The C.I.A. has the closest relationships with the intelligence services from other English-speaking democracies — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. So close that their alliance is named the Five Eyes. Even make-believe American and British operatives are thick as thieves. James Bond’s compadre is none other than the C.I.A. officer Felix Leiter, who returns in the latest Bond thriller, “No Time to Die.”
But a hugely important intelligence relationship is with another country: Poland. Out of the way, under the radar, the officers from this nation have functioned for decades almost as an adjunct to the agency. “Poland is the 51st state,” a C.I.A. official once recalled James Pavitt, a former director of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service, as saying. “Americans have no idea.”
The roots of this close relationship stretch back to the Cold War. It’s a story of bravery, blood bonds and, of course, betrayal. For the United States, the alliance gave it a loyal ally with assets in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Poland gained the opportunity to rid itself of the Soviet yoke and integrate into the Western bloc. But Poland paid a heavy price.
It started in the early 1980s, when a Polish spy named Marian Zacharski led the F.B.I. on a cat-and-mouse chase for months in Los Angeles. Under the nose of F.B.I. agents, Mr. Zacharski transmitted to Warsaw reams of classified documents. He was ultimately captured and convicted. John Palevich — a C.I.A. officer who accompanied Mr. Zacharski to Berlin in 1985 for a prisoner exchange — remembers being so impressed with Mr. Zacharski’s tradecraft that he promised himself one day he’d work with, not against, the likes of that Polish spy.
Mr. Palevich got his chance after semidemocratic elections in 1989 ushered in a government led by activists from the Solidarity trade union. On March 1, 1990, he rang the bell at the Polish Embassy in Lisbon and talked his way into an audience with the station chief. Mr. Palevich revealed his real passport (he’d used at least six others during his career) and home phone number and proposed a meeting between the C.I.A. and Poland’s spies. A special relationship had begun.
The Poles soon had a chance to show what they could do. After those meetings, in October 1990, the Poles dispatched a famed Communist-era spy to Iraq to save six American intelligence and military officers who had been stuck in Baghdad after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Operation Friendly Saddam, as it was called, opened the door for cooperation between Poland and the United States. “It quickly became a kind of blood bond between the two services,” recalled Bill Norville, who was the C.I.A.’s station chief in Warsaw at the time and oversaw what soon became a flood of new joint operations.
The C.I.A. found itself working with Polish spies across the globe. “There was literally nothing they wouldn’t do to support us,” Mr. Norville said. And, he added, given America’s trust in Poland’s espionage capabilities, “there was very little we wouldn’t ask them to do to support us.” The C.I.A. declined to comment on my forthcoming book on this history, “From Warsaw With Love.
A key benefit to the Americans was Poland’s access in countries where the United States had no presence. This was true in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
Poland had fostered close ties to North Korea during the Communist era. In 1986 and ’87 alone 280 Polish delegates, including military officers, pianists, scientists and businesspeople, visited North Korea. After the Cold War ended, Poland’s connections and insights into North Korea were a treasure trove for the United States. Soon according to my research, the Poles also began taking American-made intelligence equipment to their embassy in North Korea to fill up the otherwise empty space.
Cuba was another place where Poland had assets. I talked to Poland’s first post-Communist station chief in Washington, a veteran officer, Ryszard Uniwersal, who said he arrived in the United States with a long list of contacts in Havana. He was stationed there in the late 1970s, had met Fidel Castro and had established intelligence links to Cuba’s spy agency.
The Poles trusted the C.I.A. and treated its officers in Poland as if they were all members of the same service. American intelligence officers with whom I’ve spoken recalled roaming through the headquarters of the Polish spy agency unescorted.
That trust proved misplaced.
In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, the C.I.A. asked Polish officials whether the country would allow the United States to hold terrorist suspects on Polish territory. According to Poland’s president at the time, Aleksander Kwasniewski, the Poles asked the C.I.A. to commit on paper to a certain standard of treatment for the prisoners. The C.I.A. refused to sign. The Poles agreed anyway. (The C.I.A. declined to comment on the matter.)
The first detainees began arriving in December 2002. By then, the C.I.A. had set up what would become the most important of the agency’s black sites, in a two-story villa on the campus of an intelligence training base in Poland.
The accused mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, ended up spending time there. He was waterboarded over two weeks at the facility in March 2003 and has said that he realized he was in Poland when he saw “.pl,” the Polish internet country code, on a water bottle.
Polish officials have said they were uncomfortable with the fact that the U.S. had barred them from the villa. Still, senior Polish officials told me they believed the C.I.A. when it promised to keep secret Poland’s participation in the black sites. The site was shut down in September 2003. But in November 2005 sources leaked to American reporters that there were secret sites in Eastern Europe. And when President George W. Bush finally acknowledged the existence of secret overseas prisons in a speech on Sept. 6, 2006, Poland’s leaders worried that the country’s site would be uncovered. They felt burned.
“Which Polish prime minister will authorize an operation that violates Polish law in the future?” asked Radoslaw Sikorski, a Polish former minister of defense who had managed other secret missions with the United States. “It was a violation of trust,” Mr. Kwasniewski told me.
In 1994, when Michael Sulick was the C.I.A.’s chief of station in Warsaw, he had a premonition that this type of crisis would befall the two nations. “We have an incredible relationship now,” he told his friends at Polish intelligence, “but at a certain point, we’re going to screw you.”
“Not like the Soviets would screw you,” he added. “We’ll think we’re well meaning, that everything will work out fine, but despite our best intentions, we will screw you.”
Even so, the C.I.A. cultivated the Poles.
Two Polish officers showed me awards they received from the C.I.A. over the past few years. In 2004 the C.I.A. awarded four Polish officers the Legion of Merit, the U.S. military’s most prestigious award for foreigners. In 2008, a second team of Polish spies was given the Legion of Merit for a mission collecting air samples to test for the presence of enriched uranium near nuclear facilities in Iran.
Yet over time, the relationship has cooled. The current Polish government is led by the Law and Justice Party, which has begun a political campaign against the very men who forged the American alliance. Thirty years after Communism ended in Poland, the Law and Justice Party remains obsessed with punishing all who served the old guard. But more important is the simple fact that foes and friends alike know that Poland is an American ally.
“Poland is now perceived no longer as an independent country but as a country actively helping the United States in intelligence,” observed Marek Dukaczewski, who directed Poland’s military intelligence agency from 2001 to 2005.
The relationship is no longer as special as it once was.
John Pomfret (@JEPomfret) is a former Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post. He is the author of the forthcoming book “From Warsaw With Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance,” from which this essay is adapted.