Reviews | The CIA’s close relations with Poland

The CIA has the closest relationship with the intelligence services of other English-speaking democracies – Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. So close that their alliance is called the Five Eyes. Even bogus American and British agents are thieves. James Bond’s companion is none other than CIA officer Felix Leiter, who returns in Bond’s latest thriller, “No Time to Die”.

But an extremely important intelligence relationship is with another country: Poland. Out of the way, under the radar, this nation’s officers have functioned for decades almost as an auxiliary to the agency. “Poland is the 51st state,” said CIA official James Pavitt, a former director of the CIA’s underground service. “The Americans have no idea.”

The roots of this close relationship date back to the Cold War. It’s a story of bravery, blood ties and, of course, betrayal. For the United States, the alliance has given them a staunch ally with assets in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Poland had the opportunity to get rid of the Soviet yoke and integrate into the Western bloc. But Poland has paid a heavy price.

It all started in the early 1980s, when a Polish spy named Marian Zacharski led the FBI on a months-long cat and mouse hunt in Los Angeles. Under the noses of FBI agents, Mr. Zacharski handed over tons of classified documents to Warsaw. He was eventually captured and sentenced. John Palevich – a CIA officer who accompanied Mr. Zacharski to Berlin in 1985 for a prisoner exchange – remembers being so impressed with Mr. Zacharski’s profession that he once vowed to work with it, and not against people like this Polish spy.

Mr Palevich had his chance after the semi-democratic elections of 1989 which inaugurated a government led by activists from the Solidarity union. On March 1, 1990, he rang the bell of the Polish Embassy in Lisbon and made his way into an audience with the station chief. Mr Palevich revealed his real passport (he had used at least six others during his career) and his personal phone number and proposed a meeting between the CIA and Polish spies. A special relationship had started.

The Poles soon had the opportunity to show what they could do. After these meetings, in October 1990, the Poles sent a notorious Communist-era spy to Iraq to rescue six US intelligence and military officers who had remained stranded in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Operation Friendly Saddam, as it was called, opened the door to cooperation between Poland and the United States. “It quickly became something of a blood tie between the two services,” recalls Bill Norville, who at the time was the CIA station chief in Warsaw and who oversaw what quickly became a flood of new joint operations.

The CIA found itself working with Polish spies around the world. “There was literally nothing they wouldn’t do to support us,” Mr. Norville said. And, he added, given the United States’ confidence in Poland’s espionage capabilities, “there was very little we would not ask them to do to support us.” The CIA declined to comment on my next book on this story, “From Warsaw With Love.”

A key advantage for Americans was Poland’s access to countries where the United States was not present. This was the case in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

Poland had forged close ties with North Korea during the Communist era. In 1986 and 1987 alone 280 Polish delegates, including military officers, pianists, scientists and businessmen, visited North Korea. After the end of the Cold War, Poland’s connections and knowledge about North Korea were a treasure for the United States. Soon, according to my research, the Poles also began bringing American-made intelligence material to their embassy in North Korea to fill the otherwise empty space.

Cuba was another place where Poland had strengths. I spoke to Poland’s first post-Communist station chief in Washington, a veteran officer, Ryszard Uniwersal, who said he arrived in the United States with a long list of contacts in Havana. He was stationed there in the late 1970s, had met Fidel Castro, and had established intelligence ties with the Cuban spy agency.

The Poles trusted the CIA and treated its officers in Poland as if they were all members of the same service. The American intelligence officers I spoke with recalled walking around the headquarters of the Polish spy agency without an escort.

This confidence turned out to be misplaced.

In the months following the September 11 attacks, the CIA asked Polish authorities whether the country would allow the United States to detain terrorist suspects on Polish territory. According to to then-Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, the Poles asked the CIA to commit on paper to a certain standard of treatment for prisoners. The CIA refused to sign. The Poles still agreed. (The CIA declined to comment on the matter.)

The first detainees began arriving in December 2002. By that time, the CIA had set up what would become the agency’s largest black sites, in a two-story villa on the campus of a military base. intelligence training in Poland.

The mastermind accused of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, ended up spending time there. He was waterboarded for two weeks at the facility in March 2003 and said he realized he was in Poland when he saw “.pl”, the Internet country code. polish, on a bottle of water.

Polish officials said they were uncomfortable with the United States denying them access to the villa. Yet senior Polish officials told me they believed the CIA when it promised to keep Poland’s involvement in black sites a secret. The site was closed in September 2003. But in November 2005, sources disclosed to American journalists that there was secret sites in Eastern Europe. And when President George W. Bush finally acknowledged the existence of secret prisons abroad in a speech on September 6, 2006, Polish leaders feared the country’s site would be uncovered. They felt burnt.

“Which Polish prime minister will authorize an operation that would violate Polish law in the future?” asked Radoslaw Sikorski, a former Polish defense minister who had led other secret missions with the United States. “It was a breach of trust,” Mr. Kwasniewski told me.

In 1994, when Michael Sulick was the CIA station chief in Warsaw, he sensed that this type of crisis was going to befall both nations. “We have an amazing relationship now,” he told his Polish Secret Service friends, “but at some point we’re going to fuck you. “

“It’s not like the Soviets are fucking you,” he added. “We’ll think we’re well-meaning, that everything will be fine, but despite our best intentions, we’re going to fuck you.”

Even so, the CIA cultivated the Poles.

Two Polish officers showed me the awards they have received from the CIA over the past few years. In 2004, the CIA awarded four Polish officers the Legion of Merit, the US military’s most prestigious award for foreigners. In 2008, a second team of Polish spies received the Legion of Merit for a mission to collect air samples to test for the presence of enriched uranium near nuclear facilities in Iran.

However, over time, the relationship cooled. The current Polish government is led by the Law and Justice Party, which has launched a political campaign against the very men who forged the American alliance. Thirty years after the end of communism in Poland, the Law and Justice Party remains obsessed with punishing all those who served the old guard. But most important is the simple fact that enemies and friends know that Poland is an American ally.

“Poland is no longer seen as an independent country but as a country actively helping the United States in intelligence,” observed Marek Dukaczewski, who headed the Polish military intelligence agency from 2001 to 2005.

The relationship is no longer as special as it once was.

Jean Pomfret (@JEPomfret) is a former Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post. He is the author of the forthcoming book “From Warsaw With Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an improbable Alliance”, from which this essay is adapted.

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