ON May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca shot Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square in Rome. In fall 1981 forgeries and other disinforma-tion that bore marks of the KGB handiwork began to appear in West German and Turkish newspapers and were cycled through the Soviet news media and back into the international press. The disinformation had two aims: first, to absolve the Bulgarian secret service from any links with Agca, and second, to implicate the CIA in the shooting.
Some of the recycling relied on the ``credulity and predisposition to believe of Western and third-world journalists, writers, and intellectuals,'' says Paul Henze, a former American National Security Council staffer. Some depended on ``the readiness of reporters to accept cash or other favors.''
At first, the West dismissed out of hand the idea that Moscow might be behind the attempted assassination. Even the CIA joined in ruling out any probable KGB involvement, despite Soviet dislike of the Polish Pope and his prot'eg'e Solidarity trade union. Such action would risk too much world abhorrence should it become known, it was thought. Besides, the job had been unprofessionally bungled, and Agca had a record as a right-wing hit man in his native Turkey.
Two American writers, however, Mr. Henze and Claire Sterling -- along with the Italian magistrate investigating the crime -- doggedly followed leads that implicated the Bulgarian secret service (and thereby the KGB, given Moscow's close control of its clients' secret services).
In 1982, when Mrs. Sterling published her findings of a Bulgarian connection that had been carefully camouflaged as a far-right connection, the Soviet media attacked her, scoffed at any Bulgarian involvement, and pressed ahead with the CIA charge. Even after the Italians arrested Sergei Antonov and indicted two other Bulgarians (with the prosecutor pointing a finger at the KGB), the Soviet press continued its vehement denials of Bulgarian complicity -- and stayed silent about Agca's earlier visits to Bulgaria, his notably good treatment there, and his training with Palestinian guerrillas. Mr. Antonov was ostensibly an official of the Bulgarian airlines but was reputedly also a secret police officer.
Forgeries of State Department cables, lurid rumors of Agca's sexual exploits, and other disinformation that supported the Soviets' thesis continued to circulate in Europe and formed the basis of reports in the Dublin Sunday Press, the Madrid weekly El Tiempo, and Italian and other European newspapers, Henze says. The Dublin articles were expanded into a book and published in New York, he adds.
The indicted Bulgarians have not yet been tried. The case against them rests largely on Agca's confessions -- which have been verified in some remarkable details but on other points are inconsistent. The Soviets and Bulgarians argue that the Italian and US intelligence services must have primed Agca in jail -- a contention the Italian judge in the case does not credit.