Thursday, January 04, 2007

Blogging - the Return 

A new year, due to some quirk of human psychology, represents a new chance to start over or renew neglected projects and well-meaning efforts of one kind or another. From say, sticking new material on a website when you haven't done so in ages, to dieting.

2007 is a year that looks like it might be a bad one. Another round of horrifying bloodshed in Iraq and central Africa, a nuclear arms race in North-East Asia, and soaring temperatures while we collectively shove billions of tonnes of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere.

Bob the Angry Flower discovers the inescapable moral logic of the War on Terror

But the awfulness, as ever, squares off with the indiviudals and movements worldwide striving hard to stop wars, preserve our living standards from environmental blowback, protect human rights, challenge the enforced inequality of our unjust class-based societies, and expand real democracy and individual freedom. They notched up a few victories in 2006 and helped change election results from Italy to South America to the United States. And 2006 was a year in which the arguments of the militarists and those denying anthropogenic global warming were shown to be bankrupt in every sense before ever larger numbers of people.

So 2007 is not a lost cause! This blog is my spot for scrutinising the bad and celebrating the good... scroll down for the following articles:

Iraq - the Only Way is Out - why a Coalition withdrawal is the only option left
The Only Thing we Have to Fear is Nancy Pelosi - the ridiculous press coverage and Republican attacks on the newly elected speaker to the US House of Representatives
The Plot Behind the Plot to Kill the Pope - after an Italian parliamentary inquiry comes to a weird conclusion, the unpleasant origins of the conspiracy theories surrounding the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II

That last article was written about five months ago. Memo to myself: be less lazy in 2007,

peace and happiness all round to all readers,

Alex Higgins
Tottenham, London

Comments, queries and condemnation to respond_alexblog at yahoo dot co dot uk

For more Dilbert strips, see the official website.

I'm delighted to note that Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, has called for a US withdrawal from Iraq, though I disagree with his claims of US accomplishments in Iraq.

The Iraq War - don't let this go on any longer
3,351 US soldiers killed in Iraq
146 British soldiers killed in Iraq

Bush demands more sacrifice
Military Times - US troops in Iraq oppose escalation, lose confidence in Bush administration

Newsday - an Iraqi girl splattered with the blood of her parents, killed by US troops at a checkpoint in Tal Afar in 2005. Click here for the story behind the photograph.

Cut Carbon Emissions in the New Year

Australia - Mark Lynas on the devastating consequences of a policy of denial
USA - Polar Bears to be listed under the Endangered Species Act as Arctic melts
Britain - George Monbiot on why airport expansion cancels out other cuts in carbon emissions

Sir David King, British government's science advisor, grounds for optimism - "At last, I'm hopeful about climate change"

The Science of 2006 in Review - RealClimate.org
Getting involved: Rising Tide

Iraq Withdrawal – the only way is out

Can you see a similarity between the following – insisting Coalition forces stay in Iraq until “the job is done” and accepting that Coalition forces should stay in Iraq for a few more years to stabilise the situation while also criticising the administration for gross incompetence?

The answer is that, in practice, they amount to doing precisely the same thing. The numbers of those willing to defend the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq shrink by the day, but despite widespread public disenchantment in the US and Britain, those in the political and pundit classes seriously advocating a complete break with current policy are only just beginning to find a voice.

Steve Bell explains the British government's view

Like William Raspberry, writing two years ago in the Washington Post, too many have concluded:

“Even those of us who thought President Bush made a hideous moral and military blunder in launching the war are largely sympathetic to the way he is conducting the aftermath -- not because it is particularly successful but because we can't think of anything better.”

“We can’t think of anything better” is an honest summary of many of the President’s liberal (and conservative) critics’ actual position on Iraq, but also a terrible indictment. Critics of the war should have been putting effort into better policy alternatives and making the case publicly. If progressives wish to change America and the world we ought to have something to say on the most pressing policy issues facing us - something more substantive than complaining that George Bush is a cretin.

First, it is necessary to recognize, at this very late date, that any policy based on continuing US stewardship of Iraq, even for a short period, is simply untenable.

In the aftermath of its electoral “thumping”, the White House still talks of a victory in Iraq, while Britain’s Tony Blair continues to insist that while he does not want British forces to stay, they must do so “until the job is done” . The fact that the longer they have stayed, the further those goals have become apparently doesn’t phase them.

As Britain’s most senior military figure, General Richard Dannatt, argued in an interview in the Daily Mail last month, the presence of US and British troops “exacerbates the security problems”. The argument that Coalition forces must remain in Iraq until insurgent violence ends or is substantially reduced (“a manageable level” is the sound-bite of the moment, manageable for whom is unclear) makes no more sense than to argue you will continue to rub salt into your wound until it stops hurting.

At the centre of widely expressed hopes for US-engineered stability in Iraq is the training of a new Iraqi Army and police forces. This policy began in 2003 and its near-total failure in the last three years should have led to the conclusion that it is a non-starter. The Australian paper The Age reports on the current state of the police for instance:

“At least 20 per cent of those joining the police force were quitting each year. It said record keeping was so poor that it was not known how many police on the payroll were still reporting for duty. But up to 40 per cent of police were believed to be absent.”

In February this year, the Pentagon stopped publicizing the figures for battle-ready Iraqi army units, just as the number had reached zero, a decrease of one from the previous year. The reason is that recruits consist largely of those who are as unwilling to be used to fight in an American war as they were to be cannon-fodder for Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003 but need a job, and those who join seeking the military hardware and know-how for their own purposes, which can and do include killing Coalition soldiers.

On May 24th, the New York Times reported that:

"The headlong, American-backed effort to arm tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and officers, coupled with a failure to curb a nearly equal number of militia gunmen, has created a galaxy of armed groups, each with its own loyalty and agenda, which are accelerating the country's slide into chaos."

The Times’ story was illustrated by the case of the Iraqi 16th brigade which was supposed to guard an oil pipeline on behalf of the Ministry of Oil at Dawra near Baghdad last year, but whose members instead chose to use their weapons to support the insurgency and execute those collaborating with the government. In such ways are tax-dollars spent.

A few weeks ago
, Reuters reported:

“Gunmen in Iraqi police uniforms rounded up as many as 100 men at a government building in central Baghdad on Tuesday, in what may be the biggest mass kidnap seen in a city becoming used to such violence.”

Surveys of Iraqi opinion – for those who regard democracy in Iraq as something other than a rhetorical flourish to give the Republican Party moral standing it does not have – consistently show the demand of a majority for the US to start leaving.

Furthermore, Iraqis – like General Dannatt - regard the Anglo-American presence as part of the problem – “Almost four in five Iraqis say the U.S. military force in Iraq provokes more violence than it prevents”, reported Associated Press in September.

Iraqi calls for withdrawal are echoed by the sentiments of opinion polls among the British and US public, and in the US army itself. Who is missing from this popular consensus that stretches from Seattle to Basra?

Once we appreciate that the only way is out the question is how to quit and give the greatest opportunity for a less violent Iraq to emerge, leave the least bitterness and hatred, and fulfill some of the basic obligations the US and Britain have to Iraqis for the harm that has been done. The task is not easy, but a well-handled withdrawal offers the greatest hope.

Last month, staff at TIME magazine put together a to-do list for a withdrawing US army under the sober heading ‘The End of the Illusion’. With exceptions, the recommendations are essentially to try out policies that have already failed and then unleash a last round of “aggressive counterinsurgency tactics” against the Mahdi Army and the Sunni insurgency. Such suggestions show that the illusion has not ended for some, either about the effectiveness of such tactics, or the unmentioned brutality they involve. ‘Smash and Run’ will deliver piles of corpses and earn much further hatred and contempt for the United States, but little else.

An alternative, costed approach is outlined in Harpers’ magazine by George McGovern and William Polk. They suggest a six-month period of withdrawal of US forces from December and the creation of an international peace-keeping buffer force consisting of troops drawn from Islamic countries such as Indonesia and Morocco. A UN-led force has been a popular idea in Iraq since 2003, and this plan enjoys wide support among Sunni and Shia parties. Such a force would not attempt counter-insurgency raids but would act to prevent sectarian slaughter and protect civilians at risk. Under the McGovern/Polk plan the construction of a new Iraqi army would be abandoned and instead the focus would be on the gradual creation of a national police force from disparate local units. Such proposals could, as others have suggested, be put to popular referendum.

The US and British governments should then put up generous sums of money – and generosity would be a wise purchase of goodwill – to fund reconstruction through a transparent process as well as funds for removing explosive and radioactive ordinance, running healthcare and judicial systems, demolishing military bases, repairing cultural sites and making condolence payments to the victims of the war. There is a cost to this ($7-10 billion), but one vastly less than years of war – and the positive blowback of doing the right thing for once is hard to put a price on. Such a plan also offers Americans and Iraqis the ultimate gift of loved ones still alive, who will otherwise die.

Those who opposed this war or have watched it unfold with ever-greater dismay can “think of something better” and should push for a new course from the new Congress, and the other Coalition governments.

William Raspberry, Occupation Hazards, Washington Post, December 27th 2004. In fairness, the piece is mainly critical of calls for greater brutality by US forces in Iraq. (link)

Blair defiant over Iraq strategy, BBC Online, October 18th, 2006 (link)

Sarah Sands, Sir Richard Dannatt, - A Very Honest General, Daily Mail, October 12th, 2006 (link)

Brendan Nicholson, US Intelligence Reveals Extent of Iraq Carnage, The Age, November 11th, 2006 (link).

Aseel Kami, Dozens Snatched in Mass Kidnap at Iraq Ministry, November 14th, 2006 (link) (Also featured at www.davidcorn.com)

Barry Schwied, Poll: Iraqis Back Attacks on U.S. Troops, Associated Press, September 28th, 2006 (link)

Aparisim Ghosh, The End of the Illusion: 5 Ways to Prevent Iraq From Getting Even Worse, TIME (European Edition), October 30th, 2006

George McGovern and William Polk, ‘The Way Out of Iraq’, Harper’s Magazine, October 2006

Bob the Angry Flower explains the logic behind staying in Iraq

The only thing we have to fear is Nancy Pelosi
Scenes from the US Congressional elections

(This article was written shortly before the Congressional elections which of course saw a Democratic victory and an end to Republican control of both the House and the Senate. The weird press coverage and right-wing attacks on Nancy Pelosi have continued much as before, however...)

“This is the moment to say that there are things in life worth fighting and dying for and one of 'em is making sure Nancy Pelosi doesn't become the speaker.”

said an impassioned Republican star-hack Sean Hannity to his audience on his radio show on August 29th [2006]. You may be considering throwing your own body beneath a tank in the cause of keeping Ms. Pelosi’s hand from the gavel in the US House of Representatives after the elections on November 7th. But chances are you are wondering quite what Pelosi could have done, or be about to do, to warrant such alarm.

It’s fluff of course – Sean Hannity is no more willing to actually fight or die in this cause than in the Iraq War which he champions and fears might be ended sooner rather than later. But turning Ms. Pelosi into an object of irrational fear is one of the closest things to a trump card in a terrible hand that the Republican Party has.

Why should you fear Nancy Pelosi? Former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, explains what is at stake:

"Republicans are right to favor traditional American conservative social values, and the left is completely wrong to put San Francisco left-wing values third in line to be President by electing Nancy Pelosi to speaker of the House."

Ah-ha! Nancy is from San Francisco! Now it’s not like Mr. Gingrich to put his fellow Americans down, but you have to draw the line at San Francisco. So what kind of social values – which essentially translates as attitudes towards sex – does this decadent woman represent?
The National Catholic Reporter explains:

“Nancy Pelosi, mother of five, grandmother of five, refers to herself as a “conservative Catholic.” [a somewhat contentious self-description, the NCR notes]…Upon graduation in 1962, she married Georgetown University graduate Paul Pelosi. The couple moved first to New York and then to San Francisco , Paul Pelosi’s hometown. It was a fast-track family: five children in six years. Pelosi was a full-time mother -- babies and carpools, laundry, homework and getting dinner on the table took priority.”

But enough of this orgy of immorality.

Unlike the San Francisco swinger Pelosi, Newt Gingrich is married to his third wife. How he got there is described in Bryan Harris' 'The Sanctity of Marriage Handbook'. Newt's first marriage to Jackie Battley was interrupted to have an affair with Anne Manning, who later explained to Vanity Fair: “We had oral sex… He prefers that modus operandi because he can then say, ‘I never slept with her’” – a line of defence he would later regard as contemptible when used by Bill Clinton. But it was not until Jackie was in hospital with cancer that he delivered divorce papers to her, leaving her for Marianne Ginther. This second marriage ended following a six-year affair with his Congressional aide, the 23-years-younger Callista Bisek. Newt and Callista married in 1999.

This man berates the personal values of Nancy Pelosi. Preposterous? Outrageous? Like a man who strongly supported a war but used the privilege of his class to avoid fighting while the less fortunate were sent to die and then failed to perform even the cushier service he opted for and later poses as a war leader? That kind of outrageous? Or a man who privately switched off the life support of his father, then uses Congress as a public platform to call Michael Schiavo a murderer for asking to remove the feeding tube from his brain-dead wife (Tom Delay, in case you were wondering)? Outrage is an exhausting business – we are dealing with people who exhibit no sense of shame whatsoever. They may know full well that the cedar-like beam in their eye is out of all proportion to the splinter in their neighbour’s eye. It’s just they do not care and don’t expect their supporters will notice, not least since the press will rarely bother to point it out. Recall that Republican Representative Mark Foley, who so recently resigned after years of sexually harassing 16 year-old interns, was the co-chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. But of course!

Another line of attack has been put forward by the likes of Pat Buchanan, the American Spectator – the magazine that brought us so many exclusives of the few misdeeds President Clinton didn’t actually commit – and Americans for Truth, an organization that promises to keep us informed of the “homosexual activist agenda”. (The homosexual activist agenda, I can reveal, by the way – it’s for the like of Americans for Truth to leave them alone). These bold truth-tellers point out that Pelosi has marched on Gay Pride parades. At these parades the infamous North American Man-Boy Love Association also had members marching. So you see, Nancy Pelosi is more or less marching alongside them… You see how that works? And come to think of it, where were you in San Francisco on that day?

Jeffrey Lord at the American Spectator, “a moment like this unintentionally reveals the mindset of what Representative Pelosi and her fellow Democrats may really think but can't -- yet – support”. Which is for Congressmen to molest teenagers, in case you hadn’t caught his drift. Fortunately, as we have already noted, Republicans are still in charge of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.

Since senior Republican Congressmen, including the current speaker Dennis Hastert were aware of Mark Foley’s treatment of his interns and had been for some years, the Party struggled to prevent a ripple of revulsion traveling across the electorate. One ploy was to hint that the real villains of the Foley scandal were in fact congressional Democrats who, in this theory (a generous description), could have known themselves of Foley’s conduct and chosen to conceal what they knew until weeks before the elections. The devil-woman Pelosi had struck again!

This theory had more than one major flaw, and one in particular, as even CNN’s rarely-troubled Wolf Blitzer made a point of noting in
this precious exchange with Representative Patrick McHenry, a Republican of North Carolina:

McHenry: Well, look, all the fact points lead to one question: Did Rahm Emanuel or Nancy Pelosi have any involvement on the strategic or tactical level? …

Blitzer: Do you have any evidence at all that Democrats or others might have been behind the timing of this scandal?

McHenry: Look, let’s be honest…

Blitzer: Do you have any evidence to back that charge up?

McHenry: No, no, actually, if the Democrats had any issue with saying this, putting all the facts out on the table, they would say, certainly, I’ll testify under oath that I had no involvement in it. They’ve said no.

Blitzer: Well, you don’t have any evidence, though, right?

McHenry: Well, look at the fact points.

Blitzer: Yes or no, do you have any evidence, Congressman?

McHenry: Do you have any evidence that they weren’t involved?

And do you have any evidence that you aren’t a terrorist? Can you prove that you don’t sell cocaine to children? Can you demonstrate beyond doubt that you have never sacrificed kittens to Satan?

In less slime-covered quarters such as CBS’ Sixty Minutes, presenter Lesley Stahl challenged Pelosi for being rude. The
CBS website explains:

‘As correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, she keeps promising that if she becomes Speaker, she would bring civility back to Washington: just not now. Pelosi has called her Republican colleagues “immoral" and "corrupt,” and has said they're running a criminal enterprise. "I mean, you're one of the reasons we have to restore civility in the first place," Stahl remarks.’

Pelosi even called the President “incompetent” after all he did to serve the people of New Orleans in their time of need. And the real clincher? This:

‘Here is what she said about the president’s handling of Hurricane Katrina: "The president said he's going to lead the investigation into what went wrong. He need look only in the mirror, for starters."’

Someone said that! In Washington! It’s almost like curse words! One can appreciate that the avoidable destruction of a major American city and the deaths of 1,800 people might make everyone a bit upset but that doesn’t mean we should we all high and mighty and try and hold public officials to account, people.

Ms. Pelosi’s rather neat reply to this one-sided obsession with civility was, "Well actually, when I called them those names, I was being gentle. There are much worse things I could've said about them."

Ms. Stahl replied with catty scorn, “Oh really? It’s hard to imagine.”

To help her imagination out, I suggest Ms. Stahl look back for the newsreel of when Dick Cheney visited New Orleans for a photo-shoot and was greeted with a loud “Go fuck yourself!” from a resident filled with justifiable anger, pointedly quoting Cheney himself incidentally. (That resident filmed his epic trip to berate the Vice President

Nancy could also have called George W. Bush a “major league asshole”, which was
his description of Adam Clymer of the New York Times. She might have said she was going to fuck the president like he had never been fucked before as White House strategist Karl Rove briefed a subordinate in the presence of journalist Ron Suskind. She might have said that Michael J. Fox is faking the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease to assist the Democrats, or stated loudly and repeatedly that bereaved widows of 9/11 who clash with the White House over security policy enjoy the deaths of their husbands, or engaged in mock tears at the news of suicides among internees at Guantanamo Bay, or demanded the execution of the editor of the New York Times (again) - as we have so recently heard from the prominent and popular Republican pundits Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin.

But maybe they were all just following the terrible example set by Pelosi herself.

Or maybe Pelosi is actually pretty civil.

The hard men of the Republican Party have good reason to be afraid of her, even if no one else does. The fear has little to do with Ms. Pelosi’s views on Iraq (she voted against the war), abortion (she favours the legal status quo), the Patriot Act (she voted in favour but now regrets it), the minimum wage (she favours freezing Congressional salaries until it is raised), healthcare (she wants a renegotiation of the Bush prescription drug programme which allows pharmaceutical companies to grossly overcharge Medicare) or anything else. When asked what is most important about retaking the House, Pelosi says “subpoena power” – the authority to hold investigations into corruption and criminality and demand that public officials give evidence. That is what they find scary. That and the fact that the Republicans would have lost the stranglehold on all three branches of the United States government that has permitted them to run Washington like an out-and-out racket for so long.

This 109th Congress, described neatly by
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi as: “a stable of thieves and perverts who committed crimes rolling out of bed in the morning and did their very best to turn the mighty American empire into a debt-laden, despotic backwater, a Burkina Faso with cable” – all that could be coming to a well-deserved end.

A Congress that legalised torture, broke the back of the safeguards of the US Constitution, has not lifted a finger once for working-class Americans while increasing the salaries of its members, has not held one serious investigation into the administration’s handling of Iraq, invites fiction writers to testify on why global warming is not really happening and engaged in a world-historical spending spree on unending war and a fiesta of soft corruption - that Congress may be coming to an end. The White House, Republican Party and Beltway pundits don’t really fear Nancy Pelosi – they are afraid of the American electorate crashing their party and being real kill-joys.

Some others who wrote about these issues:
Newsweek, Eric Boehlert and Glenn Greenwald.

The Plot Behind the Plot to Kill the Pope

"I never believed in the so-called Bulgarian connection" Pope John Paul II

John Paul II recovers from shot-wounds

'Loose Change', speculates Nancy Jo Sales for Vanity Fair (August 2006), "just might be the first Internet blockbuster". At least 10 million people have watched the number 1 movie on Google Video's top 100. Put together by bright young things Dylan Avery, Jason Bermas and Korey Rowe, Loose Change is an 80-minute documentary ensemble of factoids with an MTV-style soundtrack assaulting the boring official version of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001.

It's an impressive feat, quite watchable, well put together - just wrong on virtually every point of fact. I prefer the website Loose Trains which offers evidence to support its theory that the World Trade Center was not in fact destroyed by hijacked aeroplanes at all, but by hijacked trains, a truth the US ruling class has cleverly concealed from us. The tragedy of 'Loose Change' is to see all that talent and energy put into following an empty, implausible line of enquiry. There is so much real injustice and deceit to expose in this world, it's a great loss when people who could focus on real crimes seek to endlessly pursue non-existent evidence of conspiracies that never took place.

If the Bush administration only had anything near the collective presence of mind to carry out something as sophisticated as the 9/11 attacks, who knows, they might have been capable of getting their act together on the day and actually have saved some lives from the murderous hijackers, rather than failing to save a single one. While I enjoy debunking conspiracy speculation, there is a certain futility to it. Lines of conspiracy speculation have an astonishing capacity for endurance despite the paucity of evidence that might give them life.

"The giggle test"

On March 2nd 2006, an Italian parliamentary commission led by Senator Paolo Guzzanti concluded, "This commission believes, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative to eliminate Pope John Paul." Now there's a throwback for fans of the '80s.

On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, a member of a Turkish fascist paramilitary outfit, the Grey Wolves, waited for Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square, then shot him four times in the arm and stomach, but was prevented from murdering him as members of the crowd restrained him. By way of explanation, a letter found in Agca's pocket informed us that "I, Agca, have killed the Pope so that the world may know of the thousands of victims of imperialism." It was not immediately obvious how the murder of the Pope would draw attention to the victims of imperialism, except possibly the victims of the Grey Wolves, who moonlighted for US imperialism in Turkey. Agca himself had previously murdered Abdi Ipekci, the editor of the Turkish liberal paper Milliyet in 1979. Still his statement made as much sense as anything else he has ever said on the subject.

John Paul II in St. Peter's Square after he was shot

The backdrop to the Polish Pope's near-death was growing unrest in Poland, as the dock-workers' union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) was proving a potent challenge to the Jaruzselski dictatorship and the Soviet Empire itself. The Pope's open support for Solidarity and for Polish nationalism was reawakening popular unrest. So, was it much of a stretch to speculate that Agca's attempt on the Pope's life was part of a larger conspiracy hatched in Moscow by the KGB, maybe through its Bulgarian allies?

Abdi Ipekci's memorial in Istanbul John Paul II meets Lech Walesa in 1981

Well, yes it was. Quoted in Vanity Fair by Craig Unger, Frank Brodhead, an author of a book with Edward Herman on this very subject explained: "It just doesn't pass the giggle test. Agca, the shooter, had been deeply embedded in a Turkish youth group of the Fascist National Action Party known as the Gray Wolves. It would seem illogical that a Turkish Fascist would work with Bulgarian Communists."

And vice versa, a literal loose cannon like Agca would have made an odd choice for Soviet and Bulgarian intelligence agencies. So as a theory, the notion of a Kremlin conspiracy struggled to get the past the obstacle of plausibility.

"A Lot of it Was Made Up"

But as all students of conspiracy stories know, that's really no obstacle at all. The theory went like this - Agca, who had travelled through Stalinist Bulgaria and was connected to Balkan drug smugglers, had been hired by agents of the Bulgarian regime's intelligence (themselves acting at the behest of Moscow's KGB) to assassinate the Pope. The theory was largely developed and propagated by a number of American neo-conservatives who were then crawling up the Reagan White House - Claire Sterling, Paul Henze and Michael Ledeen - and became something of an obsession of the CIA as led by William Casey (who loved conspiracy theories involving the Russians) and the wholesome Italian intelligence agency, SISMI. The motive for the assassination plot centred on the Pontiff's support for Solidarity and Polish independence, though Claire Sterling initially suggested that the plan was to split Turkey from the Western military alliance NATO by inspiring one of its sons to kill the Pope and thus alienate Christian Europe.

Plausibility was a problem since not only did this plan involve hiring a violently anti-Communist assassin to kill on behalf of the USSR, it involved the Russians taking an extraordinary risk that could easily have inspired a wider revolt in Poland. And it seemed, in Sterling's original version, to rest simultaneously on Agca being identified as the killer while hoping he would nobly remain silent about his Communist masters if captured.

Ultimately though the theory suffered from a lack of actual evidence. The CIA spent a solid decade investigating the subject at Casey's behest and couldn't find anything - for which it was attacked by our neo-conservative friends, since failure to produce evidence to support their arguments is considered to be an act of treachery/weakness/liberalism rather than evidence they might be wrong about something, or indeed virtually everything.

William Casey was very much of this mindset. Reagan's head of the CIA had read Claire Sterling's book, The Terror Network, which made the argument that virtually all guerrilla and paramilitary organisations that she could think of were part of a cohesive global network created and funded by the Soviet Union. The Terror Network included the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the Italian Red Brigades, the Salvadoran FMLN, the lot. (Take an example, the Provisional IRA were initially quite anti-Communist and in large part funded by Irish-American conservatives, but only boring people make those kinds of observations). "There is massive proof", Ms. Sterling wrote, a bombastic assertion inversely proportional to the actual proof, "that the Soviet Union and its surrogates, over the last decade, have provided the weapons, training and sanctuary for a worldwide terror network aimed at the destabilisation of Western democratic society." Sterling would later write about the Bulgarian connection for Reader's Digest and the New York Times.

Casey urged the CIA to take this seriously - "Read Claire Sterling's book and forget this mush," he instructed the national-intelligence officer for the Soviet Union after he offered a more realistic assessment of Soviet covert intervention abroad, as Bob Woodward records in 'The Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987' (p125). Casey growled, "I paid $13.95 for this [Sterling's book] and it told me more than you bastards whom I pay $50,000 a year."

Problems for the Terror Network thesis included the fact that Soviet intelligence sometimes provided information on the activities of paramilitary organisations to the CIA. For instance, Woodward noted: "There were some cases in which they had actually discouraged terrorism. The U.S. ambassador to Nepal had been warned by the Russians of a kidnap plot by four Arabs. The Bulgarians had let the West German police arrest a member of the Baader-Meinhoff Gang in 1978." There was another problem - a lot of the evidence cited by Sterling for global Soviet perfidy was actually disinformation originally created by the CIA for propaganda purposes. Casey's analysts spotted the irony and winced. Woodward wrote: "It turned out that a small part of Claire Sterling's information had come from an Italian press story on the Red Brigade. The story was part of an old, small-scale CIA covert propaganda operation."

Not just a small part, actually. Then CIA Head of Soviet Affairs Melvin Goodman explained to Adam Curtis in the BBC documentary series, 'The Power of Nightmares' (transcript):

Goodman: And when we looked through the book [Sterling's], we found very clear episodes where CIA black propaganda—clandestine information that was designed under a covert action plan to be planted in European newspapers—were picked up and put in this book. A lot of it was made up. It was made up out of whole cloth.

Curtis: You told him [Casey] this?

Goodman: We told him that, point blank. And we even had the operations people to tell Bill Casey this. I thought maybe this might have an impact, but all of us were dismissed. Casey had made up his mind. He knew the Soviets were involved in terrorism, so there was nothing we could tell him to disabuse him. Lies became reality.

Curtis: In the end, Casey found a university professor who described himself as a terror expert, and he produced a dossier that confirmed that the hidden terror network did, in fact, exist.

Old falsehoods were elevated to official truths fitting as they did with a political agenda of military build-up and the deliberate escalation of Cold War tensions. The complexities of guerrilla wars in the Third World and violent, radical political movements were reduced to a frightening and easily digestible - albeit false - notion of the Soviet Union as a puppet-master of an international terrorist network incorporating Neslon Mandela, Yassir Arafat, Gerry Adams and whoever. Which was handy, because it meant the US government could justify itself in fighting and destroying its chosen enemies rather than addressing their demands from El Salvador to Angola to the West Bank. The facts were made to fit the policy.

Any connection with the build-up to the Iraq War is not coincidental or unintended.

"Complicated and demonic"

Back in Rome the thin plot struggled to thicken. Initially Agca claimed to be a member of the Palestinian leftist guerrilla organisation, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (who in turn claimed that they had no idea who Agca was). But after meeting members of the Italian intelligence agency SISMI in prison in November 1982, he changed his story, claiming to have been an assassin working for Bulgarian intelligence at the behest of the Russians.

Having peered behind the curtain at Langley and taken a look at the wrangling between fact and fiction within the CIA, some explanation about the state of Italian intelligence might also be useful. In December 1969, a bomb exploded in Milan's Banco dell'Agricoltura, killing 16 people. This atrocity was the beginning of a series of bombings carried out by far-right sorts connected to Italian intelligence. Coming after the strong performance of the Italian Communist Party in the 1968 elections, the bombings were part of a deliberate policy of creating a violent society on edge - Strategia della Tensione. Those carrying out the bombings sought to have their violence blamed on left-wing paramilitaries such as the Red Brigades, and so create an atmosphere in which the military could seize power and establish a dictatorship which could physically destroy the Italian left. A real conspiracy, after all.

Those implicated in the Strategy include elements of SISMI, Propaganda Due, P2 for short, (a secret society of military officers, spooks, politicians and industrialists who fancied themselves as a dictatorship-in-waiting) and various fascist paramilitaries. We still don't have a full accounting of who-killed-who during this period of recent Italian history, and only a little solid information on the Strategy of Tension. Some emerged in a 2000 parliamentary investigation carried out by the left-leaning Olive Tree coalition as well as other commissions and court cases. An investigation into the Banco dell'Agricoltura bombing by Magistrate Guido Salvini alleged CIA and NATO involvement, as William Pfaff quoted him in Jewish World Review:

"...the Americans knew in advance about this and other bombings of the period, and they actively supported a strategy of tension designed to destabilize the state and create the conditions for a military coup."

Pfaff notes that just such a coup had taken place in Greece 18 months previously, with covert US support. And Agca's own Grey Wolves in Turkey formed part of the Turkish equivalent to the Italian Strategy of Tension, killing at the behest of Turkish army officers in the hope of destabilising the country and creating the conditions for General Kenan Evren's coup of 1980 (the General was the director of Counter-Guerilla, a happy bunch of people who worked the Grey Wolves).

Daniele Glasnier and Christian Nuenlist's parallel history of NATO and the Warsaw Pact also describe an actual connection between NATO clandestine organisations and right-wing paramilitary terror in Italy:

"Italian judge Felice Casson discovered the secret NATO army in summer 1990 in Rome while researching acts of right-wing terrorism in the archives of the Italian military secret service. He concluded that in Italy there were clear links to terrorist operations. During the Cold War, the United States and Great Britain feared the strong Italian Communist Party (PCI), in alliance with the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), might weaken NATO from within. Therefore, as Judge Casson explained in a British Broadcasting Corporation documentary on Gladio, a strategy of tension was employed to weaken the political parties on the left, in Italy, and beyond. Casson added,

'That’s to say, to create tension within the country to promote conservative, reactionary social and political tendencies. While this strategy was being implemented, it was necessary to protect those behind it because evidence implicating them was being discovered. Witnesses withheld information to cover right-wing extremists.'

'According to Casson, the best documented case of this complicated and demonic strategy of tension occurred in the village Peteano in 1972 where three members of the Italian paramilitary police, the Carabinieri, had been killed by a car bomb. For many years, this terrorist attack was blamed on the Italian left-wing terror organization Red Brigades until Casson reopened the case and found right-wing terrorist Vincenzo Vinciguerra had carried out the crime."

The Strategy of Tension continued throughout the 1970s and appeared to stop shortly after the Bologna Massacre, when 85 people were killed by a bomb placed in Bologna Station in August 1980. The government initially blamed the Red Brigades, but police suspicion later fell on far-right paramilitary Ordine Nuovo. Two SISMI agents as well as P2's Licio Pelli were convicted for obstruction of justice in the course of the investigation. The Strategy of Tension was, fortunately, a failure in attempting to shut down democratic institutions in Italy, such as they were and are. But the attempt to make political capital out of the attempted killing of Pope John Paul II just a year after the Bologna Massacre could be seen as a watered-down continuation of the same tactic.

The aftermath of the Bologna Massacre, August 2nd, 1980. To this day, the hands of the clock remain at 10:25am, when the bomb detonated. A composing festival is held each year in the town's Piazza Maggiore on August 2nd.

"The Devil is Within"

On the basis of Agca's testimony, Italian authorities arrested a Bulgarian reporter, Sergei Antonov, who was accused of being the spy who masterminded the plot. After a three-year trial, Antonov was found not guilty in March 1986. Meanwhile Agca's court testimony veered in new directions, including the claim that he was in fact Jesus Christ.

This new claim was developed somewhat in 2005. Agca was released from prison in Italy, pardoned by the President at the request of a forgiving John Paul II in 2000, the Jubilee Year. He was extradited to Turkey where he was promptly jailed for the murder of Abdi Ipekci and bank robberies carried out in the 1970s. In March 2005, Agca told the Italian paper La Repubblica (link in Italian) that the conspirators had in fact been Vatican insiders who had identified Agca as the second coming of Christ and arranged for their Messiah to kill the Pope:

"Without the help of priests and cardinals I wouldn't have been able to carry out my attack. The devil is within the Vatican."

The case was complicated further with the abduction by unknown persons of 15 year-old Emanuela Orlandi, the daughter of an employee of the Vatican. Emanuela disappeared in June 1983. Among the collection of callers who contacted the police claiming to know of her whereabouts was one demanding Agca's release. After he stopped calling there was no trace of him, or Emanuela, whom he may or may not have kidnapped, ever again.

Emanuela's abduction, which probably has little or no relation to the attempted assassination of the Pope, was nonetheless woven into the story, and Agca made sinister reference to it in his Repubblica interview:

Agca: "Many calculating politicians are worried about what revealing the complete truth would do. Some of them fear that the Vatican will have a spiritual collapse like the Berlin Wall. Let me ask, why don't the CIA, the Sismi, the Sisde and other intelligence agencies reveal the truth about the Orlandi case?

Q: They say it's because there is still some uncertainty in the Emanuela Orlandi case.

Agca: In the 1980's, certain Vatican supporters believed that I was the new messiah and to free me they organized all the intrigue about Emanuela Orlandi and the other incidents they won't reveal."

He claimed in the same interview that "nobody in the world knew of my attempt."

Ferdinando Imposimato, an Italian ex-magistrate who has long pursued the Bulgarian connection claimed that Agca had told him in many private conversations over a period of four years, from 1997-2000, that he had shot the Pope as part of a Communist plot. Typically, Agca additionally claimed that the murder of a Vatican Swiss Guard in 1998, Colonel Alois Estermann was also linked to this increasingly intricate intrigue. (For your information, Estermann had been a plainclothes Swiss Guard on the scene of Agca's murder attempt who had run to protect the Pope. He was murdered by an angry subordinate 17 years later, Corporal Cedric Tornay, who then committed suicide.) Precisely who Agca was implicating in Estermann's murder was unclear, especially since the Soviet Union was now 6-years deceased.

How does Imposimato explain Agca's constantly changing stories? He argued that the Agca was visited by Bulgarian agents in prison, in Italy, who made him change his story - in 1983.

A week after the Repubblica interview, Turkish Weekly reported that Agca denied accusing Vatican insiders of conspiring to kill the Pope in the previous week:

“Although I did not personally talk with any journalist, some false news has been published in local and foreign newspapers. I ask permission to meet with European, U.S. and Turkish media to correct these misunderstandings, and to send peace and friendship messages to the Christian world."

The reasonable interpretation of this is Agca is either mentally ill with homicidal inclinations at best, or a manipulative, pathological liar and cold-blooded murderer at worst. The fact that the Bulgarian-KGB conspiracy theory has rested so heavily on his testimony tells us a lot about its likelihood.

"A Group of Nutters"

But the fantasies inspired by his actions have spread and now have a life of their own, buoyed by the loud speculation of the very right-wing in the United States and Italy. The CIA continued to investigate the Bulgarian connection for about a decade before coming to the conclusion there was no evidence for it.

As Rupert Cornwell wrote recently for the Independent: "In October 1991, a senior CIA analyst on Soviet affairs told a senate committee the agency had earlier come up with no hard evidence of Soviet involvement..." But the demands of those who believed their own propaganda were not satisfied - "...only for his superiors to alter the report's main judgement and 'stack the deck' in favour of Russian complicity. Sections of the report expressing doubts and counter-arguments were erased, and the finished project was sent to the White House and the Pentagon, avid to nail the Kremlin."

Quoted by Craig Unger in Vanity Fair, Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post agrees: "I became convinced... that the Bulgarian connection was invented by Agca with the hope of winning his release from prison... He was aided and abetted by right-wing conspiracy theorists in the United States and William Casey's Central Intelligence Agency which was a victim of its own disinformation campaign."

Should we even be slightly surprised that this same intelligence agency failed to predict the imminent collapse of the USSR itself? Or that under George Tenet just over a decade later, it would ignore the advice of its best analysts and intelligence assets, alter their conclusions, and serve the White House with the evidence on Iraq that it was looking for?

Or surprised that Senator Paolo Guzzanti of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party ran a investigation that succeeded in concluding, "beyond any reasonable doubt, that the leadership of the Soviet Union took the initiative to commit a crime of unique gravity"? The commission argues that the conspiracy was initiated not by the KGB but by Soviet military intelligence. They claim computer analysis of photographic evidence proves that Sergei Antonov was in St. Peter's Plaza at the time of the shooting and that recently released East German Stasi files provide further corroboration. Quite what they make of the key witness, Agca's claim to be Jesus isn't clear. Maybe it fits in somewhere. Along with the abduction of Emanuela Orlandi and the murder of Alois Estermann. Reuters reported Bulgarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Simitar Tsanchev complaining: "For Bulgaria, this case closed with the court decision in Rome in March 1986."

No, but we might be wearily surprised that journalists in prestigious newspapers still take seriously claims made by such ideologues and professional conduits of misinformation as Claire Sterling and Michael Ledeen. For the best part of a decade, the media in Western Europe and the USA has given credibility to a self-serving conspiracy theory, and many continue to this day to frame the issue as though the available evidence doesn't bring it down. And it's hardly the only case of the most prestigious news sources buying into spurious lines of speculation. In an e-mail interview with Michael Dobbs in which the main point of discussion were the false allegations made about Senator John Kerry's war record during the 2004 presidential campaign, a participant noted a real connection:

Clinton, Md.: How is it a group with an agenda can set the framework in which a story is reported? How does the media allow itself to be highjacked? For example, 21 years ago, a group of nutters, including the New York Times reporter, were spreading the tale that the KGB was behind the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. You, Edward Herman and an ABC 20/20 reporter were the only ones to investigate and report the truth. The same situation happened here with Swift Boat lies.

Pope John Paul II sometimes speculated about unseen actors behind the attempt on his life and appears to have made contradictory statements as he neared the end of his life. He always firmly believed that his near-death represented a clash between supernatural forces. But when he finally visited Bulgaria in May 2002 he declared to a crowd in Sofia: 'I never believed in the so-called Bulgarian connection because of my great esteem and respect for the Bulgarian people'. Not an argument by itself perhaps, but a welcome laying to rest of idle speculation.

Articles and Books used for this article:

'The Man Who Nearly Killed the Pope', Rupert Cornwell, The Independent, January 13th 2006

'America's "Strategy of Tension" in Italy', William Pfaff, Jewish World Review, March 18th, 1998 (link)

'Swiss Watchers', Thomas Smith Jr., The Guardian, April 5th, 2005 (link)

'The War They Wanted, the Lies They Needed', Craig Unger, Vanity Fair, July 2006 (link)

'Agca Denies Accusing Vatican of Complicity in Pope Shooting', Associated Press, The Journal of the Turkish Weekly (link)

'Italian Panel: Soviets Behind Pope Attack', Victor L. Simpson, Associated Press, March 2nd, 2006 (link)

Soviets 'Had Pope Shot for Backing Solidarity', Adrian Bloomfield, The Daily Telegraph, March 3rd, 2006 (link)

'Man Who Shot the Pope to be Freed', Associated Press, China Daily, January 1st, 2006 (link)

'The Veil: Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987', Bob Woodward, 1987

'Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media' (1986), Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, chapter 4: The KGB-Bulgarian Plot to Kill the Pope

'Secret Warfare - Operation Gladio and NATO's Stay-Behind Armies', edited by Daniele Ganser and Christian Nuenlist (link here and here)

Wikipedia entries on Mehmet Ali Agca, John Paul II, Emanuela Orlandi, Alois Estermann, the Strategy of Tension, the Bologna Massacre, P2 and Operation Gladio

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