- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 22, 2004


By Benjamin Weiser

Public Affairs, $27.50, 383 pages, illus.


From his vantage point on the general staff of the Polish army, assigned to high-level Warsaw bloc matters, Col. Ryszard Kuklinski watched with mounting horror Soviet plans for war with the West.

By Soviet estimate, the overriding fear that tormented the U.S. intelligence community from the first days of the Cold War was that of a sudden Red army ground strike into Western Europe. Given the numerical superiority of the Warsaw Pact forces, such an invasion would almost surely cause nuclear retaliation.

But lest an attack directly on the USSR trigger all-out nuclear war, Warsaw Pact planning doctrine was that any Western retaliatory strikes would be against the second echelon of Soviet invaders as they moved through Poland.

In sum, “farewell, Warsaw and environs.”

Whether such a scenario actually reflected Western planning was irrelevant; it reflected Soviet strategic thinking, and it repulsed Kuklinski. He was already disgusted with Poland’s forced subservience to the Soviets. He felt shame when Polish troops helped quell “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia in 1968 — “my almost direct participation in the infamous act of aggression …”

Thus in the summer of 1972, during the course of his annual leisurely cruise across the northern tier of Europe, Kuklinski decided to act. The story of one of the more remarkable CIA coups ever is told by Benjamin Weiser in “A Secret Life.”

Kuklinski made his move by addressing a letter to the U.S. embassy in Bonn, postmarked from the north German port of Bremerhaven. In broken English, the writer identified himself as a “foregen MAF from Communistische Kantry” [sic] and asked for a meeting with a U.S. Army officer at the Belgian port of Ostend the next month.

Two CIA men disguised as military officers met with him and received what seemed an incredible offer of intelligence on the Warsaw Pact military. As a general staff officer, Kuklinski had worked for nine years preparing for a “hot war” with the West, and he had concluded that he was on the wrong side.

He had access to complete Soviet war plans, and indeed he had written many of them. He outlined his fears about Poland being destroyed by proxy in the event of a U.S.-USSR conflict. The CIA men satisfied themselves as to Kuklinski’s bona fides, and Operation Gull commenced.

Over the next decade, Kuklinski supplied CIA handlers with 40,265 pages of highly classified Soviet military documents, a take that led an agency analyst to describe him as “the best placed source now available to the American government in the Soviet bloc in terms of collection of priority information.”

He gave the United States specific war plans. He gave a constant update on the number and status of Warsaw bloc forces. He gave information on new weapons systems and their efficacy. In short, the intelligence haul was staggering in its scope.

The information from Gull gave Washington an incisive view into the workings of Soviet military thinking — the sort of human intelligence that could never be provided by satellite imagery.

“A Secret Life” has an unusual provenance that adds to its authenticity. Mr. Weiser first interviewed Kuklinski while a reporter for The Washington Post, and had further access when he began this book (he now writes for the New York Times). As a researcher Mr. Weiser recruited Peter Earnest, a retired veteran operations officer in the CIA’s clandestine service, who was permitted to delve through uncountable documents concerning how the agency handled Kuklinski.

Mr. Earnest, who now runs the International Spy Museum, ultimately gave Mr. Weiser some 750 pages of notes adding the sort of operational detail that makes “A Secret Life” a veritable textbook on the handling of an agent by essentially remote control.

We read of the various communications devices smuggled to Kuklinski, including the assortment of mini-cameras (some worked, others did not). We see how CIA handlers in Warsaw arranged covert meetings with Kuklinski, and the counter-surveillance techniques employed to ensure that he was not being followed.

Indeed, there are some pages where I feel that authenticity might be carried a step too far — for instance, in discussing how CIA officers go about eluding surveillance when setting up a meeting with an agent.

When I trained as a fledgling spook in the 1950s, such stuff bore a SECRET classification. But Mr. Earnest is confident that “A Secret Life” reveals no sources and methods that are unknown to the former Soviet state. In any event, the operational history of Gull is among the most authentic accounts you are likely to read of a CIA operation.

In due course, Polish security officers became suspicious of leaks from their general staff, and Kuklinski felt under threatening scrutiny. A new crisis engulfed Poland in late 1980 — the Solidarity movement, and the Soviet threats to crush it.

Appalled that the Soviets intended to use the Polish military to help destroy Solidarity, Kuklinski sent a frantic barrage of messages to the CIA. These ended in November 1991, when the CIA decided to spirit Kuklinski and his family out of Poland. (Movie producers note: There is a film here.)

Polish retaliation, once Kuklinski’s defection was revealed, was swift. A military court sentenced him to death for “treason to the Fatherland” — a sentence reversed by a subsequent Polish government, in large part due to the work of Zbigniew Brzezinski, who as national security advisor to President Carter benefited greatly from Kuklinski’s efforts. And in 1998 Kuklinski returned to Warsaw for a hero’s welcome.

Kuklinski died in a U.S. military hospital in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 10 of this year, about the same time that review copies of this book were being distributed. George Tenet, the director of the CIA, called him “a true hero of the Cold War to whom we owe an everlasting debt of gratitude.” We owe an equal debt to the Poles who threw off Soviet control, one of the great fissures that eventually ended the Cold War.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.

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