Book Review of From Warsaw with Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Improbable Alliance by John Pomfret
The exfiltration, complete with disguises (as Polish engineers), fake passports and Marlboro cartons to fight their way through roadblocks, is the dramatic centerpiece of “From Warsaw with Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forming of an Unlikely Allianceand author John Pomfret makes the most of it. But it’s also the opening of the curtain on the larger story he wants to tell, the remarkable partnership of two intelligence agencies that have gone from adversaries to allies, often with the same actors in place.
And not just nominal allies. Other covert operations were to follow, as well as major intelligence exchanges. The Poles had access to places where the CIA had little or no presence – North Korea, Cuba, Iran, not to mention Russia – and they were generous colleagues. A decade after the spies were rescued in Baghdad, then-CIA director George Tenet called America’s work with the Poles “one of the two most important intelligence relationships the United States has ever had.” .
I suspect the reaction of most general readers (including this one) will be: who knew? Of course, it’s in the nature of these things not to be known – news of the 1990 exfiltration, for example, didn’t surface until 1995. But Pomfret’s book is revelatory in the best way. of the term. We learn things we didn’t know. Pomfret, a former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief and author of a history of US-China relations, spoke to many people who had stories to tell — and, this being the secret world, they are often colorful. I especially liked the Polish spy who titled his memoir “The name is Zacharski, Marian Zacharski”. And Pomfret is always attentive to the human factor, to the personal quirks of the individuals who made this special relationship possible.
Why did the Poles do it? On the one hand, there was the money. The CIA funded joint operations and provided funds to the UOP, and was even said to have been instrumental in canceling half of Poland’s $33 billion foreign debt. No small change. But money isn’t everything. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Poland needed another ally to guarantee its security. The decision to join NATO needed America’s support. Just like the subsequent transition to the European Union. To be an American ally was to be a Polish patriot, working for the country’s future. Pomfret goes even further. He believes that “something intangible has brought Americans and Poles together,” something beyond mutual respect for each other’s craft, a history of cooperation dating back to the Revolutionary War. And there was the mythical aura that America held for millions of Polish immigrants (everyone had an uncle in America or knew someone who had). The Poles didn’t want just any new ally, they wanted this ally. Pomfret’s apt title is only half a joke. The Poles were ready to do almost anything to cement the relationship.
It’s all the more disheartening, then, to see things turn sour. The heady days of cooperation under the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations (which, given what followed, here seem like an Enlightenment period) took a turn after 9/11. It was in Poland’s interest to also fight terrorism, but perhaps not to allow the Americans a secret place on Polish soil to interrogate suspects. Only Americans were allowed on this black site, but rumors of torture inevitably circulated and Poles called for its closure in 2003. That could have been the end, but leaks revealed the Polish government’s public denials and outrageous politics convenient follow-up. The Poles felt betrayed and the relationship suffered (not until the CIA grants ended, though).
The black site may be a damaging episode in this story, but politics is no morality piece, and “From Warsaw With Love” is careful to examine other factors that affected the relationship, including the time itself is not the least. Things have changed, priorities have jostled. The domestic politics of the two countries have undergone significant fluctuations. The Polish government’s early welcome of ex-Communists (as a stabilization measure) turned into a purge, with little targeting of retired intelligence community members. America’s attention has been diverted from Europe. More recently, the Poles had a homophobic right-wing government and we had — which we had.
Yet it is possible that the immaterial affinity is simply entering a new, less exuberant phase. Certainly, we need all the friends we can have, and as such Poland has been one of the most faithful. But the relationship has always been unbalanced. As Polish politician Radoslaw Sikorski said, being allied with the United States is like marrying a hippopotamus. At first, it’s warm and cuddly. Then the hippo turns around, crushes you and doesn’t even notice it. The most valuable thing about this informative book is that it might get the hippo noticed.
Polish spies, the CIA and the forge
of an unlikely alliance