A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, his Covert Mission, and the Price he Paid to Save his Country
by Benjamin Weiser
Public Affairs. 383 pp. $27.50
Mark Twain once wrote: “Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth is not.” This paradoxical thought applies well to the biography of Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish colonel who between 1972 and 1981 supplied the CIA with a steady stream of information about the most closely held secrets of the Warsaw Pact. The courage of this modest man, and the cunning he and his American “handlers” displayed in eluding Polish security services, make a tale filled with such improbabilities that I doubt any writer would consider it suitable for a work of fiction.
Born in 1930 into a worker’s family, Kuklinski lost his father during the war: he died in a Nazi concentration camp after having been arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. When the war ended, young Kuklinski joined the Polish army, an institution that enjoyed a reputation among Poles second only to the Catholic Church, and rose rapidly in its ranks due to his outstanding intelligence and industry. In time, he joined the general staff, where he had access to the Warsaw Pact’s war-fighting plans.
Kuklinski’s first doubts about the Communist regime and its armed forces arose as he watched with disgust Poland’s involvement in the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the indifference with which the outside world reacted to this event. An ardent Polish patriot, he worried whether the same fate might not one day befall his own country. He was even more troubled by what he saw of Soviet designs for an offensive war against NATO; they entailed the Red Army’s traversing Poland, an act likely to trigger a nuclear response that would annihilate his homeland.
In August 1972, Kuklinski sent from West Germany, where he was vacationing, a letter to the U.S. embassy in Bonn. It read as follows:
I’m sorry for my English.
I am an foregen MAF from the Communistische Kantry. I want to meet (secretly) with U.S. Army Officer (Lt. Colonel, Colonel) 17 or 18, 19 [August] in Amsterdam or 21, 22 in Ostenda.
I have no many time. I am with my camrade end they kan’t know.
Contact was duly established, and for the next nine years Kuklinski provided the CIA with photographs of over 40,000 highly classified Warsaw Pact documents. Following instructions, he passed them to CIA agents in highly imaginative ways, sometimes by throwing them into passing U.S. embassy cars, at other times leaving them in designated places. One false step, and the entire enterprise would have been compromised.
Keeping his collaboration with American intelligence a secret even from his wife and children, Kuklinski worked under tremendous strain. Although he asked for a poison pill, the CIA refused to provide it, for fear that in a moment of panic he might commit suicide. His morale was buoyed up by personal correspondence with a CIA employee whom he knew as “Daniel” and who turned out to be David Forden, chief of the agency’s Soviet/East European division.
The information that Kuklinski supplied was priceless: according to then-CIA director William Casey, during the cold war no one else inflicted such harm on the Communist cause. Kuklinski revealed the war preparations of the Soviet high command, including the location on Polish soil of bunkers designed to shelter its top field commanders; this would have enabled U.S. forces to wipe them out within hours of the outbreak of hostilities. He detailed the capabilities of Soviet air defenses and tanks. In late 1980, as the Warsaw Pact was preparing to invade Poland just as Kuklinski had feared, his data prompted President Jimmy Carter to warn Moscow against such a move, thereby evidently helping decisively to forestall such an attack.
During the first year of the Reagan administration, Kuklinski supplied intelligence on the Communist plans to impose martial law on Poland; as a member of the small group preparing this operation, he had intimate knowledge of it. In early November 1981, worried that Polish security services were closing in on him, he asked to have himself and his family “exfiltrated.” The operation was executed brilliantly; Kuklinski, his wife, and his two sons were wrapped up in commercial cargo and shipped out of Warsaw to West Berlin in a truck, and from there brought to the United States.
Unlike Carter before him, Ronald Reagan decided not to warn the Polish government against imposing martial law, nor did he alert the leaders of Solidarity to their impending arrests. Apparently he was acting on Kuklinski’s advice, given on the grounds that the martial-law decision was irrevocable and that disclosing it prematurely to the Polish resistance might trigger a general strike that would end in a brutal massacre.
Benjamin Weiser, a New York Times reporter, has written a fascinating account of this episode in history, the first to be based on partial access to CIA files. Here and there, Weiser passes in silence over problematic events that arouse the reader’s curiosity. Besides Kuklinski’s advice, what other factors, one wonders, accounted for the failure of Washington to inform the Polish resistance of the imminent imposition of martial law? How did Kuklinski adapt to American life? How to explain the fact that, to this day, so many Poles regard him as a traitor?
Kuklinski’s life, which ended in mid-February of this year from a stroke, was filled with tragedies. Condemned to death in Poland, he had to hide under an assumed name in the United States. Both of his sons died under mysterious circumstances, one while sailing at sea, his body never found, the other in an automobile accident. When Poland finally shook off Soviet domination in the early 1990’s, its government, instead of hailing him as a national hero, equivocated: in opinion surveys, nearly half the population said it believed he had “betrayed the interests of the Polish nation,” while only 16 percent saw him as a Polish patriot. His death sentence was annulled only in 1997, with the active involvement of Zbigniew Brzezinski, and then mainly because it presented an obstacle to Poland’s entrance into NATO. This allowed him finally to return to his native country in the following year.
He lived just long enough to read Benjamin Weiser’s gripping account.