The Soviet Attack on Archbishop Marcinkus
By Tomasz Pompowski
During the cold war, the Soviet Union pursued its strategic goals using overt and covert measures. One of the most effective tools from the latter was dezinformatsia (disinformation). Richard Schultz and Roy Godson, experts in intelligence studies, described Soviet disinformation in their eponymous book:
Covert disinformation is a non-attributed or falsely attributed communication, written or oral, containing intentionally false, incomplete, or misleading information (frequently combined with true information), which seeks to deceive, misinform, and/or mislead the target.
The object of such action was often a foreign mass audience. The goal was to lead them to believe the veracity of the message and then act in accordance with the interests of the state that originated the disinformation.
One obvious example was Operation GLADIO, launched in 1976 to defame the Central Intelligence Agency in particular and President Ronald Reagan's administration in general. It markedly increased the level of anti-Americanism in Western Europe. Fortunately, Western experts helped to decode this lie.
Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin described another infamous episode in his memoir Spymaster. As an intelligence operative at the Soviet UN mission in New York, he participated in disseminating lies about the 1961 crash of the plane carrying UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Kalugin wrote:
I and my fellow officers did everything we could to fuel rumors that the CIA was behind it. I reported the rumors on Radio Moscow, saying that sources believed the CIA wanted Hammarskjöld out of the way because he was promoting too much freedom for black African countries.
Kalugin also revealed that to show America was inhospitable to Jews, he and his colleagues from the Soviet embassy sent anti-Semitic letters to Jewish leaders. They also paid Soviet agents in the United States to paint swastikas on synagogues and to desecrate Jewish cemeteries. The objective was to portray America as a racist country and increase the level of anti-Americanism.
Although much is known about Soviet-era dezinformatsia, probably just as many false stories remain undetected. One of them is the defamation of the Vatican Bank president Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus. Pope John Paul II repeatedly stated the Marcinkus was one of his most faithful priests during a very difficult time. However, that opinion, which is almost never quoted, was and is not the prevailing description. Instead, Archbishop Marcinkus was frequently depicted in the media as a villain, liar, and thief.
Paul Marcinkus was born January 15, 1922 to a family of Lithuanian immigrants in Cicero, Illinois. His father Michael, who worked as a window-washer, was a strong anti-Communist. Little is known about Paul’s childhood. In 1947, he graduated from the University of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein and was ordained a priest. He later earned doctorates in canon law and theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
After being elevated to a bishop, Marcinkus served in the Vatican diplomatic service from 1955 until 1971, when Pope Paul VI named him president of the Institute of Religious Work, aka the Vatican Bank. Archbishop Marcinkus faithfully served Paul VI’s successors, especially John Paul II, who promoted him to be pro-president of the Pontifical Commission of the Vatican city-state. According to senior Vatican officials, interviewed by this author, Archbishop Marcinkus shared John Paul II’s vision of freeing Central Europe and other captive states from the yoke of Communism. He was one of the most important officials during the 1978 to 2005 papacy of John Paul II.
The first attack on Marcinkus took place only five months after the former Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła, the new pope, began fashioning his foreign policy. As the prominent historian Peter Raina revealed, a few days before the conclave in October 1978 that resulted in the election of John Paul II, Cardinal Wojtyła participated in a debate with Central European cardinals. During the discussion, then-Hungarian primate Cardinal László Lékai tried to convince the Vatican and clergy that they should pursue a dialogue with Communist regimes. Cardinal Wojtyła, together with Polish Primate Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, objected. They said that Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who opposed Communists and found refuge at the United States embassy, was a “martyr” and the Church should not negotiate with Communists.
Wojtyła, while bishop and then archbishop of Cracow, from 1958 to 1967, and even earlier, as a Polish priest, had been under constant surveillance of communist intelligence. Polish historian Marek Lasota revealed that the first intelligence report recovered from archives on Wojtyła was dated November 17, 1949, twenty-nine years before his election as pope. All of the information and reports on Wojtyła were shared with the KGB since the Polish communist intelligence effectively functioned as not just an allied intelligence service, but a branch of the Soviet KGB. With detailed knowledge about the new pope’s psychological make-up, Moscow fashioned its first attack, a natural one for Soviet propaganda. The Vatican was accused of fraud in October of 1981.
One of the lines of legal attack that eventually resulted came from an unexpected side: the United States. In early 1979, US Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti urged Archbishop Marcinkus, in his capacity as Vatican Bank president, to provide detailed information for an investigation. On March 29, Marcinkus explained to him that he already provided the requested information six years earlier to the FBI.
In 1973, the Bureau had requested the information after learning that board members of ATS Money Systems Inc. had allegedly transferred $7.7 million to an account at the Vatican Bank. Marcinkus had agreed to help under condition of anonymity. Unfortunately, the FBI’s promise to Marcinkus was broken, as the archbishop later wrote in a letter to William A. Wilson, the US ambassador to Vatican. In April 1979, the FBI used the Marcinkus-supplied information in a memorandum that was submitted during a trial in Munich. The information leaked to the press.
Enemies of John Paul II’s Vatican then used this information as an inspiration for formulating false versions of the archbishop’s statements. One prominent example was the book Vatican Connection, written by Richard Hammer. Yet it was only one of several sensational books, none of which published the archbishop’s explanation. Marcinkus talked at some length about these publications containing false accusations against him during a meeting with Wilson. The ambassador, in turn, reported on their conversation in a July 15, 1982 letter to then-US Attorney General William French Smith. Wilson wrote, “I was also told that the portions of the book include conversations allegedly held between members of FBI and Marcinkus, which, he says were never in fact held.”
Marcinkus was not only a subject of disinformation in the media. It was later revealed that in 1979, the so-called “Red Brigades,” an Italian left-wing terrorist group, planned his assassination. Italian police, during a search of the apartment of one of the terrorists, found a map of the archbishop’s garage and information about places he frequented. The terrorists had had the apartment from the daughter of George Comfort, allegedly a KGB agent.
There are marked similarities between the psychological warfare attacks on Marcinkus and similar actions aimed at then West German Defense Minister Franz Josef Strauss in 1956. Strauss paid a price for his support of German re-armament and American nuclear weapons in then-West Germany as a counterbalance to the Soviet threat. German newspapers published false information about his private life, and Soviet propaganda portrayed him as a corrupt politician. Strauss eventually managed to prove the “evidence” that formed the basis for an early corruption accusation was, in fact, forged. Yet ultimately, he had to resign as defense minister because criticism of him in the media was too intense and sustained. The Soviets had helped derailed the career of a talented, Western-oriented, and pro-American politician.
The same objective was almost achieved in the case of Archbishop Marcinkus. He had to avoid the Italian police, who were eager to jail him. Lest this appear a case of skirting justice, Czech Major General Jan Šejna, the highest-ranking intelligence officer to defect from the Soviet bloc during the cold war, revealed that about 20 percent of the Italian police were Communist Party members. By the early 1980s, the Vatican was sufficiently concerned about Marcinkus’s personal security that Pope John Paul II allowed the archbishop to stay ensconced in Vatican, beyond the jurisdiction of the Italian justice system. Eventually, all of the accusations against him were proved to be false in court proceedings.
The Soviet-initiated attack on Archbishop Marcinkus was part and parcel of the KGB’s larger effort against John Paul II, designed to weaken his authority and moral standing internationally. Simultaneously, dezinformatsia cleverly served to divert public attention from the trial of Mehmet Ali Ağca, the Turkish émigré who had tried to assassinate the pope in 1981 with the assistance of the Bulgarian intelligence service. During Ağca’s trial, a thriller was published that accused Archbishop Marcinkus of ordering the assassination of Yuri Andropov, then first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. This outlandish idea could only have served Soviets interests, as part of the overall theme then being marketed to Western audiences that the Vatican was a criminal state.
The Marcinkus case shows that when it comes to understanding Soviet penetration of Western consciousness during the cold war, there still is much to learn.
Tomasz Pompowski, a journalist for more than twenty years, is the author of many articles on various aspects of cold war. His work has appeared in the Polish and Western media, including the Times of London. His book Armia Boga kontra Imperium Zła (God’s Army vs. the Evil Empire), has just been published in Poland. He blogs at http://tomaszpompowski.wordpress.com.
 Richard H. Schultz and Roy Godson, Dezinformatsia: Active Measures in Soviet Strategy (Washington: Permagon-Brassey’s, 1984), 194.
 The US Department of State’s website formerly listed and explained several different KGB disinformation operations. The article on GLADIO was entitled: “Operation GLADIO: Soviet Forgery.” In 2009 the disinformation list was taken down.
 Oleg Kalugin, Spymaster: My Thirty-Two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 55.
 Ibid., 54.
 Paul Marcinkus, Folder 67, Box 2, William A. Wilson Papers, Georgetown University Archives.
 Marcinkus, Folders 67 and 89, Box 2, Wilson Papers, Georgetown University.
 Senato della Repubblica, Camera dei Deputati, Controllare Commissione Parlamentare D’Inchiesta. Sul terrorismo in Italia e sulle cause della mancata: Individuazione dei responsabili delle stragi. Seduta di Mercoledì. 18 June 1997, 906.
© 2012 by Tomasz Pompowski