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  • A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission and the Price He Paid to Save His Country
  • Andrzej Paczkowski
Benjamin Weiser , A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission and the Price He Paid to Save His Country. New York: Public Affairs, 2004. 383 pp. $ 27.50.

Whenever I read monographs about foreign intelligence or the biographies of spies, I am beset by doubts about the books' reliability even if they are based on authentic documents. Intelligence services normally are loath to reveal their secrets. On the rare occasions when they consent to the release of documents, they may just be playing some sort of game. The fear that this is exactly what is taking place pertains also to events from the past, as with Benjamin Weiser's book. After the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the release of documents about Cold War events presumably would no longer cause harm to the countries involved, but the intelligence services in Poland, the United States, and the former Soviet Union—the main parties in the events discussed by Weiser—have been notoriously reluctant to declassify information about espionage. Nonetheless, because of the role and personality of the hero of A Secret Life and because of Weiser's doggedness in arriving at the truth, his book is worthy of careful study.

The story is simple. In 1972, Colonel Ryszard Kukliński, a senior officer on the Polish general staff who had become disillusioned with the Communist system and dismayed by Poland's dependence on the Soviet Union, offered to cooperate with the United States. He was hoping to organize a larger conspiracy with Polish officers who shared his views. The functionaries from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who were his first partners (and not U.S. Army officers, as Kukliński wanted) concluded that the idea was unrealistic, and they convinced him that he would help the United States—the enemy of his enemy—much more effectively by spiriting out the information to which he had access. This is precisely what ensued: For roughly eight years, "Jack Strong" (as Kukliński was known to his CIA handlers) systematically smuggled out documents concerning both the Polish army and the Warsaw Pact. Starting in the autumn of 1980, he also provided documents concerning preparations for the imposition of martial law in Poland. In November 1981, as Polish counterintelligence investigators closed in, Kukliński and his family were evacuated clandestinely to the United States. Two-and-a-half years later, a Polish military court sentenced him to death in absentia. During the 1990s both of the colonel's sons died in the United States in circumstances that are still unexplained. Numerous observers believe that their deaths were a form of revenge exacted by the former Soviet special services. [End Page 120]

For this reason alone, Kukliński may be recognized as a tragic figure. Even after the systemic transformation in Poland in 1989, a surprisingly large number of ordinary Poles, not to mention many of Kukliński's former colleagues and superiors in the Polish army, still regarded him as a "traitor." Only in the wake of multiple political and legal endeavors was he finally able to visit his homeland in 1998, after the deaths of his sons. Although Kukliński had just as many supporters as opponents, his comments often reflected disappointment, a sentiment he likely harbored at the time of his death in February 2004, when the Polish press was publishing commentaries about Weiser's book. Some of the commentators revived the charge of "treason," an accusation voiced—once again—by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, a guru of the Polish post-Communists who fosters nostalgia for the "good old days."

Although Weiser devotes much space in his book to precisely this problem (the chapters "Patriot or Traitor?" and "Return"), he also looks closely at Kukliński's pre-1972 biography. None of the background material is especially exciting—Kukliński was an intelligent, industrious, and enterprising officer who was repeatedly promoted and attained not only a high post (the head of a general staff department) but also won the full trust of his Polish...