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  • A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid To Save His Country
  • Mark M. Lowenthal
A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid To Save His Country. By Benjamin Weiser. New York: Public Affairs, 2005 [2004]. ISBN 1-58648-305-6. Photographs. Notes. Index. Pp. xv, 383. $16.00.

Espionage is the staple of intelligence fiction. In reality, espionage provides a very small part of intelligence collection, much more of it coming from technical sources. But the right spy in the right place with good access can be crucial. And, as most intelligence practitioners will acknowledge, the most useful spies tend to be "walk ins," spies who volunteer rather than being recruited. Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, and several others "walked in" to the Soviet Union; Oleg Penkovsky and Ryszard Kuklinski "walked in" to the United States.

Kuklinski, a Polish General Staff officer, became convinced that he was on the wrong side in the Cold War and that Poland was a poorly treated [End Page 1184] Soviet vassal, not a truly independent state. He believed that spying for the U.S. was an act of Polish patriotism.

Bernard Weiser's A Secret Life is a well-written account of Kuklinski's life. Weiser is especially good on what motivated Kuklinski to become a spy. The Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the subservience of all Warsaw Pact militaries to an evidently aggressive Soviet military were major factors. Kuklinski comes across as patriotic, moral, and driven. On several occasions his CIA handlers suggested that he suspend his activities, either to allay suspicion or to give Kuklinski a rest. Kuklinski would agree but would go on copying crucial documents nonetheless, providing a voluminous trove over seven years.

Weiser's book is based on CIA files and interviews. He handled the issue of access to classified material rather deftly, getting the CIA to allow a retired officer to read the files and pull material, which the CIA then reviewed and passed to Weiser. Thus, Weiser could write from documents without worrying that he was including something that he could not use or might have inadvertently committed to memory. Some of the quotes from documents seem a bit long but the sources are solid and there is abundant espionage "tradecraft."

A key component of Kuklinski's story is what happened after he and his family were brought out of Poland by the CIA in 1981. Kuklinski was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. Even after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, the sentence remained in effect, although it was later commuted to twenty-five years. President Lech Walensa deflected U.S. efforts to have the sentence overturned. Many Poles felt Kuklinski had betrayed Poland, disagreeing with his motives. Many Polish officers resented his actions and opposed his exoneration. After all, if Kuklinski was a patriot for spying on Poland, what did that say about all those officers who faithfully served the Polish government and, by extension, the Soviet Union?

Weiser does not delve too deeply into the broader military ethical issues but he does provide a good starting point. What are the responsibilities of a soldier who has profound problems with the ethical, moral, and political nature of his government? We laud Kuklinski, or Claus von Stauffenberg, but we do not want to end up in a situation where the ethical and moral bar is set so low for officers to act that we have near chaos. How do we determine the limits of military dissent and the point at which acts like Kuklinski's can be justified? For those interested in military affairs these issues, highlighted by Kuklinski's extraordinary life, may be the real value of this book.

Mark M. Lowenthal
Intelligence & Security Academy
Arlington, Virginia


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 1184-1185
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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