Polish spies and the lead-up to the Madrid Summit
Once Poland came in from the cold, its connections, access, and insight into North Korea constituted a treasure trove of information for the United States.
Poland considered selling its embassy campuses in Pyongyang and other cities worldwide for a while but ultimately didn’t sell. Soon, Polish diplomatic couriers began bringing American-made intelligence equipment to the embassy in North Korea to fill up the space. Even as trade evaporated between North Korea and Poland, the traffic between Warsaw and Pyongyang picked up.
Senior CIA officers came to Poland to advise Milczanowski on how to reform the agency to cope with the challenges of the new world. They returned to Poland several times to work on terrorism-related issues and to help establish an analysis division inside the UOP.
In March 1991, following the Iraq operation, the Paris Club, an informal grouping of Western governments, agreed to forgive about half of the $33 billion that Poland owed them. In the West’s interests, it was to support Poland’s transition toward a market economy away from the Soviet bloc. And the “shock therapy” transition was already showing some results. But no nation before Poland had ever had half of its debt wiped clean. And for that, the Poles gave some credit to the CIA.
Marian Zacharski became an adviser to Andrzej Milczanowski, appointed interior minister in 1992 after the arch anti-Communist, Antoni Macierewicz resigned in disgrace. Zacharski undertook intelligence operations on the Korean peninsula, establishing good relations with his South Korean counterparts.
Inside the CIA, John Palevich sang Zacharski’s praises. Palevich’s advocacy on Zacharski’s behalf contributed to a crisis. On August 15, 1994, Milczanowski appointed Zacharski head of the UOP. Like Palevich, Milczanowski had always been taken by what he called Zacharski’s “dynamism” and liked his ideas for reforming the service. Palevich’s praise of Zacharski factored into his decision, too. “I always paid attention to anything John Palevich said,” Milczanowski recalled. Zacharski’s promotion meant that a felon convicted in a US federal court and sentenced to life in a US prison would now be running the civilian intelligence agency seeking admission into NATO.
In particular, the US government and the FBI had never forgiven Zacharski for refusing to sell out Communist Poland and defect to the United States. Zacharski was arrested in 1981 and convicted of espionage against the United States. After four years in prison, he was exchanged for American agents on Berlin’s famous Glienicke Bridge.
Milczanowski turned to Bogdan Libera, a soft-spoken, well-respected engineer, to lead the UOP. Libera was free of Zacharski’s bombast and ego. He and Milczanowski also shared a history. Libera’s family had been terrorized by Communists, too.
One Sunday in the late spring of 1994, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, General John Shalikashvili, called Ambassador Jerzy Koźmiński at Washington, DC. Warsaw-born, Shalikashvili had a warm spot in his heart for Poland and its new ambassador. He explained that the United States wanted to restore democracy on the Caribbean island nation of Haiti. Three years earlier, Haiti’s military had ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who’d won office in the first free and fair democratic election in that island’s history. A general, Raoul Cédras, had seized control in the coup. The Clinton administration had demanded that Cédras step down and make way for Aristide’s return.
Soon after, President Lech Wałęsa convened the Council of Ministers and asked how long it would take the Ministry of Defense to muster a unit for Haiti. ‘Six months,’ came the reply. Andrzej Milczanowski interrupted. It’ll take me ‘six hours.’
Against that backdrop, the rise in Poland of former Communists, who’d renamed their party the Democratic Left Alliance (or the SLD), concerned Washington. In September 1993, the SLD won the most seats in the third parliamentary election since 1989. Although it publicly embraced the same foreign policy plank as the right-wing government, it replaced, in Washington, doubts remained.
Then, in 1995, the leader of the SLD, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a mediagenic former Communist student activist, announced he was running for president against the incumbent Lech Wałęsa. With his walrus mustache and man-of-the-people demeanor, Wałęsa had been an inspiring revolutionary. But he’s proven to be a shambolic manager as Solidarity’s coalition of workers and intellectuals fractured into political parties. As one observer put it, “Heroes do not make good politicians.” Wałęsa stumbled badly in the campaign, losing the sole debate to the younger, smoother Kwaśniewski. On November 19, Polish voters chose Kwaśniewski, the first ex-Communist elected president in Poland and Eastern Europe.
In 2015 the right-populist PiS party unequivocally won the presidential and then parliamentary elections, turning the country dramatically around. The value, indeed the legitimacy, of the previous quarter-century of state functioning was challenged, the rule of law undermined, pluralism of expression targeted, and opposition assailed as treasonous. This explosion of populist resentment had been fueled by unfulfilled expectations of the country rapidly achieving West European living standards and by the increasingly unequal development of different regions and sectors.
Lech Wałęsa couldn’t accept the defeat. He searched for something to reverse it and bring down the ex-Communist SLD. Milczanowski announced he owned some intelligence that could do the trick.
Over the summer, Milczanowski had sent his prized officer, Marian Zacharski, to the Spanish resort island of Majorca. Zacharski met a Russian intelligence officer, Colonel Vladimir Alganov, who’d served in Poland for the KGB and its Russian successor, the FSB. Zacharski claimed that he maneuvered Alganov into admitting that the Russians had been running an agent at the heart of Poland’s political establishment for a decade. That agent was none other than Józef Oleksy, Poland’s prime minister and one of the leaders of the SLD. If true, this allegation could cripple the ex-Communists.
Meanwhile, US National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzeziński was already planning to travel to Warsaw in the middle of December to receive the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honor. In a meeting with Wałęsa on 19 December, Brzeziński urged the defeated Polish president to quiet the allegations.
On 25 Jan.1996, however, Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy announced his resignation, but he did not admit he refused to admit the spy allegations. All of this while Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy was poised to become even more powerful after a former Communist ally, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was elected president in November, ousting the anti-Communist Lech Walesa.
NATO membership for Poland was a factor reinforcing close ties binding the secret services of the two states. The contribution of Polish Special Forces, GROM, to the US-led peacekeeping operations in Haiti made the Clinton administration recommend Poland as a NATO member.
Thus the Poles were most anxious about the upcoming Madrid conference, where they expected to become a member of NATO.
As Zbigniew Brzeziński was later to write in his book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives (2016) in 1995, Poland superseded Russia as Germany’s largest trading partner in the East. Still, Germany became Poland’s principal sponsor for membership in the EU and (together with the United States) in NATO. It is no exaggeration to say that the Polish-German reconciliation assumed geopolitical importance in Central Europe by the middle of the decade, matching the earlier impact on Western Europe of the Franco-German reconciliation.