From Warsaw with Love

The training for new CIA case officers is, for the most part, practical and vitally important for the grooming and development of those tasked with conducting operational activities overseas.

BOOK REVIEW: From Warsaw with Love: Polish Spies, the CIA and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance

By John Pomfret / Henry Holt & Co.

Reviewed by Joseph W. Augustyn

The Reviewer — Joseph W. Augustyn retired from the CIA in 2004 after spending 28 years as a member of the Agency’s clandestine service. He served as Chief of Staff for the Deputy Director for Operations where he monitored and helped manage the CIA’s Covert Action programs.  Note: Augustyn’s review should not be taken as confirmation of the details reported in the book.

As is the case with any professional training in any field, some elements of lessons taught are more important than others. For CIA officers, there are two principles that are sacrosanct, never to be forgotten. CIA officers are told almost from day one, and reminded throughout their Agency careers, to “never fall in love with your agent” and additionally that “there is no such thing as a friendly intelligence service.”

In the book by former senior Washington Post correspondent John Pomfret titled From Warsaw with Love, the author skillfully, and entertainingly makes the case that Poland’s intelligence services never quite learned those valuable lessons.

While the US and Poland’s spy services enjoyed a mostly symbiotic relationship for decades dating back to the fall of communism in 1990, years later both (but more so the Poles) would learn the hard way that “one for all and all for one” is not a given in the murky world of intelligence.

To set the evolutionary path of this partnership – one that former CIA Director George Tenet is reported to have once said was “one of the two foremost intelligence relationships that the United States has ever had” – Pomfret interestingly begins the book by describing Poland’s industrial espionage successes against the US in the late 1980’s.  He does this primarily through the lens of Marian Zacharski, a Polish businessman turned super-spy, who recruited a Hughes Aircraft executive named William Bell on the West Coast of the United States. Bell provided classified information for years which allegedly saved the Warsaw Pact hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons research development costs.  Pomfret’s point in discussing this is, of course, to show how professional, skillful and tradecraft-savvy the Poles were from the beginning and in part, why they were considered by CIA to be worthy partners in a post-Soviet world.

The Cipher Brief hosts private briefings with the world’s most experienced national and global security experts.  Become a member today.

From Warsaw with Love is the story of an intelligence relationship that grew and matured based on trust, personalities on both the US and Polish side, convenience, and above all, timing. As the Warsaw Pact eroded in 1990, the CIA jumped into action, deciding to use money and its bevy of highly experienced and talented case officers to recruit and cajole their Polish counterparts into a partnership that the CIA argued would be mutually beneficial.

Utilizing countless former CIA, Polish and US government sources, Pomfret masterfully describes the courtship process, a process which would result, eventually, with the CIA helping to shape and mold a soon to be reimaged Polish intelligence service. For the CIA, it was a no-brainer.  The Poles were in places the CIA was not, places like North Korea and Iran and most importantly, the Poles understood the Russians and had access to invaluable and unique operational intelligence coveted by the CIA.  Pomfret describes the Poles as very willing partners, superb operators, and an organization that relished the opportunity to work with what they considered the most powerful and prestigious intelligence service in the world.

The “match made in heaven” was tested several times in the decades that followed, and Pomfret is at his best describing the events and crises that challenged and at times strained the relationship.  Almost immediately after consummating their partnership, the US found itself enmeshed in the 1990 Gulf War waged by coalition forces from 35 nations in response to Iraq’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait.  As part of his “human shield” strategy, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein placed more than 100 Americans and several thousand other foreign nationals in strategic sites in Iraq and Kuwait as a hedge against military action. Among those were six Americans the CIA wanted exfiltrated. What followed was an action by the Poles reminiscent of the script in the popular movie Argo. The CIA called upon the Polish service for its first real favor, assuring the Poles that they would be compensated handsomely for their assistance. The Poles jumped in headfirst.  

What Pomfret describes is riveting. The plan was for the Poles to disguise the Americans as Polish construction workers and somehow sneak them out of Iraq overland into Turkey.  Fake documents were prepared, uniforms were made to look worn, phony bios and passports were created, exit visas were obtained with the help of a recruited Polish asset, and the team was led out of Iraq by an Arabic speaking Polish engineer with area familiarization.  The operation was approved by President George H.W. Bush and it was a success.  When the US offered monetary compensation to the Poles, they refused, noting that “US officers were in danger…and that’s what partners are for.”  The floodgates were open.

The Cipher Brief hosts private briefings with the world’s most experienced national and global security experts.  Become a member today.

But, as Pomfret shows, it was a two-way street.  Over the years, he says, the CIA funneled money to the Poles for everything from training to equipment, and bankrolled numerous joint operations through what Pomfret calls “donations.” As for payback for the exfiltration operation in Iraq, Pomfret points out that the Poles gave credit to the CIA for supporting an informal grouping of Western governments which agreed to forgive about half of the $33 billion that Poland owed them. After all, what are partners for?

Pomfret then chronicles a number of CIA/Polish intelligence joint support operations that, in essence, helped shape the face of Poland’s post-Soviet history.  Among these, Pomfret discusses the lengths the UOP (Poland’s intelligence service) took to help the US collect intelligence on North Korea, Cuba and Iran, thinking this would contribute to Poland’s efforts to gain admission to NATO, which it did in 1999, along with Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Continually looking for opportunities to assist the US, the Poles joined the search for bin Laden in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 claiming, according to Pomfret, that one of its officers met in London with cohorts of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Massoud, who claimed they knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts, and had information on the Taliban, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, and other organizations.  Poland’s recommendation to the CIA at the time was to assassinate bin Laden.

While the US did not heed the Pole’s advice on bin Laden then, the UOP did not desist in its efforts to assist their American counterparts. Again, they were brothers-in-arms, and the US fight was Poland’s fight.  But then, according to Pomfret, one event turned the partnership south. It was a CIA request for Poland to allow the US to hold a few terrorist suspects on Polish territory, in a place that would eventually be labeled a “black site.”  This request, Pomfret reports, was reiterated privately to Poland’s President Aleksander Kwasniewski by US President George Bush at a White House meeting on July 17, 2002. As Pomfret describes it, Kwasniewski believed he had “no choice” but to approve, given that the US, and CIA in particular, had been key in Poland’s transformation from a Soviet satellite to an American ally.

As in most relationships, there are rocky times when one partner feels aggrieved, misled or, in some cases, betrayed. Such, Pomfret claims, was the case with the “black site.”  Poland was reportedly not told of the plans to use what has become known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” and once discovered, he says they ordered the site shuttered and closed.  Despite this reported setback of trust, the Poles still stood with the US when it invaded Iraq in 2003 and in fact, sent its special forces unit (trained by the US) into battle in Mosul, Fallujah and Baqubah, proclaiming proudly that ‘We are America’s ally.” 

So, what did it take to finally undermine a relationship that seemed to withstand the test of time? According to Pomfret, it was the 2015 parliamentary election of Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party which was set on expunging all those who served in any capacity in communist Poland.  Unfortunately, this included the core of those intelligence officers who the CIA relied upon, trusted, utilized and had adopted as brothers-in-arms for decades.  When, according to Pomfret, the CIA refused to come to the aid of its colleagues and pressure the Polish government to end its crusade against those formerly associated with the communist party, the historic and indomitable partnership was wounded and left on life-support.

In From Warsaw with Love, Pomfret has succeeded in telling a fascinating and important story in a highly readable and compelling fashion.  His description of events, the personalities involved, and the way he interposes the concepts of loyalty and duty to country, makes this a must read for those interested not only in Polish-American relations, but also those interested in gaining a deeper and more profound understanding of intelligence liaison relationships and the idiosyncrasies inherent therein. 

This book earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.

Read more Under/Cover book reviews in The Cipher Brief

Read Under/Cover interviews with authors and publishers in The Cipher Brief

Interested in submitting a book review?  Check out our guidelines here

Sign up for our free Undercover newsletter to make sure you stay on top of all of the new releases and expert reviews

Read more expert national security perspectives and analysis in The Cipher Brief

More Book Reviews

Comments are closed.

Related Articles