Obituary: Claire Sterling

Wolfgang Achtner
Monday 26 June 1995 00:02

Claire Neikind, writer and journalist: born New York 21 October 1919; married Thomas Sterling (one son, one daughter); died Arezzo, Italy 17 June 1995.

The American journalist Claire Sterling played a leading role in creating the ''Bulgarian Connection'' theory, one of the most successful cases - certainly the most publicised - of disinformation carried out by a Western intelligence agency since the Second World War. The theory maintained that the Soviet Union was behind the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981, helped by the Bulgarian Secret Service who had hired the Turkish gunman, Mehet Ali Agca. The motive was to kill the Pope on account of his support of Solidarity - the new independent trade union in Poland.

Claire Sterling, a self-proclaimed terrorism expert, was one of three journalists responsible for fabricating and divulging the details of the theory. The others were Paul Henze, a propaganda expert and former CIA station chief in Turkey, and Michael Leeden, associated with the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, a right-wing think tank; and Leeden had strong connections with a faction of the Italian secret service (SISMI) linked to the P2 secret masonic lodge, which first revealed the phoney proposed attack on the Pope by the Soviet Minister of Defence Marshal Ustinov.

The three journalists wrote articles and appeared on television and Sterling and Henze's books, respectively Pontiff in Danger: the time of the assassins and The Plot to Kill the Pope (both published in 1983), were enthusiastically reviewed.

Individually, or as a team, the two were repeatedly invited as guests on to the three principal American networks and programmes on British television. They insisted that no expert who supported a contrasting view be interviewed with them on the same programme and, in most cases, the producers obliged.

In effect, the Sterling-Henze duo was almost able to monopolise coverage of the story. In the American media, for a certain time, it became almost impossible to express a different view. and anyone who did was considered "unpatriotic" at best.

And yet, the "Bulgarian Connection" theory was flawed, particularly as far as the motive was concerned. At the time the plot was allegedly conceived in July 1980 Solidarity did not even exist. Even one month later, on 31 August, the day the Gdansk agreements were signed, no one, Lech Walesa, the Pope, or anyone else, could have predicted the course events were to take over the coming months.

The trial of the five Turks and the three Bulgarians who were accused of having plotted to kill Pope John Paul II with Ali Agca opened in Rome on 27 May 1985. After 10 months, during which 14,000 pages of testimony were gathered, the prosecution was unable to prove the existence of a "Bulgarian Connection" in the attack against the Pope and all the defendants were acquitted.

The Italian court's verdict and the acquittal of all the defendants was something of an anticlimax, and was treated by the Western media almost with indifference.

Little did it matter. The organisers of the massive propaganda campaign had been extremely successful. In 1982 the new ''Red Scare'' proved extremely useful, as, under Ronald Reagan's administration, the US was involved in a massive re-armament programme and the Bulgarian Connection served effectively to counter the pacifist movement and the Allies were persuaded to accept the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles.

Claire Sterling arrived in Italy, in 1951, while on her honeymoon with her husband, the novelist Thomas Sterling, and decided to stay. For decades she lived in Rome.

After graduating from Columbia University, New York, she had started working as a journalist for the monthly magazine the Reporter. As a correspondent based in Rome, she contributed to many important American publications, including the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Atlantic Monthly and Reader's Digest.

Sterling achieved a certain notoriety after she published The Terror Network (1981), a book which purported to demonstrate that the Kremlin was behind a world-wide terror offensive. It was translated into 22 languages and used by the FBI in training agents.

In a review of The Terror Network in the New Republic, Conor Cruise O'Brien observed that Sterling "consistently assumes that anything she is told by her Western intelligence sources must be true. Her copious but naive footnotes often refer to unnamed intelligence sources, whose veracity she simply takes for granted."

Other critics flatly dismissed this work as "Cold War propaganda" of which Sterling was a willing conduit.

Sterling's other works include Mafia: the long reach of the international Sicilian Mafia (1990) and Crime Without Frontiers (1994), a book about the Russian Mafia and its international partners in crime. In typical fashion, at the time she started research for her first book on the Mafia, she didn't know anything about the subject and hadn't even been to Sicily. Various journalists did give her credit, however, for having done an enormous amount of research and hard work even though the book was not considered to be one of the best on the subject.

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