Frenemies: How the CIA and Polish Spies Went from Bitter Rivals to Post-Cold War Comrades

From Warsaw With Love is a basket of entertaining spy stories with hard lessons for wannabe US allies  

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Fans of fast-paced international spy stories will enjoy author and journalist John Pomfret’s well-crafted book, From Warsaw With Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance, out this week from Henry Holt and Co.

Conceived in the early 1990s, during Pomfret’s two decades at The Washington Post covering wars, revolutions and China, From Warsaw With Love is much more than a spy story. The book portrays clandestine competition and partnerships between Poland and the U.S. that span five decades, from some of the harshest days of their Cold War intelligence battles through the post-communist government’s decision to host a CIA black site, and beyond. It’s a tale rich with historical accounts based on the highly regarded journalist’s interviews of former agents and officials and declassified Polish archives as well as contemporary observations of U.S.-Polish relations and the broader lessons of their secret partnership, including advice to “every country seeking to navigate today’s fractured geopolitical landscape.” It’s a masterpiece of historical investigative reporting.

At the heart of the book is a whiskey-soaked, clandestine operation during the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War that has to be read to be believed. It recounts in impressive detail how Polish agents, who had only just begun to develop closer ties with their US counterparts—exfiltrated six U.S. intelligence and military officers from Iraq, a mission of such significance, Pomfret writes, that it “opened the floodgates for an alliance between Washington and Warsaw and joint intelligence operations that would span the globe.” No surprise there: As he notes, Poland had a long track record of impressive intelligence wins, including breaking Soviet codes to defeat the Red Army in 1920 and decoding Nazi German cable traffic with their own Enigma machine in 1930.

To put the Iraq caper in perspective, the late Joe Wilson, then-deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Iraq, told Pomfret that one of the Americans stranded in Baghdad, U.S. Army officer John Feeley, possessed “critical military intelligence that would be of strategic importance to the Iraqis.” And Feeley, now retired, had this to say to Pomfret about why he knew his bosses would find some way to rescue him: “They didn’t want me to have my feet in a barrel of acid. They didn’t want me telling Saddam everything that was going to happen.” 

Thread to Yarn

Pomfret first got wind of the stranger-than-fiction exfiltration yarn in Warsaw in 1994, during a respite from war-reporting duty in Sarajevo. Tipped that Polish construction workers in Iraq had been involved, he dug around among the companies and on his thirteenth try found a man named Eugeniusz,  an Arabic-speaking engineer in western Poland who had been around the Middle East since the late 1960s. Pomfret wrote up Eugeniusz’s story about how the Poles saved the U.S. officers and asked for comment from Poland’s spy agency. In short order he was summoned to the ministry, where he met another key character in the book, spy chief Gromoslaw “Gromek” Czempinski, whom he describes with some justification as being a dead ringer for actor Tom Selleck. His account of how he persuaded an Iraqi woman transportation ministry official to get exit visas for the trapped Americans is one of the more cinematic, and  ultimately more depressing, episodes in the book. 

“If there was a little bit of Casablanca’s Humphrey Bogart in Gromek, there was a little bit of Ingrid Bergman in her,” Pomfret writes. “In the movie, Bogart’s character, Rick, ensures that Bergman’s character, Ilsa, makes it to safety. But Czempiński didn’t follow the script. He flew out of Baghdad alone.” There is nothing to suggest the Americans got her out, either.

Pomfret dug backwards and forwards around this exfiltration story to find the origins of the extraordinary Cold War-era successes of Poland’s intelligence services against the U.S. and their coming together in the post-Soviet period. In this he finds the seeds of a relationship with the CIA that culminated in its eventual hosting of one of the agency’s black-site “enhanced interrogations” centers.  

It started in the late 1970s, with one of the book’s most intriguing characters, a U.S.-based Polish machine tools salesman-cum-spy named Marian Zacharski, who at that time was becoming a legend among FBI agents and CIA officers for his thefts of America’s most closely-held military secrets. (I won’t give away what happened to him—it’s just too good.) But from there, Pomfret takes his readers across the decades to a pivotal Oval Office conversation not long after the 9/11 attacks between then-Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and George W. Bush. 

“I’ve got a favor” [to ask], Bush said in the July 2002 encounter, according to Kwasniewski. Washington needed a place to question terrorist suspects without bringing them to the United States, where they’d be afforded lawyers and other legal protections. Kwasniewski agreed on the spot, believing past U.S. support for Poland, and the country’s ongoing need for support as it tried to enter the European Union, left him no choice. By the following spring, as Kwasniewski tells Pomfret, the Polish government  decided enough was enough. Kwasniewski called up Bush and said,  “George, it’s time to wrap it up.” 

Pomfret says Washington agreed, reluctantly, after what he described as between seven and eleven “high-value detainees” had cycled through a secret CIA prison at Poland’s Intelligence Training Center, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times over 15 sessions that spanned two weeks. As Pomfret notes, it is unclear any actionable intelligence emerged from the site.

The Deepest Cuts

A key element in From Warsaw With Love is what could generally be described as its critique of U.S. failures to act responsibly in the relationship. Pomfret lays out in detail how, in 2017,  Poland’s defense minister Antoni Macierewicz, a member of the ruling, far-right Law and Justice Party, pushed through legislation that dramatically cut the pensions of over 24,000 former employees of the Communist-era security services, part of the point being to pauperize the officers who’d built Poland’s special relationship with America. The pensions of Andrzej Maronde, the chief Polish intelligence officer in Baghdad who helped save the six Americans and delivered a crucial map of Baghdad to Washington, and intelligence officer Andrzej Derlatka, who supported Poland’s entry to NATO,  fell to $300 a month. The CIA let Poland down, Pomfret writes, by not “speaking up for a whole generation of Polish officers when they were too old to fight.”

Pomfret also knocks the U.S. for not pushing back against crackdowns on the judiciary and other hardline measures that continue in Poland. “The United States and its friends in Poland didn’t work to win the Cold War for an authoritarian theocracy to replace a Communist state,” he remarks. He ends his story with an observation by Polish politician and journalist Radoslaw Sikorski. Being a U.S. ally is like marrying a hippo, he quotes him as saying. At first, it’s warm and cuddly. Then the hippo turns, crushes you, and doesn’t even notice. The United States, Pomfret concludes, would be well advised to be the best hippo it can be. “After all, there’s more than one hippo out there.” 

More with author John Pomfret

Elaine Monaghan caught up with Pomfret for an interview a few days before publication. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

EM: Did you start out with the intention of focusing on episodes in the story about spycraft?

A: Palevich [former U.S. intelligence officer John Palevich] really put the idea of tradecraft in my head and praised his Polish foes, not just Zacharski, but other people, saying these guys were really good. … The whole Zakharski story was kind of hilarious in a way because Marian wasn’t a spy. … He was kind of like a baseball player who, you know, is just called up as a rookie and he hits like 25 home runs …And then you ask yourself why, and I think the answer is given by one of the characters in the book who basically says if you are Poland and you don't have a good spy service you cease to exist, given the neighborhood they live in.

EM: The book is called From Warsaw With Love, but is it also a love letter to Poland?

I’m a recovering China person, and it was just so enjoyable to write a story about people who wanted to talk to you. And there were things they couldn’t tell me but they were generally supportive of the idea. The guys who forged this alliance have been unnecessarily menaced by the current Polish government …They said they were willing to do almost anything for the United States … and at a certain point the U.S. government and the CIA basically turned around and just said, “Oh well, who is Poland, what is Poland.” And I think that kind of pattern in how the United States treats its allies, it’s something that you see around the world … I just found their fidelity to the relationship was just really extraordinary and you kind of understand why.

EM: Is the fidelity still there? Has it changed irrevocably?

I have no doubt there is a significant amount of joint operations happening between the two sides, partly because the CIA was initially extremely willing to help, and when they got the understanding that my book was going to be a broader book, not simply about that one incident in Iraq, they got cold feet, and the explanation for why they wouldn’t help was quote unquote “equities in the building.” Generally speaking, in CIA talk, equities in the building almost always means the clandestine services and I think that they just didn’t want to kind of roil the waters of the relationship by lionizing these quote unquote “ex-communists” whom the current government has in its sights.

EM: What is your big takeaway on the Polish black site?

The interesting thing is that the people who were at the forefront of approving it were people who had been on the communist side of the leger during the communist period … So they had no experience of the human rights problem. … Secondly, I think the CIA really played on—and the American government really played on—the necessity of the ex-communists to prove time and time again that they weren’t really communist anymore, and one way they could do that would be to do anything that we asked and to show us how loyal they were.

EM: Were there any surprises during your research? Were there things you did not expect to find out?

There were fortuitous developments that kind of really gave me the chills … The Institute of National Remembrance [originally established to investigate crimes under Warsaw’s communist regimes] began to declassify files about the relationship, and without those files  it would have been a much different book. I got the assistance of historians who work with the IPN and they really helped me a lot…. There’s just so much texture and richness and you can really get the feeling of what they were feeling back then and then you can compare it with your interviews today.

Did it dramatically change what you focused on … Were you expecting to get more on the American side? Did your Polish sources change the trajectory of the book?

Yes, it definitely changed the trajectory of the book. I was going to have an interview with the chief historian of the CIA and public affairs officials to go over documents that they were going to release to me. … It wasn’t like meeting someone in a coffee shop. … it was going to be an official meeting with the CIA.

In the reporting for the book there was always this tantalizing sense I had of what am I missing, because I know I’m missing stuff. … It’s the tantalizing fact that in some cases I even knew what the missions were called but I had no idea what they were and that bedeviled me throughout the whole process of the book. I kind of have a fantasy that some guy is going to call me up and say, ‘Hey, by the way, I was with the Poles at x, y and z. Let’s talk.”

A note to readers: Elaine Monaghan, a veteran former foreign correspondent with Reuters and The Times of London, lived in the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Warsaw between 2009 and 2012, when her husband was serving as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Poland.

For more stories of espionage and intrigue related to both current and past events, check out the SpyTalk podcast on Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.