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Martial Law: Through the Eyes of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski

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Symposium at CIA HQ, 11 December 2008

December 11th was the perfect day to visit the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. The concrete was grey, the sky was grey, and it was raining like the proverbial cow pissing on the proverbial flat rock. Even the people were grey, but as we know that’s an attained “spook” trait, earned with long practice.

We’d already been through the ID check. As I got on the bus I pulled up the collar of my trenchcoat, pulled the brim of the fedora lower on my eyes, and muttered out of the corner of my mouth today’s pass phrase: “Afghanistan Banana Stand.” [Apologies to The Hot Rock, the film I lifted this phrase from.] The dogs then made their not-so-friendly, invasive frisk, and we were on our way.

We’d been warned that “laptops, PDAs, cellphones, recorders, iPods, cameras, guns, explosives, knives, scissors, any metal objects that might be perceived as any of these devices” are taboo. Further, if we were caught with any of these items, these items would be confiscated and never seen again. Hmmm, wonder if they’d consider adding a colicky one-year-old to this list? At least until he was no longer colicky.

A few hundred of us were at CIA Headquarters by invitation only to attend a symposium entitled, “Martial Law: Through the Eyes of Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski.”

Following a short welcome by Adolfo Tarasiuk, CIA's Chief Information Officer, we had a brief but highly informative and illuminating talk by Michael V. Hayden, the Director of Central Intelligence. Hayden spoke briefly about the Cold War in general and more lengthily about the subject of today’s symposium, Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski.

“Who?” most will ask. The general public’s ignorance of this name is no surprise. Of course, that may be because it was one ofthe  CIA’s few publicized success stories. We certainly read plenty about the CIA’s flubs, real and imagined, splashed across the front pages of most newspapers on a regular basis. But not the success stories; those stories that reek of long hours of painstaking detail work, rehearsals, coaching, prompting, cajoling, soothing, pep-talking, and a thousand other day-to-day details that most parents … most good parents … have down pat. They’re what’s needed to get the average child through an average day. They’re also what’s needed to get a not-so-average spy through a not-so-average day. Then there’s the abject terror of discovery, of arrest, of imprisonment, and of death, not only your own, but those of your entire family, as well. These are the feelings that live with you, from the time when you first awaken until you nod off, and often in your dreams and nightmares, as well. Every day when you awaken, your first thought is, “Today is the day I’ll be caught.” Several times a day your heart will be startled into overdrive, hammering; and this drum-like beating will, you’re absolutely certain, be visible and audible to all.

All of this stems from an innate sense of selflessness, honor and patriotism; a feeling that comes all too seldom in today’s mercenary, self-gratification world. These qualities are common in many government, and especially military and intelligence community workers. These are the same qualities absent in much of the rest of the world, which only serves to exacerbate the gulf between the groups, and which moves understanding of these a little further away each day.

Briefly, Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski was a Polish staff officer of the highest caliber, a member of a group noted for hundreds of years for their military acumen, bravery and leadership. Through his hands passed most of the documents that a nation and a group of nations, the Soviet Bloc, used to assess and plan for the group’s defense and offense against its perceived enemies, real or imagined. These documents detailed their intentions, their strengths, their weaknesses, their goals, fears, and all the details, both great and small, of their dominant strength in number, quantity, depth and breadth. And when your own numbers are significantly smaller than your adversary’s, as was the case with the US, they become of tremendous strategic value and importance.

It’s no secret that, had the Soviet Bloc implemented the plans for martial law in Poland during those tense months of 1981 and 1982, the US would have gone to war. And the US would have used nuclear weapons. It was the only way the US, and the West, would have been able to overcome the far greater numbers of Soviet Bloc troops and equipment. Poland and Germany would have both most likely been flattened, with human loss in the hundreds of thousands, at minimum.

The fact that none of this actually occurred is thanks to one man in particular, Colonel Kuklinski, and to the hundreds of CIA officers who daily risked their lives to meet with him, to take his information and papers and pass them up the line, eventually to land on President Reagan’s desk. Kuklinski and these CIA officers risked death and imprisonment daily, servicing dead drops, utilizing moving car passes, brush passes, and other exchanges to obtain and pass on the immeasurably valuable documents, films and information that Colonel Kuklinski was passing.

It isn’t often a man is called a hero, but that is the word used by CIA Director Hayden, and many others, when describing Colonel Kuklinski’s actions and deeds. “One of the greatest heroes of the Cold War,” were Hayden’s exact words.

Immediately following Director Hayden, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to President Carter, and longtime highly esteemed and influential intelligence analyst, called Kuklinski’s acts and documents of “truly great strategic value.” After the leaking of the martial law plans, Brzezinski was the man who faced down a Marshal of the Soviet Union who had been boasting of how Soviet forces would overrun Poland, Germany, and eventually the Western forces: “Within three hours of the beginning of hostilities, you’ll all be dead,” Brzezinski told the man, leaving no doubt of the US’s intent to use nuclear weapons.

Those in attendance were also given a private viewing of a Polish film scheduled to be released early next year, War Games, produced by well-known Polish producer Darius Jablonski, of Apple Film Productions. This is a compelling, highly emotional film which covers Kuklinski’s initial motivations and aims, his deeds over the decade-long period of spying for the West, through the highly dangerous evacuation of Colonel Kuklinski and his family. It also covers Kuklinski’s death sentence, his eventual exoneration, a bit about his later life in the US, and his death in 2004.

Following the film was a short panel with Colonel Kuklinski’s former “handlers,” including Michael Sulick, the current Director of Clandestine Services, who gave the operational perspective; Aris Pappas, a former analyst, who gave the analytical perspective; and David Forden, former operations officer, who gave a personal and operational perspective. All were actively involved with Colonel Kuklinski on a day-to-day basis prior to and following his evacuation.

All attendees were given a copy of the book A Secret Life, by Benjamin Weiser, who also gave the closing remarks, a short talk regarding Kuklinski, his bravery and sense of honor, and the writing of the book. We were also given a packet of information summarizing the day's activities, along with a DVD containing many of the over forty thousand(!) pages of information passed to the West by Colonel Kuklinski.

There were dozens of distinguished guests, including  Colonel Kuklinski's grandson, the film’s producer Darius Jablonski, his director and staff.

There followed a reception in the Upper Lobby of CIA’s Original Headquarters Building, with finger food and drinks, and with plenty of opportunity to speak with and question most of those in attendance. There were also discreetly curtained off areas, with muscular ushers who all had these strange bulges under their arms, politely but firmly directing people anyplace but behind the curtains.

Some things I came away with include:

During Sulick’s remarks, he commented how intelligence work is like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, the individual pieces of which you’re fed one by one. To complicate matters, you have no picture on the front of the box, so you have no clue as to what the final picture is supposed to look like once you’re fed all the pieces. And you never know when you’ve been given all the pieces.

During Brzezinski’s comments, he recounted the Soviet Bloc opposition which was preparing to overrun Poland in December, 1980: twenty-one total divisions, made up of eighteen Soviet, two Polish, and one East German, all set to quell the Polish Solidarity uprisings which began in the Gdansk shipyards. They were faced down by Brzezinski, who spoon-fed the Soviet information back that Kuklinski had given them on Soviet & East Bloc intentions.

This period was the closest we’ve been to nuclear war during the entire Cold War.

Colonel Kuklinski’s CIA case officers were involved in sixty-three moving car exchanges, countless brush passes, countless clandestine meetings, and countless phone calls from safe phones, and many face-to-face meetings. The truly amazing fact is that there were no mistakes in nine years, any one of which would have spelled doom for Kuklinski and his family.

At a staff meeting with only a handful, four or five, other senior officers, Kuklinski was confronted directly, along with the others, about the leaks of highly classified information and documents to the West. “One of you is a spy!” their inquisitor dramatically stated. Kuklinski just knew that this was to be his final day on Earth. A twist of fate prevented him from being the first man asked, when his inquisitor turned to his left rather than right, and went around the table clockwise rather than counter-clockwise. Had he been first, Kuklinski stated he would most likely have confessed. He was that terrified. The short lag as the inquisitor made his way around the table was, Kuklinski stated, the only thing that saved him, by giving him just a little more time to compose himself and prepare his response.

Both of Colonel Kuklinski’s sons died under questionable circumstances.

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About Lou Novacheck

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/dan_miller Dan(Miller)

    A fascinating article, which I had somehow missed until now. I also found, read and enjoyed your earlier article on Strobe Talbott. Perhaps “enjoyed” is not the best word — Mr. Talbott seems to be a thoroughly disgusting person, and the country is poorer for failing to treat him as such.

    Please write more in the BC Politics section. Your perspective and insights are refreshing and all too rare here.

    Dan(Miller)

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I read this highly interesting article yesterday and had intended to comment on it, but the mind it doth wander – so thanks to Dan the Miller for bringing it back to my attention…

    I wasn’t previously aware that the Solidarity crisis had been one of the Cold War’s nuclear ‘near misses’. It’s not mentioned in any of the lists of ‘almosts’ I’ve come across – which range from about six to twenty incidents, so this seems to be genuinely new information: a rare commodity these days.

    Highly commendable stuff – both the article and the brave actions of Colonel Kuklinski.

  • Lou

    Thank you for the comments.

    I just posted a book review along this same line, although it’s not out of Edit as yet. It’s on a book about the convicted CIA spy Larry Chin, entitled “The Spy Within.”