The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship: The Central Intelligence Agency and the Polish Security Service in 1990
Documents on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive detail the beginnings of intelligence cooperation between two former Cold War adversaries, the CIA and the Polish security services.
Newly translated and published documents on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive detail the cooperation between two former Cold War adversaries, the CIA and the Polish security services, that commenced in 1990.
1989 was a year of revolutionary change in Poland. In June, partly free elections were held for the first time. Quite unexpectedly, the election proved to be a great victory for the opposition candidates grouped around the leader of the Solidarity movement, Lech Wałęsa.
Although the long-ruling Polish United Workers’ Party managed to push through the election of General Wojciech Jaruzelski to the presidency, they were no longer able to appoint a communist candidate for the office of Prime Minister. In August, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a close advisor to Wałęsa, took this office.
Nevertheless, the new non-communist head of government had to account for a difficult political reality: the communists still exercised power over the security services and the military, and Poland was still a member of the Warsaw Pact and of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON).
For this reason, Prime Minister Mazowiecki decided to entrust the offices of Ministers of Interior and Defense to several close associates of General Jaruzelski. Mazowiecki appointed General Florian Siwicki to head the Ministry of National Defense and asked General Czesław Kiszczak to continue to lead the Ministry of Interior, which he had been in charge of since 1981.
Waldemar Kuczynski, the closest advisor to Prime Minister Mazowiecki, explained years later why Mazowiecki made these surprising personnel decisions. Kuczynski wrote that:
“Kiszczak was in this government at the explicit request of Tadeusz [Mazowiecki]. Kiszczak was the author of the Round Table and defended this agreement against its critics in the Polish United Workers’ Party. He also guaranteed control over the security apparatus.”
According to the Prime Minister, these personnel decisions were a price that had to be paid in order to ensure a conflict-free transition and an evolutionary transfer of power in Poland.
This approach was also preferable to the U.S. administration under President George Bush, who was personally interested in stability in Central and Eastern Europe and wished to avoid chaos in the region. Indeed, Jaruzelski, who was hesitant to apply for the office of Polish President, sought support for his position not only with Gorbachev but also with Bush. The US president recalled that:
“Jaruzelski opened his heart and asked me what role I thought he should now play. He told me of his reluctance to run for president and his desire to avoid a political tug-of-war that Poland did not need. He did not think Solidarity would provide enough support for his election, and he worried about the humiliation of being defeated. I told him his refusal to run might inadvertently lead to serious instability and I urged him to reconsider. It was ironic: Here was an American president trying to persuade a senior Communist leader to run for office. But I felt that Jaruzelski’s experience was the best hope for a smooth transition in Poland”.
With President Bush’s backing, the US Ambassador to Warsaw even asked a group of Solidarity politicians to facilitate the election of Jaruzelski to the presidency by abstaining from voting. The Americans were convinced that if the candidate of the Polish United Workers’ Party had not been elected to the presidency, the country would be on the edge of the civil war, which could in turn destabilize other parts of Central and Eastern Europe.
The US administration sent signals of support for both Jaruzelski's activities as President and to his allies in the defense and internal affairs ministries in the coming months. According to information from Polish intelligence, the Department of State in 1990 praised Jaruzelski's political talent and his role in Poland’s peaceful political transformation. When Tadeusz Mazowiecki visited the White House in early 1990, he was greeted with words of praise for maintaining an evolutionary pace of change.
At that time, alongside many other new developments in Polish-American relations, the establishment of relations between Polish and American intelligence agencies commenced.
During his visit to Washington, Mazowiecki met with William H. Webster, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. With Webster, the Polish Prime Minister discussed the relaxation of restrictions imposed by COCOM, including the embargo on the supply of state-of-the-art technology to Eastern bloc countries. Webster said that he “[had] some signals” that the CIA and the Polish intelligence service were interested in “cooperating with each other in certain areas, such as the fight against terrorism.” Webster offered his personal assurance that he was in favor of strengthening cooperation in this field.
John H. Sununu, the White House Chief of Staff, argued later that “the Prime Minister's [Mazowiecki] conversation with the CIA director was important for the climate of the talks, the atmosphere of openness and emphasized the Polish side's willingness to take account of the concerns of the US side. It was well received. It will facilitate the resolution of the COCOM case, allowing for [keeping] future contacts that were previously unthinkable.”
The results of this meeting became the cornerstone of a subsequent agreement between the two intelligence agencies. Paul Redmond of the CIA explained in June 1990 that “Mazowiecki’s talks with Webster, the volatility of the situation in the USSR and the danger of the Gorbachev’s downfall point to the need for cooperation between the two intelligence services."
In early March 1990, the CIA decided to open a dialogue with the Polish intelligence service. The operation was authorized by Paul Redmond, Deputy Director of the Directorate of Operations, for the USSR and Eastern Europe.
An officer named John Palevich was sent to Lisbon. A grandson of Polish emigrant, Palevich had worked for the CIA since the early 1960s, including in Poland under diplomatic cover.
Portugal was selected as the contact place because the CIA was convinced the country promised greater secrecy from the prying eyes of the intelligence services of Warsaw Pact member states. But the location also created some challenges. Palevich, for example, was unable to choose the Polish intelligence officer with whom he could make contact.
The resident in Lisbon was Ryszard Tomaszewski. During the first meeting between Palevich and Tomaszewski, the CIA officer introduced himself with his real name, showed his passport, and openly revealed his status as a CIA Officer. Palevich explained that the CIA wanted to engage with the Polish intelligence service in order to "cooperate on maintaining balance in Europe in the context of the changes taking place in Warsaw Pact countries and the forthcoming German unification," according to a “top secret” report summarizing the encounter.
Tomaszewski was frightened by the whole ordeal. It did not even cross his mind that Palevich genuinely wanted to establish relations between two intelligence agencies that were, until quite recently, hostile to one another. He suspected that this was an unusual attempt at recruitment or a provocation, so he treated the guest from the CIA curtly. Tomaszewski reported to his headquarters that "I interrupted him [and said] that everything he says is made up and sounds like a stupid joke…[I told him] that the arrogance with which this provocation is launched is shocking."
When a report about the meeting arrived in Warsaw, it caused a considerable stir. The headquarters of the intelligence service was afraid that the opportunity to establish a relationship with the CIA had been missed – a concern that was reported directly to Minister Czesław Kiszczak, who, after consulting with his Solidarity deputy, ordered the continuation of talks with Palevich. At this point, Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki also learned about the development, and gave Kiszczak his consent to continue secret talks with the CIA.
Several exploratory meetings took place in June and July 1990. According to a series of Polish documents, the CIA was particularly keen to cooperate in the fight against international terrorism, drug trafficking, and the illegal arms trade.
Indeed, number one on the agenda was terrorism. The Americans explained that one important strategy to combat the threat of terrorism was to reduce the economic and logistical basis of terrorist groups. In this way, the operational capabilities of these groups in the Middle East would be curtailed. Syria, Iran, Libya, and Iraq were listed as the main sponsors of terrorism, while Abu Nidal, Hezbollah, and the Palestine Liberation Front were considered to be the most dangerous terrorist organizations.
The problem was that, according to the CIA, these groups could find safe haven for their operations in Central and Eastern Europe. This was because the intelligence services of Warsaw Pact countries were involved in the training, financing, and support of terrorist organizations. It was important for the CIA that Poland cease its support for terrorist groups and that Warsaw begin to share its knowledge and contacts about international terrorism.
Cooperation proved to be very cost-effective for the CIA, because the Polish intelligence services offered considerable help to the United States, both during the war in Iraq and during the transit of Soviet Jews from the USSR to Israel. In return, the CIA opened a protective umbrella over the officers of former communist intelligence service. As a result, not only did they continue to serve in Poland’s newly created Office of State Protection (UOP), but also took high positions in the organization. The benefits were mutual.
In a rather unexpected turn of events, the communist-dominated Polish intelligence service ended up playing a major role in the Polish-American rapprochement at the end of the Cold War.
Translated by Jerzy Giebułtowski
The documents presented regarding the first phase of the relationship between the CIA and the Polish intelligence service come from recently declassified materials, which have been made available to public by the Institute of National Remembrance. These materials were obtained and analyzed as part of the Polish National Science Center grant "Coalition government in Poland in 1989-2001" (UMO-2019/35/B/HS3/02406), led by Prof. Antoni Dudek.
About the Author
Tomasz Kozłowski is a historian and earned a Ph.D. in political science. He currently works at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and at the Historical Research Office of the Institute of National Remembrance. He specializes in the history of “Solidarity” and the political transformation of 1989. He recently published a book about the Polish Communist secret police, titled "Koniec imperium MSW. Transformacja organów bezpieczeństwa państwa 1989–1990" (Warsaw, 2019).
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