A Very True Spy Story

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, David Cornwell (better known by his nom de plume John Le Carré) told an interviewer that “espionage was not really something exclusive and clandestine. It was actually the currency of the Cold War. Spies were the poor bloody infantry of the Cold War.”

They still are, though these days we are in a different war and battling another pernicious ideology. I have read Cold War spy novels for years and even written a couple of my own. They make for entertaining reading, but the more we learn about the nuts and bolts of what actually went on back then, the better we come to understand that truth is, in many ways, even more dramatic than fiction.

kuklin-smConsider the case of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski. He was a Polish patriot who may have saved his nation, the whole continent of Europe, and maybe even the world, from massive suffering at the hands of a Soviet war machine which was once poised to race from behind Warsaw Pact borders to the Atlantic Ocean.

A few years ago, I attended a symposium at Langley on the life and work of this remarkable, unsung hero who risked life, limb, and loved ones to pass along vital information at a crucial moment during the Cold War.  Under the watchful eye of then DCIA General Michael V. Hayden, and as part of a very real social contract with this country, voluminous declassified materials were being made available to researchers and the public at large. General Hayden was a history major back in college days and this passion clearly informed his directorate.

That particular historical symposium corresponded with the release of materials relating to Rsyzard Kuklinski and his work on our behalf, as well as that of his beloved Poland. In fact, Kuklinski (who died in 2004) did not see himself as working for “us” – rather he consciously recruited America, via the CIA, to work on behalf of Polish freedom during a dark and difficult time.

In August 1972, Kuklinski sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, establishing contact with our intelligence operatives.  Signing it “P.V.” (Kuklinski later said this stood for “Polish Viking”), this singular act began a relationship that would bear the fruit in the form of thousands of vital documents and much crucial information helping us to understand Soviet doctrine and intent.

The definitive account of the Polish spy’s fascinating story was written in a book by Benjamin Weiser, a reporter for the New York Times, titled, A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country.

SecretLifeWesier described Rsyzard Kuklinski at the time of his espionage work as “a small man with tousled hair, penetrating blue eyes and the gestures and mannerisms of a man within whom an unbounded supply of energy is bottled up.”  He focused that energy on doing everything he could to prevent his country from being sacrificed during the Cold War as it had been in so many ways during the Second World War.

Kuklinski was motivated by patriotic fear.

His role as a high-ranking staff officer made him privy to information about what a major Soviet offensive in Europe would look like.  Though always framed via lip service as defensive in nature, the Soviet and Warsaw Pact war plans, in fact, were entirely designed to be offensive operations.

The salient point, as far as Kuklinski was concerned, had to do with the so-called Second Strategic Echelon – a massive potential Soviet offensive involving roughly two million soldiers and at least a million armored vehicles.  Rsyzard, and others in a place to know about these plans, discerned accurately the only real response NATO’s forces would have to counter such a massive Soviet mobilization would be nuclear. And those bombs would not fall drop in Moscow or Western Europe; they would obliterate Poland, the perpetual twentieth century European pawn.

In fact, the materials passed to us by this highly effective Cold War spy enabled the United States and NATO to effectively plan for such a scenario.  And the other guys never knew we had the information. But even beyond the role he played for us strategically, Kuklinski also became our eyes and ears during those turbulent months in 1980 as the world watched Solidarity, a fledgling political movement led by Lech Walesa, begin to achieve political traction in Poland.  The world also wondered if and when the Soviets (with the complicity of their puppets regime in Warsaw) would intervene as they had in Budapest (1956) and Prague (1968).

It seemed like only a matter of time.

Rsyzard Kuklinski was uniquely positioned in those days to report what was happening, enabling America, in the waning days of the Carter presidency, to effectively warn the Soviets off.  At one point, he sent a sixteen-page letter to the CIA describing high-level meetings, during which the Polish government discussed the possibility off a Soviet invasion of their country.

It became clear in 1981 that the Polish government led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, was preparing to declare martial law in the land, Kuklinski kept us informed in great detail.  Kuklinski despised Jaruzelski, writing in one covert dispatch that the strongman was “unworthy of the name Pole.”

In a dramatic moment on November 2, 1981, Rsyzard Kuklinski was summoned to a meeting in the office of one of his bosses. Six men sat at a T-shaped table and learned that there was a “mole” among them – someone had been leaking information to the Americans.   Somehow managing to keep his composure, Kuklinski joined the chorus of voices in the room denouncing such an act of “treason.”

But he knew his days were numbered and soon found a way to communicate this message to his handlers: “I urgently request instructions for evacuating from the country myself and my family.  Please take into consideration that the state border is possibly already closed for me and my family.” For several days, CIA personnel in Warsaw tried to carry out a plan to evacuate Rsyzard, his wife, and their two sons.

Eventually they were spirited away for the long drive to Berlin.

At a reception following that symposium I was attending a few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak one on one with the driver of that car during a reception.

We stood just a few feet from the iconic CIA floor seal in Langley’s lobby.  He told me that they had managed to get through three checkpoints en route and that he still got chills when thinking about that perilous trip.

Life in America was no picnic for this Cold War hero and his family.  They had to live under an assumed identity and avoid outside relationships, particularly with Polish-Americans, for years.  The two Kuklinski sons met with untimely accidental deaths less than a year apart, breaking the hearts of Mom and Dad.

Questions were raised about the nature of the deaths – one in a boating accident (the body never found) and the other on a college campus, felled by a hit-and-run driver. But no evidence (beyond the circumstantial) was ever discovered pointing to anything conspiratorial or sinister.

Rsyzard Kuklinski was tried in absentia in 1984 in Poland, found guilty of treason, and sentenced to death.  After the Cold War ended, his sentence was commuted to 25 years (which hurt Kuklinski deeply). In 1995, the chief justice of the Polish Supreme Court annulled his sentence. All charges against him were revoked in September of 1997, enabling him to return to Poland a free man.

In April-May 1998, Rsyzard Kuklinski made an eleven-day tour of several Polish cities. He was greeted by some as a hero on a level with Pope John Paul II.  Others, however, protested that he was—and would remain—a traitor.

Lech Walesa, for all his good work in the cause of freedom, never completely accepted Kuklinski’s account of things – even suggesting publicly that Rsyzard was a “double-agent” working for the Soviets as well as the Americans. No such evidence exists. In fact, as new information comes out, the argument that Kuklinski was a Polish patriot and one of the good guys gets stronger.  But Walesa’s remarks highlight the tension that occurs when “state” becomes synonymous with “country.”

Frankly, Rsyzard Kuklinski’s work – his willingness to risk it all for what he believed was right – left the world a better place.  The Soviet Union eventually fell apart and freedom broke out in his beloved Poland.  Neither would have happened had Warsaw Pact nations acted on clearly defined plans for continental – even global – hegemony.

When Kuklinski died in February 2004, then Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet said: “This passionate and courageous man helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot, providing the CIA with precious information upon which so many critical national security decisions rested.  And he did so for the noblest of reasons – to advance the sacred causes of liberty and peace in his homeland and throughout the world.”

Long before that statement by Tenet, Rsyzard Kuklinski had reflected, “I am pleased that our long, hard struggle has brought peace, freedom, and democracy not only to my country but to many other people as well.”

So are we.

[Check out David’s spy novel, CAMELOT’S COUSIN: The Spy Who Betrayed Kennedy — now in development as a major motion picture starring BLAIR UNDERWOOD]

The Spy Who Betrayed the Berlin Tunnel Has No Regrets

[This article was written for, and first appeared at, EXAMINER.COM]

There is a celebration of sorts going on in Russia these days.  The 90th birthday of a British traitor is being marked by a documentary film and personal greetings from President Vladimir Putin—a man who knows a thing or two about the spy business.

George Blake was apparently drawn to the Soviet side while working for the SIS in Korea. He was captured by the North Koreans and eventually decided to turn traitor. It’s a strange story with a Manchurian Candidate feel.

For most of the 1950s, he wreaked havoc on British and American security services.  These days he tells everyone that he’s fine with what he did.  “I am a happy person, a very lucky person, exceptionally lucky,” he told a recent interviewer.  Interestingly, there seems to be a connection between Blake’s missing moral compass and the fact that along with loyalty to his homeland, the other thing left behind in his life was any semblance of belief in ultimate accountability. “I do not believe in life after death,” says Mr. Blake. “In my childhood, I wanted to become a priest, but that passed. As soon as our brain stops receiving blood, we go, and after that there will be nothing. No punishment for the bad things you did, nor rewards for the utterly wonderful.”

George Blake in 2002

Unlike his traitorous contemporaries—Philby, Burgess, and MacLean—who all lived notably barren and frustrated lives in Russia after fleeing there to avoid accountability for their nefarious work, Blake seems to be a person at peace with himself.  Or so he says to Russian media and a world that barely remembers the dangerous dynamics of the Cold War.

George Blake is likely responsible for the deaths of many British agents—and at least one extensive and expensive joint U.S. and British intelligence initiative.

These days, the Berlin of that era is most often remembered for an airlift and a wall – the latter becoming the ultimate Cold War icon. But a few years ago, the CIA declassified a report, originally written forty years before, reminding us that when it came to Berlin and Cold War history, there was a third image – one that is often forgotten.

In between the airlift and the wall there was – a tunnel.

Nicknamed “Harvey’s Hole” after legendary Bill Harvey, head of Berlin Operations Base for the CIA during that period, the digging of a tunnel twenty feet longer (1,476 feet) than the Empire State Building was tall, was the biggest wiretap job in history. The idea was modeled after a successful British effort in Vienna, though the Austrian version was significantly smaller at mere 70 feet. The Berlin dig was dubbed Operation Gold (to insiders it was also referred to a PBJOINTLY).

The basic idea was to tunnel under a quite unappealing part of Southern Berlin, beneath the dividing line between the American and Soviet sectors. More than 650 people were employed in London and Washington, D.C. to process information gleaned from the taps. On the American side – just to show the dimensions of what they had to analyze – 4,000 feet of messages were handled daily. The mother lode was the KGB Headquarters compound located in the Karlshorst district of the city.

Digging began in August 1954 and the tunnel was completed in February 1955. The work involved displacing 3,000 tons of dirt and the installation of the actual physical taps on three cables – considered the most sensitive aspect of the project. The tunnel was ready for information to start flowing on May 11, 1955.

However, though it wasn’t known at the time, the initiative was doomed almost from its conception. The tunnel lived as an espionage conduit for 11 months and 11 days before being discovered by the East Germans on April 21, 1956. The story was that they had been looking for a problem with one of their cables, when they accidentally came upon evidence of the tunnel.

This was the widely accepted version of the events at the time as evidenced in the now declassified history. An internal CIA memo prepared two months after the tunnel was blown concluded that “the loss of this source was purely the result of unfortunate circumstances” beyond their control.

But Bill Harvey (who was known in some circles and “the American James Bond”) was never satisfied that the Soviets had just happened on the tunnel. A skeptic by nature, it would take a few years before that skepticism was vindicated. With painfully fresh memories of moles in the British intelligence community (MacLean and Burgess had defected to Moscow in May of 1951), some on the American side were understandably leery of such a massive and highly sensitive joint espionage venture. But whatever the concerns, they were dismissed in favor of the potential benefits.

But in this case, there really was a mole—George Blake. He would not be exposed as a KGB spy until 1961, but he had already been working for a few years for the Soviets by the time he was uniquely positioned to betray this project to his handlers. In fact, he attended vital meetings – always taking detailed notes – having ironically been tasked by MI-6 with preparing a written record of the discussions about the tunnel and its progress. He did so faithfully and gave copies to all involved. Of course, he kept a copy for himself – but it wouldn’t stay in his possession for very long.

In January of 1954 Blake met his KGB contact on the top deck of a London bus, handing over a copy of the minutes of the meetings between the CIA and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service – a.k.a. MI-6). So, the Soviets were in the loop all along.

George Blake may describe himself as happy man, but his life and work on the wrong side of history tell a different story.

The Cambridges Spies are Back in the News with Release of Diplomat’s Secret Diaries

Guy Liddell was the deputy director general of MI-5 (sort of like their FBI, with MI-6 being more like CIA, domestic vs. international work—but much more overlap over there) in Great Britain in 1951.

He was also a very good friend to several men who, though also working for the British government–though they actually Soviet spies. It was quite the scandal more than 60 years ago–and it’s all in the news again.

Names like Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, Anthony Blunt, and especially, Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, are familiar to anyone interested in the history of espionage in the Cold War. Their stories read like spy novels—but, in fact, this stuff is all too true.

Kim Philby

[Note: I have dealt with these “Cambridge Spies,” along with a lesser known ring of spies at Oxford in my novel, CAMELOT’S COUSIN.]

Guy Liddell was their friend and started figuring things out way too late. Recently his personal diaries were released to the National Archives over there (Kew, in West London) and they are quite revealing:

Spies investigator ‘shared his secrets with Russians’

The man investigating the defection of two of the notorious “Cambridge spies” was unwittingly confiding in members of the same group of Soviet double agents, newly released records reveal.
The personal diaries of Guy Liddell, deputy director general of MI5, have been released to the National Archives in Kew, west London.
They describe the moment when security services realised Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had fled to the Soviet Union in May 1951.
[To read the complete story in Cambridge University News, CLICK HERE]