'Disinformation' and a Dubious Source

BOOK REVIEW Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa's story defames a legendary Vatican diplomat and undermines positive Catholic-Russian Orthodox relations.

Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa (right) months before he defected to the U.S. in 1978.
Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa (right) months before he defected to the U.S. in 1978. (photo: CNSAS/ Romanian archives of Securitate)

Editor's note: A letter to the editor by Father Peter Gumpel was received contesting use of his quote in this review. The letter, the editor's response and the writer's response are posted at the end of the review.



Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom

By Ion Mihai Pacepa and Ronald Rychlak

WND Books, 2013

350 words, $25.95

To order: www.wnd.com


The Soviet era is a deeply tragic chapter in the Catholic Church’s history.

Though Christianity triumphed — the Gospel view of individual dignity trounced Marx’s materialism and class struggle — we lost so much: thousands of devout Christians, including bishops murdered and jailed, Church property confiscated and destroyed, generations of uncatechized faithful, and sacraments suppressed.

No comprehensive book has yet been written about the Church’s vision and bravery against communism (although Blessed John Paul II’s pivotal role has been well described in some).

But a recent book purporting new information about this part of history delivers instead confusion and hyperbole.

Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion and Promoting Terrorism by former Romanian Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa and University of Mississippi law professor Ronald Rychlak is marked by significant errors that misrepresent both history and contemporary challenges facing the Church. 

An oddity about Disinformation is its authorship. Two authors are listed, but only one narrates. Pacepa is an intensely controversial former communist official whose defection to the United States in 1978 is still not well understood. Pacepa, 84, never appears in public, won’t answer questions by phone and responds to email through third parties, one of whom told me, “I don’t know if he even exists!”

His co-author is Ronald Rychlak, a Catholic law professor best known for his book Hitler, the War and the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor, 2000, 2010), a well-researched defense of Pope Pius XII’s record during World War II. In Disinformation, left-wing efforts to defame Pope Pius are offered as a case study of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. 

What Rychlak contributes, drawn from his earlier work on Pope Pius, appears solid; what Pacepa adds, drawn from his sordid past as a Stalinist henchman and strategist for 27 years in Romania, is dubious at best.


Pacepa’s Story

Six years ago, Pacepa unveiled a disturbing account of helping the KGB infiltrate the secret Vatican Archives to steal documents in order to frame Pope Pius XII. 

In the article “Moscow’s Assault on the Vatican,” published in 2007, Pacepa  claimed he convinced legendary Vatican diplomat Msgr. Agostino Casaroli — later cardinal and secretary of state under Pope John Paul II — to let three Romanian agents, posing as priests, peruse the papal archives.

Under scrutiny, Pacepa’s story began to unravel, with doubts expressed by historians and Vatican experts.

Then the reason Pacepa claimed to have credibility with the Vatican collapsed: He said he had engineered a “spy trade” in 1959, exchanging jailed Romanian Archbishop Augustin Pacha for two spies caught in West Germany. But Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest showed photos of the bishop’s 1954 crypt, explaining the heroic man was already dead when Pacepa claimed to have liberated him.

In Disinformation, Pacepa tries again to sell the story of Vatican infiltration. The book adds no new evidence to support his claims. Disinformation, however, adds fuel to an ongoing debate over Pacepa’s own past.


Casaroli’s Involvement
One of the most startling claims Pacepa makes, in the article and the book, is that, in a one-on-one meeting in Geneva, Msgr. Casaroli agreed “in principle” to give Romania a $1-billion, interest-free loan in exchange for restoring full diplomatic relations with the Vatican — relations that had dramatically ruptured in 1950, when Romania expelled the apostolic nuncio.

By casting suspicion on Cardinal Casaroli’s judgment and character, Pacepa undermines the integrity of the entire Vatican strategy between 1963 and 1989 known as “Ostpolitik.”

The policy involved maintaining dialogue with communist regimes in order to assist the oppressed Church and believers behind the Iron Curtain without legitimizing dictatorships. In his memoirs, Cardinal Casaroli described this effort as “exceptionally difficult.”

The Vatican was convinced that communist repression would eventually lead to the downfall of the entire ideology. Cardinal Casaroli compared communism to a huge tree that appears big and powerful but is rotting inside.

According to Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, who assisted Cardinal Casaroli, the emissary worked directly for three popes on specific assignments; he was not a rogue operator cutting dubious deals with mid-level communist opportunists.

“Cardinal Casaroli began in 1963, in a highly structured way, as a result of great thought at the highest level. It is impossible that he talked about money or a loan with this man [Pacepa] or used his office to facilitate spies,” Cardinal Silvestrini told the Register.

According to Msgr. Gabriele Caccia, an assessor with the Vatican Secretariat of State, no loan was ever made to Romania.

Vatican diplomats Cardinals Giovanni Cheli and Luigi Poggi were involved in negotiations with Romania and the Soviet bloc. Cardinal Cheli called Pacepa’s allegations “untruthful scenarios,” while Cardinal Poggi declared them “the product of a troubled mind and soul.”

Archbishop Robu, who was consecrated by Cardinal Casaroli, emphatically calls the Pacepa account false: “We would know, it would be in our memories, if Romanian spies gained access to the Vatican Archives. It didn’t happen.”


Deeply Anti-Russian
Overall, Disinformation is aggressively anti-Russian. Pacepa makes no distinction between the Soviet era and the post-communist one.

Pacepa’s caustic description of Russia and the Orthodox Church today directly contradicts Vatican policy. The Vatican sees Russia, together with Europe and Latin America, as part of Western civilization — and a bulwark against anti-Christian trends.

Pope Benedict XVI established full diplomatic relations with Russia and intense dialogue with the Orthodox Church (which represents 71% of the population), which is experiencing revival. The two Churches are closer today than perhaps any time since the East-West Schism of 1054.

In Disinformation, Pacepa credits KGB operations with everything from plotting the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy to provoking the rise of Islamic extremism. In each scenario, he portrays himself as a witness to history — when his true rank and job description would never explain access to these events or decisions.


The Neighborhood That Knows Him
Larry Watts, an American historian and intelligence expert who advised the post-communist Romanian government on how to assert civilian control over its spy agencies (and bring them into NATO compliance), published a major study of the Romanian-Soviet relationship, With Friends Like These: The Soviet Bloc’s Clandestine War Against Romania, in 2010 based on extensive research in the East German, Soviet and Romanian archives.

Watts concludes that Pacepa must have been a KGB spy, in large part for the ways he tried to disrupt the U.S.-Romanian relationship when he defected to the United States in 1978, peddling the line that Romania was a Trojan horse for Soviet interests.

Watts’ hypothesis about Pacepa was received as a bombshell in Romania, mainly because it means he is a traitor: A Soviet agent working in Romania, especially after 1958, would be directing events against Romania’s preferences and interests.

Just two months ago, a major symposium at a Bucharest museum was held titled The Pacepa File. It brought together intellectuals, historians, journalists and politicians who grappled with subjects around Pacepa, including whether he was a KGB agent or not.

One subject was Pacepa’s credibility, given his role as an initiator of crimes against communist opponents. According to Dinu Zamfirescu, president of the Institute for Investigating Communist Crimes’ scientific counsel and a CNSAS official, Pacepa signed orders to frame and destroy exiled anti-communists.

The official Plan de Masuri (Operational Plans Against a Target), signed by Pacepa, ordered “repeated harassment and the application of corrective physical measures” against Radio Free Europe (RFE) employees. CNSAS ruled in 2006 that Pacepa was an agent of Romania’s communist political police.

When asked in 2007 by Zenit news service what he thought about Pacepa’s story, Father Peter Gumpel, relator of the cause for canonization for Pope Pius XII, explained his skepticism, saying, “It is necessary to take into account that spies need to justify their existence and must give value to things that have very little importance or none at all.”

Despite the intention of defending Pope Pius XII, Pacepa’s pose in Disinformation is audacious and disingenuous. Readers should beware.

Register correspondent Victor Gaetan writes from Washington. He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.

He received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series of articles on Cuba.

Letter to the Editor

Having read the Register’s review (Aug. 10, NCRegister.com) of Disinformation by professor Ronald Rychlak and Gen. Ion Pacepa, I am writing to protest and express my outrage at the way in which a quotation of mine was misused to support this uncouth review.

The comment of mine which is quoted: “It is necessary to take into account that spies need to justify their existence, and must give value to things that have very little importance or none at all,” comes from a 2007 Zenit News Agency story (as the review itself briefly acknowledges) and therefore has nothing whatsoever to do with the 2013 publication of Disinformation, the 
specific book under review.

My 2007 comment was simply meant to encourage a proper scholarly evaluation of Gen. Pacepa’s statements at that time — not to dismiss all of them outright, much less declare none of them could ever be established. In fact, the Zenit story referenced misleadingly in your review actually notes that I “agreed” with Pacepa in large part; and what I also told Zenit, but which your review of Disinformation left unmentioned, was the following: “One needs to be extremely prudent and try to verify the facts.” I did not — l repeat — say every aspect of Gen. Pacepa’s account could never be verified, only that it needed to be carefully considered — which it has been, by numerous scholars, since 2007, during which a considerable amount of new information has appeared supporting it.

Moreover, the way in which my 2001 quotation was used, in the Register’s review of Disinformation, leaves the impression that I doubt Pacepa’s statements dealing with the communist disinformation campaign against Pius XII, and consider them nothing more than a spy-induced fabrication. In fact, as anyone who reads the 2007 Zenit, news article can made it abundantly clear at the time that there was in fact a concerted communist campaign to infiltrate and compromise the Vatican, and to defame Venerable Pius XII.

Therefore, both professor Rychlak and Gen. Pacepa deserve to be praised, not attacked, for recounting and documenting this indisputable historical reality in Disinformation.

Debates among academics. historians and diplomats about certain details of this campaign are to be expected, but pale in comparison to that central and overwhelming fact.

Instead of highlighting this, However, the review launches into a series of ad hominem attacks against Gen. Pacepa, which I am sure both he and professor Rychlak can answer. It should also be stressed that both men authored the book together — a book they submitted to me in advance of publication — and so the Register’s attempt to separate the excellent work of professor Rychlak, which I have long admired and supported, from Gen. Pacepa’s is not only unconvincing, but self-evidently wrong.

The Register’s use of my 2007 quotation, in such an out-of-context and misleading way, was highly irresponsible, and so I request the Register to immediately acknowledge this, and publish this letter in your publication, lest your readers be misled.

Father Peter Gumpel, S.J.

Rome, Italy

The editor responds: The Register acknowledges that Victor Gaetan, while crediting the 2007 source of the quote he used, did not seek additional comments from Father Gumpel regarding the book Disinformation to clarify Father Gumpel’s views on the credibility of Gen. Ion Pacepa. However, the Register did not at any time indicate that a disinformation campaign against Pope Pius XII did not take place. On the contrary, regarding the research of professor Ronald Rychlak, the Register previously has published Rychlak's own account of why he believes Pacepa’s story in the article “The Framing of Pius XII from Skepticism to Belief.”


The writer responds:

In light of Father Gumpel’s letter, I’m afraid the following three historical facts are not clearly enough stated in my book review of Disinformation: 1) From its inception, the Soviet Union targeted the Catholic Church as an enemy power; 2) the Kremlin’s intelligence apparatus, the KGB, attempted to infiltrate the Vatican, especially during and after the Second Vatican Council; and 3) Pope Pius XII’s heroic behavior has been maligned by political forces uninterested in historical accuracy.

No other global institution forsaw Communism’s evil. As early as 1846, Pope Pius IX  explained Communism would lead to “the complete destruction of everyone's laws, government, property, and even of human society itself” in the encyclical Qui Pluribus.

The Holy See, under the guidance of Pope Pius XII issued a decree in 1949 that Catholics who “defend or propagate” the Communist doctrine “contract ipso facto excommunication.”

An excellent source on Kremlin attempts to undermine the Church is Spies in the Vatican: The Soviet Union’s Cold War Against the Catholic Church (Pegasus Books, 2009) by John Koehler, a former Associated Press reporter, U.S. Army intelligence officer, and advisor to President Ronald Reagan.

Koehler portrays the KGB’s operational program against the Vatican. He explains how some priests, especially from Hungary, Poland, and East Germany, were recruited to serve as undercover agents, gaining access to the Curia.

Stefano Bottoni, an Italian-Hungarian scholar, plumbed the Hungarian archives and found devestating evidence of decades-long spy missions launched against Rome after 1963 — information not even mentioned by Pacepa/Rychlak.

KGB archives confirm the reality of a multilateral plan to penetrate the Vatican.

According to material in The Sword and the Shield by former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin and British historian Christopher Andrew, senior Soviet bloc officials met in Budapest in 1967 to discuss ways to discredit the Vatican. Interestingly, only representatives from Romania disagreed with the need to target the Catholic Church.

Father Gumpel says that former-Communist offical Ion Pacepa’s claims should be weighed. I conducted that research; there’s no evidence for his particular story.

The very noble goal — which I share — of proving Pope Pius XII righteous among nations in his heroic efforts to save Jews will succeed because it is true. We do not need to rely on false stories to set the historic record straight.

Victor Gaetan