TLS Review: In the Lake Country
FROM WARSAW WITH LOVE
Polish Spies, the CIA, and the forging of an unlikely alliance
288pp. St Martin’s Press. £23.99.
John Pomfret has produced an extraordinary work of investigative reporting. Beginning with an adventure yarn about the rescue of six Americans from Iraq in 1990 by Polish spies, he has pulled at that thread patiently to uncover a much more significant story: how the CIA in effect replaced the KGB as the dominant partner of the UOP, the Polish secret intelligence services.
The CIA’s engagement with Poland dates back to 1983, with its support for the Solidarity movement (Operation QRHELPFUL), which culminated in the election of a coalition government including both members of Solidarity and Communists and the inauguration of the Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, as President of Poland. In order to help accomplish the country’s “return to Europe”, Poland’s political leadership decided to establish deeper relations with the CIA. In very short order, Poland agreed to close down its spy networks in the United States and other western countries and asked for the CIA’s help to re-organize the UOP, train its agents and provide other forms of support. The CIA, in return, wanted Polish assistance in its efforts against international terrorism, as well as drug trafficking and illicit arms trafficking. It also wanted access to Polish assessments of events in the Soviet Union and Iran, Syria and Libya. In effect, the two governments agreed to a CIA takeover of the Polish intelligence agencies.
Cooperation between the Polish and American secret intelligence agencies reached a high point – or nadir – in 2002, with the agreement of the Poles to host one of the CIA’s “black sites”: interrogation or, perhaps more accurately, torture chambers. As Pomfret writes, the building in which the torture took place was “like a little piece of America in the heart of Poland’s lake country”.
From Warsaw with Love has the virtues, and defects, of investigative journalism: it is vivid, fast-paced, filled with memorable characters and incidents. It is also replete with the clichés of the genre. No one is introduced without specifications of height, build and eye colour; events are identified not only by date, but also by time. More troubling, it is written from the point of view of the Polish secret intelligence officials who were Pomfret’s informants. Polish history is presented as a constant striving for democracy, the impulse of a victim country. Both of these cherished notions are questionable and they distort the context in which John Pomfret’s spies operated.