intelligence, found no support for this claim. (160)

The case, in short, showed that she was a conduit of disinformation, quite prepared to slander a murdered radical on the basis of claims by extreme right wing disinformation sources. (160-161)

Francesco Pazienza: Francesco Pazienza (born 1946) is an Italian businessman, and former officer of the Italian military intelligence agency, SISMI. As of April 2007, he has been paroled to the community of Lerici, after serving many years in prison, including a 1993 conviction due to his role in the Banco Ambrosiano scandal and a 1982 conviction for mishandling state secrets.

Michael Ledeen: Consultant on terrorism
In the early 1980s, Ledeen appeared before the newly established Senate Subcommittee on Security and Terrorism, alongside former CIA director William Colby, author Claire Sterling and former Newsweek editor Arnaud de Borchgrave. Both Ledeen and de Borchgrave worked for the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University at the time.[8] All four testified that they believed the Soviet Union had provided for material support, training and inspiration for various terrorist groupings.[9]
Michael Ledeen was a strong proponent of the theories in the book The Terror Network written by Claire Sterling that held that the USSR was the source of much of the international terrorism in the world.

Pazienza claimed (and SISMI head Santovito confirmed) that Ledeen was a member of the Italian Intelligence agency SISMI, with code number Z-3. Ledeen received over $100,000 from SISMI for services rendered, including the supplying of stale U.S. intelligence reports that SISMI passed off as its own. Ledeen funnelled his money into a Bermuda bank account. His manipulative activities in Italy was on such a scale that in the summer of 1984 a newly appointed head of SISMI told the Italian parliament that Ledeen was a “meddler” and a persona non grata in Italy. None of these points were ever disclosed in the New York Times. (161)

“Off the agenda” are arguments and facts that would call into question the validity of the basic SHK model, and those relating to the “alternative model” (which starts with the question of why Agca confessed so late and the likely hood that he was encouraged and pressed to talk.) (162)

Only the ABC “20/20” program of May 12, 1983, explored the Soviet motive in any depth, despite the constant media reiteration of the SHK line. ABC went to the trouble of asking the Vatican about the validity of Marvin Kalb’s claim that the Pope had written a note threatening to resign and to return to Poland and lead the resistance to a Soviet Invasion….This spectacular repudiation of an important element in the SHK case was unreported in the rest of the media, and simply died with the ABC broadcast. (162)

During the trial, Abdullah Catli’s statement that Bulgaria was a preferred Gray Wolves route to Europe because of the relative ease of hiding in the heavy Turkish traffic-which directly contradicts the SHK claim that the Bulgarian secret Police know everything, and that Agca’s stay in Sofia must therefore of been by Bulgarian official plan- was never picked up by the US mass media’s coverage of the Rome trial. (163)

They simply would not examine and discuss the inconvenience of the newly discovered plot for so many Western interests; the huge time lag in the naming of the Bulgarians; Agca s prison conditions and prison contacts…(163)

July 12, 1984, Italian Report of Parliamentary Commission on the Masonic lodge p-2 describes in great detail the penetration of this massive neo-fascist conspiracy into the military establishment, secret service, press, and judiciary, among others. This report was newsworthy in its own right, but it also had bearings on the Bulgarian Connection case, as it addressed characteristics of Italian institutions that were directly involved in making and persecuting the case against the Bulgarians. (163-164)

These officials were also charged with involvement in a cover-up of the agents carrying out the 1980 Bologna railway station massacre, the kind of terrorist connection that attracts frenetic mass-media attention when attributable to suitable villains. As we noted earlier, SISMI officials had visited Agca in prison and SISMI had issued a forged document implicating the Soviet Union in the shooting of the Pope on May 19, 1981, only six days after the assassination attempt. This forgery was never mentioned in the (NY) Times, Newsweek, Time, or on CBS News, and the July 1985 court decision was barely mentioned in the back pages of the Times. (164)

These blackouts are of materials that suggest a corrupt Italian process and the possibility that Agca was persuaded then coached to pin the plot on the East. A propaganda system exploiting the alleged Bulgarian Connection will naturally avoid such documents. (164)

Italian former member of SISMI: Francesco Pazienza:

Wanted for several crimes, Pazienza had fled Italy, and in 1985 he resided in New York City. Eventually he was seized and held there by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Pazienza had been a partner of Michael Ledeen in the “Billygate” affair in Italy, and retained his connection after Ledeen became General Haigs right hand man in Italy in the early days of the Reagan presidency. Pazienza had also been a close associate of SISMI head Giuseppe Santovito . From 1983 onward it was alleged in the Italian press that Pazienza had been involved in getting Agca to talk, and he himself eventually made detailed accusations of coaching by elements of SISMI. Although Pazienza was readily available for interviews in New York City jail, the New York Times ignored him. Our hypothesis is that they did this because if they talked to him it would have been difficult to avoid discussing his connections with Ledeen and Sterling (both Times sources and under Times protection.) (165-168)

The diligent and extensive court investigation found numerous Gray Wolves links to Agca in the period just up to his assassination attempt, but no witnesses to his (allegedly) numerous meetings with the Bulgarians in Rome. (166)

On January 3, 1983, Newsweek had quoted an Italian official who said that: “we have substantial evidence …[that] Agca operated in close contact with the Bulgarians,” and the New York Times editorialised on October 20, 1984, that “Agca’s accounts of meetings ith Bulgarian officials are verifiable in important details.” If there was “substantial evidence” and “verifiable” details long befor the trial, why was this evidence not produced in the courtroom? Why, after an enormous further investigative effort was there still not enough evidence to obtain a conviction? The US mass media dint even try to answer these questions.

*Chritianne Amanpour head of CNN claimed in the Iraq invasion coverage that: “My Station was intimidated by the administration and its foot soldiers at Fox News”

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