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The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country

By Benjamin Weiser

383 pp. Public Affairs. $27.50

By Peter Gessner

Benjamin Weiser's aptly named A Secret Life traces an extraordinary nine year period during which Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, a highly successful career officer serving on the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, transmitted to the Central Intelligence Agency vast amounts of the most closely held Soviet military intelligence.

The book is timely. Published shortly before Kuklinski's death last February, it has provided much information hitherto buried in the files of the CIA and has helped bring about a reassessment of Kuklinski's role and contributions.

In Poland, where in 1984 Kuklinski was sentenced to death in absentia, public opinion has been long divided regarding whether he was a hero or a traitor; he continued to receive death threats as recently as in 2002. In 1990, his sentence was commuted, in the context of a general amnesty, to a prison term of 25 years. It was not until 1997 that he was fully exonerated. Currently, it is clear that many in Poland perceive him as a hero. His June 2004 funeral in the Cathedral of the Warsaw Garrison and the burial of his ashes along the Avenue of the Meritorious in Warsaw's Military Cemetery, were both accorded full military honors and were attended by large throngs numbering in the thousands. Yet tellingly, no representative of the Polish government saw fit to attend.

In the United States, where in 1981 an internal CIA memo had termed Kuklinski "the best placed source now available to the American government in the Soviet bloc," and where in 1982 CIA Director William Casey wrote to then President Ronald Reagan that no one in the preceding 40 years had done more to undermine communism, a reassessment is also in progress. It is fueled by the realization of the impact of the information he provided on the outcome of the Cold War.

It all began in 1972 when Kuklinski made a momentous decision and, while in West Germany on a government approved sailing trip, made contact with the American embassy in Bonn to request a secret meeting with a representative of the U.S. Army. The meeting, which eventually took place in the Hague, was with CIA agents representing themselves as members of the U.S. military. At the meeting, Kuklinski told his contacts of his willingness to work with the Americans. He was motivated, he told them, by his perception that his country was in mortal danger.

The American accepted Kuklinski's offer to cooperate and he was soon providing the CIA with a cornucopia of priceless information that included the disposition of the Soviet block forces, reports of high level meetings in Moscow, Warsaw Pact strategic plans and analyses, specifications and designs of more than 200 new weapon systems, training manuals and details of Soviet military doctrine. The flow of information was so huge that, at the CIA's Langley headquarters in Virginia, a team of some two dozen translators were employed full-time rendering the materials into English. All told and incredibly, Kuklinski provided the CIA 42,000 pages of secret documents.

It was a life of derring-do and subterfuge, dead drops, messages written in invisible ink, miniature cameras, electronic transmitters and many close calls as Kuklinski passed reams of intelligence to the American side. The book is often hard to put down, all the more so given one's awareness that the events described are not fiction, that they really took place. The detailed descriptions of the spycraft - the skills and techniques of espionage - are fascinating, particularly given these are the actual ones used by the CIA in the field. In a first, Weiser got the CIA to agree to a procedure that gained him access to much of what the agency had in its Kuklinski files without having to later submit the finished book to CIA for inspection. That, and his being able to engage Kuklinski - then still living under cover in the United States - in extensive interviews, have resulted in a book that brings to the fore a great deal of information which, hitherto, was not in the public domain.

The dramatic decision Kuklinski made to help the Americans was one motivated by idealism - he never sought or accepted any money for it - but it was a hard decision to make, since it placed not only his own life but also that of his wife and two sons very much in jeopardy. To provide them some protection, in the event he was caught, he had to keep it a secret from them as well. Aware of his importance as a source and his extreme isolation, and thus stress, the CIA went out of its way to establish contact with him on a human, one might say, emotional level.

Kuklinski spoke no English. In the Hague, the initial meeting had been conducted in Russian which Kuklinski knew well. Yet, given his state of mind, that was hardly a propitious choice. Hence the CIA turned to David Forden, the former Chief of its Warsaw Station. Forden, born in Buffalo and an alumnus of East Aurora High School, spoke Polish, having studied it prior to his 1965 Warsaw posting. Now, years later, he would become Kuklinski's case officer. The two were able to meet clandestinely in Hamburg during the Summer of 1973. Over a two day period and a total just short of eight hours, they were able to establish a strong rapport. That rapport was subsequently solidified through the personal letters they exchanged, letters that accompanied each transfer of microfilms between CIA operatives and Kuklinski in Warsaw.

Reading Weiser's book, it becomes clear that much of the information Kuklinski provided to the CIA was both detailed and invaluable. For instance, when the Soviets decided to build three command bunkers deep underground for use in the event of war with the West, he was able to signal their planned secret locations - in Russia, Poland and Bulgaria, respectively - and to provide the CIA with the bunkers' blueprints.

In late 1980, as Moscow massed 18 Soviet, Czech and East German divisions on Poland's borders in anticipation of a planned invasion designed to suppress the Solidarity trade union, it was Kuklinski who alerted the US. Hastily informed by the CIA, President Jimmy Carter issued a public warning to the Soviet Union of the grave consequences that would follow should the Soviets go through with their plan, and . . . the invasion never happened.

A year later, the regime headed by General Jaruzelski, in a move designed to crush Solidarity, decided to impose martial law throughout Poland. Because of his skills and position in the Army's High Command, Kuklinski was actually involved in drawing up the plans for it, plans he shared with the CIA. Somewhere a breach of security occurred and the regime learned that the plans were in CIA's possession. It was only a matter of time before Kuklinski's role in their transmission would be discovered. There was no time to lose, yet his flight to safety was agonizingly slow. In passages that read like the script for the climax of a James Bond movie, Weiser describes how Kuklinski and his family were, in CIA's parlance, "exfiltrated" to the United States.

A fundamental question that Weiner's book raises is the role of loyalty. Traumatized as a youth by the brutal German occupation of his country during the Second World War, Kuklinski decided in its aftermath to embark on a military career. True, Poland, a nominally sovereign nation, had been consigned by the Allied victors to the Soviet sphere of influence, but it wasn't immediately obvious how that would affect its future. In the interim there was a life to be lived, a nation to call one's own. Also the expectation was that, in spite of the political straightjacket imposed on them, the leaders of the country would have the nation's best interests at heart. In that context there was a willingness to let bygones be bygones, to turn a new page, and for many, to join the country's armed forces - Kuklinski among them.

Living in a world of nations, humans are bound by loyalty to their individual countries and to the groups to which they belong - in Kuklinski's case, the Polish Army. In that context, the Army's role in the1956 shooting of striking workers in Poznan and its participation in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia were keenly felt by Kuklinski to be significant aberrations. In 1970, Polish troops were ordered to fire upon shipyard workers demonstrating in Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin against the raising of food prices before Christmas. Hundreds of the demonstrators were wounded and 47 were killed. Kuklinski was outraged that the Polish authorities had ordered the shooting and that no one had refused to carry out the order.

By this time, Kuklinski has learned enough of Moscow's strategic posture vis a vis NATO and the latter's logical response to know that, in the event of a conflict, Poland would become the locus of manyfold nuclear exchanges. Thus he came to understand the mortal danger in which his country found itself. Weiser's book presents a picture of arrogance and aggressiveness on the part of the Soviet High Command, vis a vis the less powerful members of the Warsaw Pact, that is shocking. Witnessing this, Kuklinski came to understand, better than most, the extent to which Poland's communist leaders, by not standing up to the Soviets, were disavowing their responsibilities to the nation. Thus he faced a dilemma regarding where his true loyalties lay. Weiser's exploration of that dilemma raises profound reflections as to the true meaning of patriotism.

Peter Gessner is the Director of the Polish Studies Program at the University at Buffalo and of the University's Polish Academic Information Center.


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