Claire Sterling

The Plot to Kill the Pope

VTR Date: January 25, 1984

Guest: Sterling, Claire


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Claire Sterling
Title: “The Plot to Kill the Pope”
VTR: 1/25/1984

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Today’s program is a continuation of an earlier discussion with Claire Sterling, one of America’s most receptive journalists abroad. Her books, published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston have all been of a piece; for instance, The Terror Network, the study of the secret war of international terrorism; And now, The Time of the Assassins, her account of the investigation into the plot to kill the Pope.

Claire, thank you for staying with me to do this second program now. We ended the other program right on the note that I was asking you about the possibility that terrorism might find its way, on a large scale, into this country. And you said there was a new wrinkle to terrorism, and you were talking about the suicide groups. I wondered if you would continue.

STERLING: Yes. All terrorists, of course, by becoming parts of terrorist movements, terrorist bands, accept the idea of death as something built in, built in hazard to what they’re doing. But what we’ve seen with this Shiite sect, this Moslem sect, which has been attacking us in the Middle East, is something more than that. This sect rejoiced in death. It doesn’t just accept it, it welcomes it. These people have the deep religious belief that if they kill in a jihad, or holy war, they will go straight to a very special kind of paradise. And people who have this kind of exalted belief, I think, are very easily maneuvered and manipulated. And certainly in the case of this Shiite sect now, as 900 years ago when its first forbear founded the first assassins’ group called the Hashishi in Iran, in what was then ancient Persia; this group is certainly being used for purposes of state power.

HEFFNER: You say “used for purposes of state power”. Are you referring only to Khomeini, or are you talking about…

STERLING: Well, most directly, most directly to Khomeini, and the other Ayatollahs around him who have been committed from…long before they came to power; although the West refused to recognize what they were saying, what Khomeini himself has said. They’re committed to the fundamentalist Islamic world, which goes back many centuries, which rejects anything that has to do with modern times, not just Christianity; and which is very ambitious imperially. The Ayatollah Khomeini has made no secret of his desire to absorb and for greater Islam, fundamentalist Islam, the out buying of areas, the areas especially where he has Shiite followers to count on; in Turkey, in Iraq and in Syria itself. And in fact, its own followers in Syria are…the great enemies of us are…happens not to be a Shiite, to represent a smaller sect in Syria, a minority for the population in Syria. So in the long run the two are at odds. But at the moment the two are very much joined in their interest, because Assad, too, as the head of Syria, is making use of these Shiite sects, death squads, suicide squads, who lend themselves very well to going into where other terrorist groups might not care to penetrate; So that he can get out the multinational force, especially in the United States, leaving Lebanon unshielded, and that’s part of it. That’s long been his purpose.

HEFFNER: Claire, in the past, when you’ve been on THE OPEN MIND a couple of years ago, and before that, we’ve talked about terrorism, international terrorism. You were very specific about your belief that it had, to some considerable extent, its origin, as far as we were concerned, as far as the West was concerned, was in the Kremlin with the KGB. Is there any of that, as you are concerned about terrorism, in relation to Iran perhaps?

STERLING: Well, we don’t know exactly what the relations are between the Soviet secret agents who have been found in great numbers in Tehran since the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and the practices of Khomeini’s regime, the regime itself, in sending these terrorist suicide squads against us in the Middle East. I would be inclined to believe that there was a greater, more direct relationship with the Syrians; that is, the Russians have had a few setbacks in their relations with Khomeini in the last year or so, whereas their relations with Syria are very close indeed. I think in general we have to…if the Syrian intelligence is telling…showing these Shiite grouplets…tiny cells how to use this very sophisticated explosive, how to train…how to do the surveillance, the intelligence gathering necessary for this kind of operation. We have to remember that Syrian intelligence is really very closely related to Soviet intelligence. Soviet intelligence has been operating in Damascus, its center for operations in the Middle Eastern area…operations within the Palestine resistance movement…and of all of the countries bordering on Israel, and in its relations, also, through the Palestinians in Syria, was the terrorists in Western Europe; the terrorists operating in all of the free countries and has been going on now for fifteen years. Damascus is where the Soviet center is for KGB activities, destabilizing activities in the area. And so, it’s naturally to be suspected that at least they would know what was going on and would not be stopping it (laughter), to be kind. How much more of an interest do they have in getting us out? Certainly they have an interest in getting us out. The Russians would certainly like to see the international force withdrawn, which would make it much easier to get them back into the game, because of the chaos that would ensue necessarily.

HEFFNER: Claire, when you began your professional career…what was your fix? What was your attitude toward the Soviet Union? Has it changed?

STERLING: Well, yes, my fix when I started…I had been in the Young Communist League for a couple of years when I was in college, and then I remained in it another year or so as a labor organizer for a left-wing CIO union. And although I broke with them very sharply, particularly after I had seen the communist practices inside the labor movement, and how they were abusing and manipulating the union for their own party purposes, rather than for the welfare of the workers; even for many years of working with the Communist Party I was incapable of taking a truly severe position of criticism against the Soviet Union. To me the great enemy was fascism. It started to be fascism in the Spanish Civil War. It continued to be Nazism with Hitler, with Mussolini, and I always…whereas the Soviet Union, for better or for worse…I was full of criticism for what I was beginning to learn about the Stalin purges, and the trials, the Moscow trials, and the camps, and all the drawbacks of the Socialist state. But I still, for many years began to think “Well this is a Socialist state…the first Socialist state”. It took me many years to be able to say out loud, even after I began to think it, that the Soviet Union is an imperialistic, expansionist power. And this is state socialism, which has nothing to do with the kind of socialism I learned to feel for when I…when I was young. And indeed, it is very destructive of working class interests, rather than improving the lot of the workers, either in terms of equality or even in terms of simple welfare and well being. It took…to this day, in fact,
my husband…because he’s not really a political man, he just has very good antennae about political…about political intuition; Even today when I say with astonishment, but of course, this is a fascist thing they’re doing…in some situations he says “You’re still afraid of saying that”. And it’s true that I say it…and I…my reluctance now is not because I no longer can believe it, but because I know that if I say it publicly I will be accused of being a McCarthyite or right-wing whatever, or a hawk…but being pushed out of an acceptable arena of political thinking that I lose effectiveness. So I, even now, have to hold back.

HEFFNER: What did enable you, though, not to hold back that much, as others still do?
STERLING: Well, you know, I’ve done reports…political reporting…in about fifty countries these last thirty years. Spain was one of the places, because for one thing, I began to learn in Spain about the role of the Communist Party in the Civil War. It would have been inconceivable to me not to support the Loyalist side in the Civil War, but it’s only in the last few years, really, that I have learned for myself as a reporter…because I have covered Spain consistently for The Reporter magazine over the years, and I did a long piece for the New York Sunday Times just as Franco was dying, and I’ve been back since then…and I learned, for example, that Santiago Carrillo, who emerged as the great hero of Euro-Communism after the death of Franco, I mean, somebody who became very respectable in the West as a leader of a Euro-Communist communist party…but as a youth leader of the Communist Party during the Spanish Civil War, he had been one of the people responsible for the kidnapping and murder of Panini, the anarchist leader. And of course, reading “Homage to Catalonia”, George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” had caused me to look for myself to see…to learn more about the record of the Italian communists, for example, in the Spanish Civil War. They were executioners, really, of other forces which could prevent them from becoming the dominant force on the loyalist side. And eventually, of course, they did become the dominant side. Not by force of political persuasion, but sheer force: threats, executions, intimidation, and so on. This…I would not have been willing to look at that the first few times I went to Spain. I would have not have been willing to listen to anybody who told me it was true. But by the time I went back often enough and made my own friends and learned more and more about the history of the Civil War in Spain, I knew that that was…that that’s how it was. It doesn’t excuse what the Fascists did, nor could I ever bring myself to support the Fascists; but the fact remains I would…that today, if I had to face that situation I would be in a terrible, tragic quandary because I would know so much more about what the Communists were doing to what would be my side, the Loyalist side.

In the same way, in other situations I have been to Europe…I was in Czechoslovakia, for example, during the Prague Spring. And there I moved among…I was there for months. I was preparing a book, and I spend a good deal of time, and I moved among the intellectuals who were so exalted, so unbelievably happy, so self-deceiving in their pathetic belief that they could get their way with it. And I wanted to believe it too, but already by 1968 I really didn’t believe that Socialism with a human face, as the Czech people called it, could be allowed to flourish. And I was painfully confirmed, of course, when the Warsaw pact armies marched in in August, August 21st of 1968. But there, what I saw was this was not the working class that made this revolution of Socialism for the Human Face; it was the intellectuals in the Communist Party. They were communist intellectuals who still wanted to believe that the Communist Regime could be transformed and humanized so that you could preserve a system of social and economic equality if you like, while re-capturing the political freedom of the former Democratic Republic. The working class had been so corrupted in Czechoslovakia by then from 20 years of Communist rule from the takeover of ’48; that they hung back until well after the Soviet invasion. They were not supporting the Prague Spring. They were…they had settled for a poor day’s work…a lousy day’s work for a lousy day’s pay, really. They were reduced to the minimum level of existence, and producing a minimum for the Socialist…what was called a socialist state. And when they wanted some kind of consumer goods like a television set, they’d steal it. If they wanted…or they would systematically steal spare parts from the factory and sell them — there was an open market thriving on this kind of thing – so that they could acquire some clothes for their wives, or a week’s visit to Vienna where they could go on a shopping spree.

HEFFNER: You were explaining the attitudes, though, of people overseas. And I…I’d like to focus more at home, here. I know you’ve been overseas a long, long time. And you’re suggesting it was your familiarity with what was happening to international communism that enabled you to break away…

HEFFNER: …from your former naiveté or innocence. Naiveté or innocence…are those the right words?

STERLING: Ingenuousness…well, no…no…culted belief…

HEFFNER: What do you mean? That’s more positive or negatively positive…

STERLING: Or negatively positive…that is, a culted belief is a set of beliefs that you invest in emotionally and you believe you have to defend, because you do have this investment in them. I mean…I’m not explaining it terribly well, but what I mean is that you become committed to a set of ideas so strongly that you have given of yourself to these ideas to the point where you can’t afford to allow them to be contradicted. It’s too difficult, it’s too painful.

HEFFNER: What though, did differentiate between those who allowed themselves to learn what the facts of life were, and those who did not? You remember…remember…no, it must have been the fifties, not the forties, when there…much was being made of those who changed their minds…and there were those who said, “Look, every intellectual was involved in the Communist movement back in the thirties”, before…perhaps before the Stalin/Hitler pact. And there were those like Elmer Davis who said, “Nonsense! We weren’t all involved…” What’s the line you can draw, if you can, between innocence, whose belief is positive identification with communism with those who never really got involved? They were intellectuals, too.

STERLING: Well, yes, it’s hard to know where the line could be drawn when one looks, for example, at the political scene. Look at President Truman, a democratic president, who was the author of the Truman Doctrine, which was the major…the first major doctrine introduced after the war to stop Soviet expansion, militarily if necessary…it’s a military understanding with Turkey and Greece. It was understood, that was a democratic president. Today I would like to find a democratic president who dared to say that he thinks it’s necessary. Politically it would be very dangerous for him with his constituency. Now where did that change come? Where did that line get crossed? I don’t know. I was out of America in those years, but I think…

HEFFNER: You’re talking about crossing it the other way.

STERLING: You mean that…

HEFFNER: So I was really addressing myself to the question of those who were deeply, profoundly sympathetic to communism.

STERLING: Then they…

HEFFNER: They moved.

STERLING: Then they turned and moved. They moved after the purchase…after the…

HEFFNER: I’m wondering why…how do you account for those, with great liberal sentiments, were pro-labor, but who never got involved with the Communist Movement at all? What was the dividing line between those who did and those who didn’t?

STERLING: I don’t know. Perhaps…perhaps they had a more…a pure sense of personal liberty and were watching out for it more carefully than others. Some of us got so diddled with the idea that social equality equates liberty and them becomes superior to political, personal liberty. I accepted that for some years because I had a sense of guilt, because I came from the middle class; I wasn’t a worker, and I thought, well, I must believe that workers would be better off if they had more buying capability, they had higher material living standards; even if that means sacrificing personal liberty. Of course, I have long since believed that that is a terrible trap, a tragic trap for workers, as well as me, and I don’t have the same sense of guilt. But many people did have it. And perhaps those who refused to be fooled, deceived, were those who felt deeper inside themselves; who valued…put personal liberty first and valued it and were willing to defend that value against all others, come what may, long before others could see it.

HEFFNER: Do you think it was an emotional rather than an intellectual guard against that naiveté?

STERLING: Yes, I think a good deal of it was emotional. Yes. Intellectually, of course, the other argument is there was a great deal more political education available to whoever wanted to have it. In those days during the war, and directly after the war it was possible to know a good deal more about current events, I think, before the advent of television. And here…

HEFFNER: Say that again?

STERLING: All right. Before the advent of television…


STERLING: …it was possible for anybody who wanted to know what was happening in the world to know more.

HEFFNER: Because there was less to know?

STERLING: No. Because they had to read a newspaper or a magazine…


STERLING: …to know it. And with the advent of television we have come more and more to the instant encapsulated news formula, which is theater. And if it can’t be filmed it isn’t news…and the background gets lost and history, then, disappears; memory goes with it. And therefore, those who might start out with all the best instincts in the world…their instincts aren’t fed by what is actually happening…the news of what is happening in the world. They don’t know. They don’t know. In this tour that I’m making now for my book across America, I find many Americans curious to know, open-minded, fully interested in what I’m talking about, but really, tragically ignorant about facts that happened maybe five years ago, ten years ago. And I find it difficult to blame them because watching…they’re all very busy people, they play a lot of games when they finish their work…they all have these electronic things and they watch television for hours. In the middle of all this television, what do they learn about what is happening in the world, apart from a program like yours, so rare? They get the nightly news in which they get a minute and a half. I remember a minute and a half on the revolution in Iran. I was here when Khomeini took over, and it was doing a minute and a half to two minutes…is what it got on the nightly news. The attack on our marines in Beirut…I watched four days running. I was in the States. I watched every major newscast, and four days running…I didn’t get one explanation of what our forces were doing there; when they got there, who asked them to come in, leaving the public with the impression that they were an occupation force, that people were against. This is…I’m just using as contemporary arguments for a long ongoing process, which has all happened since I left America and lived overseas as a correspondent, really, in the early fifties…in which the public become increasingly dis-educated in its opportunity for really learning and understanding what is happening abroad. It’s increasingly limited.

HEFFNER: Then we must run for the hills. Because what you’re describing…

STERLING: That’s my temptation. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: To run for the hills.

STERLING: To run for the hills. But I know I mustn’t give in, but it’s the temptation.

HEFFNER: You know, I remember sitting at this table, oh, many, many, many years ago, with the late Margaret Mead and saying, “You know they can no longer pull the wool over our eyes”, because there’s that beady red eye of television. It sees everything. It brings everything to the American people. We are ipso facto better educated. I thought she was wrong. And you’re saying now, in a sense, that we are much less well educated…

STERLING: Oh, yes. Yes, yes.

HEFFNER: You don’t think so. As you tour the country, you say you’re concerned at how little we know. You say we’re not historically inclined, or minded enough. You say that, too, about the press. They don’t have enough of a sense of history, or of knowledge.


HEFFNER: Do you find that people believe that they know more then, because television tells them that “this is the way it is, or was, today”?

STERLING: Well, I think that…I find a lot of people think…assume that they probably know enough.


STERLING: And they’re very busy with a lot of other things. They all have acquired this taste for electronic play or for games or for sport…all kinds of entertainment industry devices…consumerism pushed to enormous lengths…you could hardly separate the news from a Statue of Liberty that flashes on and off to sell breakfast cereal or something. It’s not fair to say that the public doesn’t care, because I do find, from call-in radio programs from the smallest towns in the Mid-West or the Southwest or from Texas, I find people asking questions showing that they would like to know more; showing a sense of frustration that they can’t learn more. They don’t know where to turn to learn more.

HEFFNER: I don’t know whether you wear a trench coat, but you are our foreign correspondent extraordinary. So I would ask you whether you find the level of personal information about the world on the level of personal enlightenment greater in other parts of the world than here.

STERLING: Oh, yes, much greater. But of course, I find it much greater in Europe because people live with it all the time. They live with these problems all the time…closer…

HEFFNER: Don’t we?



STERLING: We didn’t realize even when our hostages were held for over a year in Tehran we didn’t realize this was terrorism, and this was part of an international power, and it was state-supported terrorism; and that apart from the people who were…who had actually seized our hostages and were holding them, there were others who were teaching them how to handle public relations, which they did in a masterful way; or groups from the PLO who minded the compound so that we couldn’t effect a rescue operation; that we were being left alone to handle this as if it were an American problem, when it was a problem for every free country in the world. To this day people don’t realize that. Yet, I think that those who were close to…who live with problems like these, who have lived with tremendous problems of Russian pressure towards Finlandization, as we call it in Europe; without necessarily firing a gun being able to conquer or dominate the will of countries in Western Europe, which to me, is the most frightening part of the problem we face in Europe today, in the free world today. These people living closer to it, involved in every day, I think have a livelier awareness and more knowledge…more knowledge. I should add, when you asked me about…do I think the Americans generally realized, cared about what they didn’t know, that I’ve also found increasingly…I did a tour for my last book in the Spring of ’81…we’re now almost in the Spring of ’84…I find an increasing indifference…

HEFFNER: Increasing indifference…

STERLING: Increasing indifference to every kind of foreign news. Who cares? I mean, people are…I find…the degree of material absorption…the material objects, acquisition, consumerism…this is all so banal…but it does fit in what we’re talking about.

HEFFNER: (???) too, perhaps?

STERLING: They don’t want to be bothered. They don’t want to be told unpleasant things. They want to be left alone to amuse themselves in such a way…they’re really not as much fun as they used to be, it seems to me, but I’m getting older…

HEFFNER: If that’s the case, Claire, then perhaps we can better understand when we talking on our last program about the administration’s…almost any administration’s unwillingness to get Americans to face up to Soviet involvement in international terrorism.


HEFFNER: We can understand what you consider the political unwillingness to risk riling up an American people that just doesn’t want to know about it.

STERLING: That’s right. You can understand it, but I feel in the end it’s extremely dangerous to our own security, because if one coddles the other in this way; if the people…the public says, “All right, we’re not being told about this and it doesn’t really matter, and maybe they have their reasons and besides, we’re busy”. And if the administration says, “We’re not going to tell the people because we don’t want them to get riled up. We have other things we want to negotiate”, and so on…the one feeds on the other and increasingly the dis-education takes hold. But this does not in any way stop what is being done on the other side by the Soviet Union. The point being, for example, that if it is true, as I believe it to be, that the Soviet leaders plan to assassinate Pope John Paul, this means that assassination is used by them as an instrument of politics and diplomacy. It cannot, therefore, be limited to the person of the Pope. It means that in other circumstances, any other Western leader who can not be handled in some other way risks the same kind of assassination plot. Now if this is the case, we really should be re-examining our relations with the Russians, how to deal with this problem. I don’t mean not to deal with it, but I mean dealing with it over a bargaining table, to make it part of a package of our negotiations. I’ve said this before, and it becomes increasingly important. But if we refuse to talk about it, if the public is not allowed to know about it, and is allowed to indulge itself in everything but what’s happening in the world around us, then we have to face the fact that this is going to escalate. It’s just bound to.

HEFFNER: Claire, move over. I’m going to run to the hills with you.

STERLING: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thanks so much for joining me today. Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that 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 about the subject we discussed. Please send your comments to me in care of this station.