Claire Sterling

Left to Center … A Reporter’s Intellectual Odyssey

VTR Date: January 25, 1984

Guest: Sterling, Claire


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Claire Sterling
Title: “Left to Center…A Reporter’s Intellectual Odyssey”
VTR: 1/25/1984

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today has for years…indeed, I hope she won’t mind if I say for decades, now…served as one of America’s most perceptive journalists abroad. Claire Sterling has reported on African, European, Middle-Eastern, and Southeast Asian affairs for a wide range of prestigious publications, and she always manages to be where the action is. Just as terrorism, for instance, began to plague the civilized world some years back, Holt, Rinehart and Winston published her masterful study of the secret war of international terrorism entitled The Terror Network. Now they’ve published The Time of the Assassins, Miss Sterling’s account of her own investigation into the plot to kill the Pope.

Claire, I’m delighted to have you here again on THE OPEN MIND, and I’d like to go to the end of the story, in a sense. I know from reading your book on the plot to assassinate the Pope that you believe the plot, if it wasn’t the gun in the Kremlin, at least it had a great deal to do with the KGB, and…


HEFFNER: …with the Kremlin.


HEFFNER: The fact also, is, that there are security people in the West who, if they believe that, have tried their hardest not to believe it publicly.


HEFFNER: And I have to ask you why, why they have avoided this connection.

STERLING: Well, it’s very difficult for me to know…I don’t know the answer. I’ve tried to find it…I swore to myself before I finished the book I would have the answer, but I didn’t. There are…you can put it in terms of political expediency. You can say that President Reagan wanted to have a summit meeting with Andropov, who at the time the Pope was shot was the head of the KGB, and then very soon after the first Bulgarian was arrested as a direct accomplice in the plot, Andropov became the leader of the Soviet Union. And of course, politicians agree that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for Reagan to sit down at a summit meeting with Andropov if…when and if such evidence becomes public knowledge. But it seems to me that the dimensions of the effort to deceive the public, mislead the public on this are such that I can’t explain it just on simple terms of political expediency. It seems to me it goes back…it’s an ongoing posture that crosses Republican/Democratic lines. We’ve seen it under Democrats and Republicans alike. This unwillingness to hold the Russians accountable for what may be called the underside of their policy, this side that is not officially stated or is not officially recognized, which has included over the period of 15 years at least, logistics for training and sanctuary for terrorist groups making us their principle target; and has included, of course, acts of violent warfare, in certain situations, such as Afghanistan, in Hungary in ’56, in Czechoslovakia in ’68. I was in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring. I wrote a book about it. I was there when the Warsaw Pact armies came in, and I saw the way our leaders and other Western leaders turned their heads, did not want to see. I don’t mean that they should have declared war. But that…I think that they were actively, acutely unhappy about developments in Prague, in the Prague Spring, just as they were about the developments in Hungary despite what they might have said publicly – because of the danger that such developments might upset the balance of power, might destabilize, if you like, the balance established in the last world war.

HEFFNER: Claire, if you’re that understanding, and you seem to be, do you think you would have acted differently, had you the responsibility that the president has?

STERLING: Yes, yes, I would. I might not have thought so fifteen years ago, but I certainly think so now because the fact that we have…I mean the establishment of our own country and other Western establishments…have consistently shielded the Soviet Union from public knowledge of its misbehavior in areas such as terrorism, for example, or assassination, attempted assassination…or in…directly in areas such as brutal military takeovers…has encouraged, I think, and emboldened Soviet leaders to go, increasing in the quality and quantity, the nature of the violence that they use against us. For example, just a couple of weeks ago President Reagan spoke…speaking of the attack of the Marines in Beirut…spoke of a new phenomenon of state-supported terrorism – a new and increasingly lethal phenomenon of state-supported terrorism – and the Pentagon Commission, a few days later, repeated that. This is something new. But, after all, Alexander Haig, who was Reagan’s first Secretary of State, at his very first press conference in January of ’81 spoke of the fact that this administration was going to give priority to the problem of international terrorism and the Soviet support for it. Well, what happened in the three years, in the time that Haig made that statement, until President Reagan’s statement a short time ago? Apart from a certain amount of lip service, nothing was done to hold the Russians accountable for their continuing logistic and other kinds of support for international terrorism. Just as in the preceding 12 or 13 years knowledge has been available to our own governments, all Western governments, about the interlocks in international terrorism and Soviet support or through surrogates…and none of these governments concerned have been willing to let the public know; And in my opinion, every time we have covered for them in that way we have in effect said, “Okay, you can get away with it. Try again.”

HEFFNER: Claire, if you believe that and if I believe that, how can we make the assumptions that people in such high positions, not only, as you suggest, in this country, but in many other Western countries, too…make that fatal error? And I know that you do believe that it is a fatal error.

STERLING: Well, you know, I also think it’s cowardice, political cowardice. It’s a whole…I hate the word “mindset”…let’s not use it…

HEFFNER: Mindset…

STERLING: …it’s a whole mindset among people of various ages, not just the ’68 generation, although it’s particularly prevalent among the ’68 generation, no longer, perhaps, quite so young…but, a generation…a generation of ’68, which was the Viet Nam generation, came to believe that all evil only emanated from the White House in Washington, and the CIA, to the exclusion of emanations of evil from any other source. But apart from that generation with that very specific kind of belief, it’s something that I think has spread among many older generations as well…the idea that the Russians simply couldn’t be as bad as we are, the self-loathing, the tremendous span of criticism of everything that is done by…whatever administrations – Republican or Democrat – especially by what has been done by the CIA, some of it justified, some of it not justified, but by now made into legend. To the point where we have the press and media, the major newspapers and media, clamoring for the public’s right to know what the CIA does. But you do NOT have them clamoring for the public’s right to know what the KGB does. And indeed, when a politician speaks about what the KGB does, he is dismissed as a McCarthyite, or a hawk, or a hard-lined right-winger, or a Jerry Falwell follower, or what have you; because even if a politician himself, if the establishment itself may know better, those who risk saying this in the kind of atmosphere that exists here politically now risk arousing the anger of a very important public opinion maker, and a generation or two generations of liberals – who call themselves liberals – who are unwilling to look at, re-examine our beliefs, look at the possible emanations of wickedness, sin from the other side. I don’t mean to pencil out anything we have done wrong, but to see that evil…that bad acts can come from both superpowers, and indeed the Soviet Union is an imperial, expansionist power capable of very bad, dirty tricks, and has been conducting a policy of very bad, dirty tricks for a considerable time.

HEFFNER: You know, I’m not unaware of the reasons, the reasons I would attribute to your inability up to this point to get the CIA to publicly say “Claire Sterling, my gosh, you’re right. You hit on the fact of this conspiracy”. Because if the President himself has referred to the Soviet Union as “the Empire of Evil”, one has to wonder, then, whether there isn’t some particularly good reason. Well, you say it’s political, and you want, not to dismiss it, but to explain it away that way; some very good reason that you, yourself would have latched onto had you had the responsibility that he does. I mean, you suggest that perhaps it would not be as easy, although we haven’t found it easy, to do…to negotiate with the Soviet Union in the midst of the publication officially of the kinds of information you have provided us with in your book on the assassination attempt on the Pope’s life. But wouldn’t you feel exactly the same way? Wouldn’t you shove it under the rug?

STERLING: Well, but that’s the argument that we’ve had for the last 15 years. When you stop shoving it under the rug?

HEFFNER: You never do.

STERLING: Maybe you never do. In which case, we have a public that is not allowed to understand that the Soviet Union, apart from its official policy, which may be détente, or not détente – I mean, in ’72 we thought they were going to stop attacking us altogether. Of course, that hasn’t happened for a single moment – or in problems of re-armament or disarmament negotiations…The public is not allowed to know that the Soviet Union uses, as an instrument of policy and diplomacy, various forms of violence directed against the West. Now, if we have not been allowed to know that up until now, as on the whole, we have not, in regard to the continuing logistic and other kinds of support given to terrorist groups operating against Western free countries…I’m not talking about other forms of violence, but in the free countries…we have not…the public has not known about that for, let’s say, since 1968, about 15 years, whereas about half of the targets of all the international terrorism in all those 15 years have been American, and the Pentagon Commission just confirmed that a couple of weeks ago. Every time the public has been denied knowledge of one specific fact that is known to the government we have seen, we can measure it, an escalation in quality and quantity, of the next attack that comes. For example, in 1979, when the Soviet Union took over Afghanistan in a military coup, the first military coup, Afghanistan was then a non-aligned, neutral country. It did not belong, under any kind of international arrangement or understanding to the Soviet orbit. Nobody had ever (???) belonged there. The Soviet Union decided that it would. It sent in its own military officers trained in the Soviet Union to take over, headed by a man called Hafizullah Amin. Four days after that takeover, a State Department spokesman…I remember reading this and falling off my chair…a spokesman for the State Department said “We have no evidence that the Soviet Union had any role in the military coup in Afghanistan”. And it’s my belief that because we thus shielded them, and did not hold them accountable for this open aggression, they felt far freer in then knocking off Hafizullah Amin in two hit teams, one of which killed him and the other was trying to poison his soup…and then move their army in. And then it became a regular occupation army. I think there’s a direct relation between the escalation of the use of force to take and hold Afghanistan to the fact that when the first move was made we did nothing and said nothing to hold them accountable. Now, I don’t mean by that that we should stop negotiating. Of course negotiating is difficult. But does it make it easier to negotiate disarmament and détente if we continue to pretend that the Soviet does NOT do things it does do? They don’t behave any better because we shield them.

HEFFNER: Claire, do you think the answer could be to that question “Yes, it makes it easier if there is not a public in this country, not a public opinion that has been roused not by Claire Sterling’s books, but by official government statements of the involvement of the Soviet Union, perhaps, in the plot to assassinate the Pope or in other terrorist activities.” Does it indeed make it easier?

STERLING: For who?

HEFFNER: For the President of the United States, for the State Department, for our officialdom to continue to negotiate. It makes it easier if it does not rile up public opinion. You…

STERLING: Well, yes…right. Well, the problem there is lining up public opinion. That’s the operative phrase. If you have a period of several years in which these things are going on and the public is not allowed to know it, and then suddenly something comes out that cannot be suppressed…then the public is certainly going to overact, and it will be considerably more difficult to negotiate. What I’m arguing for is not a propaganda onslaught on the public, but continuing education of the public so it understands the interlocking. For example, in the question on the attack on the Pope, we are now, in a matter of weeks, going to have the ruling of the State Prosecutor in Rome who now has before him thousands of pages of evidence gathered by the investigating magistrate over a period of two years – which involves, among other things, one Bulgarian who has been under arrest since November 1982, as a direct accomplice of the Turkish gunman, and orders of arrest warrants for two other Bulgarians who had been in the embassy in Rome and who got back to Sofia before the judge ordered their arrest. Now, the State Prosecutor is examining this evidence. He is, without question, going to rule sometime early in February, recommend going to trial. Antonov, Sergei Antonov, the Bulgarian under arrest, will be ordered to go to trial. And then, within a month of that, the investigating magistrate will make the final recommendation for trial, and there will be a public report with a thousand or more pages of evidence. Now when that comes out, I don’t know what all the evidence is going to be, but I certainly know what some of it will be, and it’s going to say that these Bulgarians were directly responsible for running the hit and of directing the conspiracy. Now since the public has not been allowed to prepare itself for this in all the time we have had since the Pope was shot in May, 1981, there is certainly a danger of overreaction.

HEFFNER: But Claire, it hasn’t only been officialdom that has not come to the public statements that you would like it to come to. But you point out in your book, as you point out in your book on terrorism, that the press itself…


HEFFNER: …has not helped familiarize the American people with these facts, as you state them. The tree falls in the forest, nobody’s going to know about it…comparatively speaking…that’s hyperbole, I admit…but if and when the statements you prophesize are made, how will Americans be terribly much aware of the import of these statements if indeed, as you have suggested, the press does not give enough attention, give enough space to these events?

STERLING: That’s a very big question. Because in this case, for example, the judge’s report will be in Italian, will be a thousand pages long. I don’t know how many reporters can read Italian, apart from the Italians themselves, how many will care to waste the time, or even be in a position to make sense of the very complicated and intricate set of gathering of evidence unless they follow the case closely. And it’s very possible that the whole thing will be fudged over. Now, is this…does this make us safer or less safe? Is this good or bad for the security of the United States?

HEFFNER: What is…

STERLING: Is it good or bad for those who have to negotiate disarmament and co-existence with the Russians?

HEFFNER: As a journalist, what do you believe it tells us about the press?

STERLING: Well, I think it says very bad things, I’m sorry to say, about the press.

HEFFNER: What things?

STERLING: I think, first of all, there is an increasing…there are increasing signs over the years of resistance to going out and checking on a story; a willingness to accept what amounts to handouts, without the kind of serious, careful cross-checking that used to be the absolute rule.


STERLING: Yes, but…

HEFFNER: …investigative reporting…

STERLING: …the kind of investigative reporting…a district attorney on the take or some kind of corruption involving a politician and some banks, or laundered money…these are the kind of questions that are easy to investigate because they may have political overtones in the sense of knocking a politician out, or even knocking out a president of the United States; but when we’re talking about international relations and co-existence with the other superpower, we’re facing a much more serious problem of destabilization; and here there’s a mixture, I think, of indifference, of a lack of historical knowledge, of a lack of historical memory on the part of reporters, who don’t recall other things that have happened five or ten years ago, fifteen years ago which would make a pattern, which perhaps if they saw would send a message to them and be more alarming. So, an unwillingness to go against the political tide, and the political tide is not one that favors this kind of open confrontation. Now this makes me sound as if I favor a war-like confrontation, which I certainly do not. But I believe that if reporters don’t do their job; of course, it’s understandable in this case if they go to their usual sources in the U.S. Intelligence community, the CIA for instance, and are told there is no Bulgarian connection, well, why shouldn’t they believe that when the CIA is so notorious as the most anti-Soviet intelligence service in the world? And that…I can understand how any Washington reporter going to his most reliable intelligence source and being told this would be more inclined to credit what he’s told then the tiny bit he may read in some newspaper and a few reporters like me (laughter) beating my drum. However, I think that apart from that, this unwillingness to report, and check and dig, and report this kind of reality exposes us to further danger and does not make it easier to negotiate. I really don’t agree that it does.

HEFFNER: I’m very much aware of the fact that you don’t talk about this information here, nor do you see…conspiracy, may be too strong a word…nor do…you’re not attacking the press. You’re saying it’s lazy; it’s not doing its job. You see nothing else?

STERLING: Well, I do see, in certain parts of the press, an unwillingness to accept one side…I see two standards, two standards for evaluating news, hard news and background analysis news. One is, is this tough on the CIA? And if it is, we’re going to go all out; and one, is it tough on the KGB? And if it is, we’re going to pull back.

HEFFNER: Who would feel that way?

STERLING: Oh, a lot of people feel that way in the big newspapers and in the media…

HEFFNER: Sympathetic to the KGB?

STERLING: Well, it’s not that they’re sympathetic so much to the KGB as they’re antipathetic to the CIA. And, for example, I was told when I wrote this first article for the Reader’s Digest, from which I then developed and spoke about the assass…attempted assassination of the Pope; a congressman called me up and said, “If only you had said the CIA was behind it. You’d be making front page headlines all over the country”. And it’s true. Obviously! Just think of it for a minute. Obviously it would be true. The press would leap on this, just as I have seen the press, my colleagues, leap on every tiny pseudo piece of news on the Pope’s case, and feature it. I’ll give you one example which I think is very cogent, and to me very shocking: Just before Christmas, on December 21st, Judge Martella, the investigating judge in Italy transferred the Bulgarian from prison to house arrest. Now, on that occasion…this was the fourth time that the Bulgarian’s lawyers had appealed to the courts for Antonov’s release on the grounds of insufficient evidence to hold him. And this was the fourth time that Judge Martella, along with other judges in the case, ruled, said, specifically, “We cannot concede provisional liberty to Antonov because of the gravity of the charges against him”. On the same morning that he said that, it was reported in the state news agency, ANSA in Italy, an American wire service sent out four leads saying Antonov has been given provisional liberty, the exact opposite of what the judge had said officially to the state news agency in Italy. The impression was left in the United States that Antonov had been freed. Although at the bottom of this article it said that he did concede that he had been put under house arrest but that was taken to mean a halfway house to freedom…the Bulgarian connection had collapsed, that the hit man had not credibility; his confession was not worth anything, and so on. Yet nobody reported here, not one newspaper…the New York Times published a two-paragraph thing at the back of the A-Section, at the end of this story. Nobody reported at all that the day that Antonov was transferred to house arrest the state prosecutor in Italy, presently examining all the evidence to make his recommendation on trial, appealed to an emergency tribunal of liberty in Italy to send Antonov directly back to prison because, he said, of the danger that under house arrest he might either escape or be murdered. And last January 13th, the Tribunal of Liberty, having reviewed all the evidence, indeed ruled that Antonov had to go back to prison because of the gravity of the evidence against him.

Now, the American public knows nothing of this. And here, I simply cannot explain to you…I cannot understand how my own colleagues could have been there, seen that, seen the Italian reports and not…and failed to report them to the American public.

HEFFNER: What I don’t understand is when you say you don’t understand. We all have theses, hypotheses…ineptitude? Is that satisfactory?

STERLING: Not enough.

HEFFNER: Okay, then what next?

STERLING: Political cowardice?

HEFFNER: As with the administration, or any administration that you suggested.

STERLING: Lack of historical memory.

HEFFNER: You’re talking about very smart people.

STERLING: …people looking at facts and refusing to see them.

HEFFNER: Because they don’t fit the picture…


HEFFNER: …that you suggested in the world…


HEFFNER: Claire, we just have a couple of minutes left. This question of terrorism, which has so occupied us in previous discussions here…What is the likelihood…it’s a question I’ve asked you before on other programs…that we will feel the full brunt of terrorism in the United States? You said once if the economy is very bad. We went through a bad time and terrorism didn’t mount that radically.


HEFFNER: You also said that if we become involved in another Viet Nam situation. Do you think our Latin American, our Central American, and our Lebanese involvements qualify for the kind of ventures overseas that might lead eventually to terrorism here?

STERLING: Well, I think that the situation in Lebanon might indeed lead to terrorism here, although it is absolutely not a Viet Nam situation. We were invited into Lebanon under very special circumstances by various Lebanese forces, and it’s not the Lebanese who are trying to throw us out. It’s the Syrians and the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranians for reasons of imperial expansion on both sides…this is really nothing to do with the Palestinian resistance…or we are certainly not an occupation force and we are not fighting against the will of the people in Lebanon or the parallel that is already being drawn; it is a totally false parallel. Nevertheless it is the kind of situation that is already generating very dangerous levels of terrorist attacks which I think are likely to escalate precisely because there are two states here that are bound and determined to get us out of there so they can annex Lebanon and spread fundamentalist Moslem and Mohammedism.

The situation is far more delicate and difficult in Central America, where politically the problem is far less easy to define…and where nevertheless we have not sent the kind of response that seems to generate terrorist attacks, so…

HEFFNER: If I remember correctly, you feel there has to be an incredible amount of disaffection in our own country…


HEFFNER: …before terrorism really can take root.

STERLING: Yes, I feel that…well, I should amend that now because of a new development. I always felt that a terrorist group may be very small, or the action group, the cadres who actually do the shooting, the explosives or whatever…but they have to have a strong degree of civil protection from a layer of society that feels they’re right. Maybe their tactics are mistaken, but they’re right. Or from people who agree with them and are just covering for them, doing the Boy Scout job of getting the false plates for the cars and telling them when the cops are coming and so on. But we now have a new aspect of the problem, which is the suicide squads.

HEFFNER: That’s the point at which I am going to say stick around the table. We’ll do another program because our time’s up here, and we’ll talk about the suicide squads.


HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me today, Claire Sterling. Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you too will join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

This is Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We would like to know your ideas and your opinions on the subject we discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of THE OPEN MIND at this station.