A Secret Life
By Benjamin Weiser. New York: Public Affairs, 2004. 383 pages.
Reviewed by Thomas M. Troy, Jr.
Hardcover (left) and paperback version of the book.
A Secret Life is author
Benjamin Weiser's riveting account of the life and career of Polish Army
Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, a member of the Polish General Staff who worked
secretly for the US government for over nine years. Kuklinski, one of the
most important agents who ever volunteered to the CIA, provided crucial data
about Soviet-Warsaw Pact military topics beginning in the early 1970s.
Weiser's relatively brief tale of Kuklinski's life as a spy is superb; it
should be "must reading" for anybody interested in intelligence matters, the
Cold War, or simply a good read.
In pulling this fascinating story together, Weiser acknowledges that he
received a great deal of cooperation from the CIA. He hired Agency veteran
Peter Earnest, who reviewed the huge CIA file on Col. Kuklinski, made notes,
selected important documents, and eventually came up with more than 750
pages of material. CIA staff officers then reviewed the information, made
any needed changes or deletions, and turned this incredible source material
over to Weiser.
Those in the CIA who made the enlightened decision to facilitate this
process should be commended. At a time when the daily papers and television
news programs seem to be full of official and journalistic criticisms of the
CIA for "intelligence failures," the "politicization of intelligence," and
"CIA incompetence," A Secret Life provides an antidote: sometimes the CIA
did it right. In the case of Col. Kuklinski, the Agency "ran" a remarkably
important and productive agent, in a denied area, for almost a decade. Then,
when the Polish security service began focusing an investigation on
Kuklinski, it successfully exfiltrated him and his family and later even
helped him regain his reputation and citizenship in Poland.
The author supplemented the CIA material by conducting numerous interviews,
including with Col. Kuklinski. Weiser explains in the introduction that he
wanted to focus on the "human side of the operation—the interaction between
Kuklinski and the Americans he worked with." He made a wise decision. A
Secret Life reads almost like a novel as Weiser expertly weaves in
"personal" letters between Kuklinski and his principal case officers and
quotes from internal memorandums by members of the Directorate of Operations
(DO) who were concerned with protecting Kuklinski's safety. Weiser never
introduces extraneous material, embellishes the story, or speculates about
what people were thinking, saying, and doing. He obviously recognized that
he had a gripping story to tell and did not need to add flourishes. As a
result, even when you know the ending, A Secret Life is so engrossing and
suspenseful, and so intrinsically interesting and well written, that it is
very difficult to put it down before finishing.
Seeds of Discontent
Weiser explores Kuklinski's motivation for spying. Ryszard Kuklinski was
born in 1930 and, like nearly every Pole, suffered during World War II. At
the age of 17, he joined the Polish Army but soon recognized that the
Soviets were just as oppressive as the Nazis had been.1 Nonetheless,
intelligent and an indefatigable worker, he rose through the ranks. In 1960,
he was appointed to the General Staff Academy in Warsaw, and, after
graduation in 1963, he began preparing strategic exercises for the
Operations Directorate in General Staff Headquarters. He soon realized that
all Soviet-Warsaw Pact exercises corresponded to Moscow's military strategy,
which was exclusively offensive. He concluded that, if there were a World
War III, Poland would be obliterated by US and NATO nuclear counterattacks
against Soviet reinforcements crossing Poland. The seeds of disillusionment
with communist rule grew.
In 1968, Poland joined the Soviet-led military attack against
Czechoslovakia. Kuklinski was enraged that his superiors in the military
enthusiastically supported the invasion of a fellow member of the Warsaw
Pact. He deeply regretted that the West was so preoccupied with the war in
Vietnam and the mass antiwar protests at home and in Europe that it failed
to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia. He later said that the official
Polish military view of the invasion was that it was an "exceptional
achievement"; however, unofficially, military officers regarded it as an
"unforgivable mistake," for which the Poles would "one day have to pay a
high price . . . ." According to Kuklinski, "my judgment and my opinions
were strongly rooted in this current, and this is probably how [the idea to
establish some form of communication with the West] all began."2
Two years after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Polish troops were ordered
to fire at fellow citizens demonstrating against the regime in several
cities along the Baltic coast. At least 47 people were killed and over a
thousand wounded. Once again outraged by the Polish leadership, Kuklinski
began to think in concrete terms of contacting the West.
In August 1972, Kuklinski, an avid sailor, captained a yacht owned by the
Polish General Staff that was dispatched to reconnoiter various German,
Dutch, and Belgian ports and naval installations. While "sight seeing" in a
German port, Kuklinski addressed a letter to the US military attaché in Bonn
asking for a meeting. The attaché gave the letter to the chief of station,
and soon two CIA officers met clandestinely with Kuklinski. The Polish
colonel volunteered to work in-place in Warsaw and provide information on
the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact. The CIA accepted.
Weiser devotes the bulk of A Secret Life to describing the nine years in
which Kuklinski operated as an agent for the CIA. Using material from
interviews and the CIA's operational cables and memorandums, he depicts the
risks that Kuklinski took on a daily basis and the ruses that CIA officers
used to foil Polish security in order to stay in touch with their agent. On
four occasions during 1973-76, the colonel was able to sail to the West and
hold personal meetings with CIA officers, but contacts after that had to be
The hero of A Secret Life obviously is Kuklinski, but several CIA officers
play major supporting roles. By July 1981, CIA officers had held 63
"exchanges" with Kuklinski. Weiser skillfully describes the care with which
Agency personnel prepared for these encounters, and it is clear that he
holds the officers in high esteem.
Kuklinski provided a treasure-trove of mainly documentary material, which he
photographed using micro cameras disguised as every-day objects.3 Citing CIA
memorandums, Weiser relates that, as of July 1981, Kuklinski had passed over
40,200 pages to the CIA! To protect Kuklinski, the DO disguised the
documents' source descriptions to ensure that even the Russian- and
Polish-language translators did not know their origins. For additional
safety, the Agency issued the reports based on Kuklinski's material in
highly restricted channels. At times, the only people outside the CIA who
received these reports were the president, the national security adviser,
and the secretaries of state and defense.
In late 1980, the CIA provided Kuklinski with a miniaturized electronic
transmitting device for sending encoded messages to the CIA's officers in
Warsaw. Although the device did not always function, it may have saved his
life: In November 1981, he was able to alert the CIA that he was one of four
Polish Army officers under suspicion for spying.
The Crisis in Poland, 1980-81
Without overwhelming the reader with detail, Weiser deftly describes how
Kuklinski played a major behind-the-scenes role during the crisis in Poland
from July 1980 to December 1981. The beleaguered and essentially bankrupt
Polish communist regime sought to buy time in late August 1980 by concluding
a set of agreements with the fledging Solidarity trade union that promised
to allow a number of democratic practices. At the same time, the regime
began preparing contingency plans to strengthen its power, including the
possible imposition of martial law. Kuklinski was asked to join a small
group of General Staff officers and other senior officials to write the
martial law plan. Although he privately supported Solidarity's goals and
admired the union's charismatic leader, Lech Walesa, Kuklinski decided to
accept the assignment so that he could warn Washington of the regime's
The Soviet Union, then led by Leonid Brezhnev, made it clear, publicly and
privately, that it could not tolerate the anti-regime activism in Poland. In
December 1980, Moscow informed the Polish military that there would be a
major "exercise" involving many Soviet divisions and East German and
Czechoslovak troops. Kuklinski reported the information to the CIA and also
predicted a massive crackdown on Solidarity. US President Jimmy Carter twice
warned the Soviets not to intervene in Poland. National Security Adviser
Zbigniew Brzezinski used his own channels to warn Solidarity of imminent
repressive moves. The "Polish Pope," John Paul II, also cautioned Brezhnev
against intervening. In the event, nothing happened.
In March 1981, with seemingly nobody in control in Poland, the Soviets again
seemed on the brink of intervention. Again, Kuklinski reported on Soviet
activities to Washington. Again, there was no Soviet intervention and no
Six months later, on 7 September, the chief of the Polish General Staff told
a select group of officers, including Kuklinski, that martial law was
imminent. As before, Kuklinski reported to the CIA. The next week, the
colonel learned that the Polish Interior Ministry was investigating a
"leak," because Solidarity had learned the details of the martial law plan.
Shortly thereafter, he noticed surveillance and began preparations to flee.
Weiser builds tension in describing Kuklinski's activities and the efforts
of CIA officers in Warsaw to bring him and his family to the West. After
many problems, they succeeded. On Veterans Day, 11 November 1981, Kuklinski
and his family arrived in a US military aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base
outside Washington, DC. Kuklinski's extraordinary career as an
agent-in-place was over.
Weiser devotes about 50 pages of A Secret Life to describing what happened
to Kuklinski after he reached the United States. In 1984, he was tried in
absentia by the Polish regime and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, he lived
under a new identity and did some consulting for the CIA and the US
military, although he found life in his adoptive country difficult. The
Polish communist regime continued to work to blacken his reputation. After a
democratic government came into power in Poland in 1989, Kuklinski was able
to have his trial and sentence invalidated, but only after concerted effort
by friends in high places—according to Weiser, the administration of
President Clinton made it clear that Washington would oppose Polish
membership in NATO unless Kuklinski were exonerated. In 1998, Kuklinski made
something of a triumphal return to Poland, where he was received as a hero.
He and his wife continued to live in the United States under assumed
identities until his death in February 2004.
Weiser's masterful book, of necessity, leaves a few mysteries unsolved. One
of these "loose ends" involves how the Polish regime learned in the autumn
of 1981 that the CIA had the latest version of the martial law plan,
triggering its investigation of a leak. Likewise, Weiser's account of the
hectic days in early December 1980—based mainly on Kuklinski's words—does
not resolve the major question of whether the Soviets were preparing to
invade Poland or getting ready to help the Polish regime impose martial law.
"Loose ends" and quibbles aside, A Secret Life is a joy to read. Col.
Ryszard Kuklinski is a hero, and Benjamin Weiser has written a great book
1. Until 1956, the Soviets basically controlled the Polish military. The
Polish Defense Minister, for example, was Soviet Marshal Konstanty
2. Ryszard Kuklinski, "The War Against the Nation Seen From the Inside,"
Kultura, no. 4, 1987: 9. Kultura was published in Paris by Polish exiles and
emigrés. Kuklinski's "interview" with Kultura was subsequently translated
into English and reprinted as "The Crushing of Solidarity," in Orbis 32, no.
1, Winter 1988: 7-32.
3. Initially, Kuklinski used his Russian-manufactured camera to photograph
documents for the CIA—a sweet irony, because the Russian commander of Warsaw
Pact forces had presented the camera as a gift.
Thomas M. Troy, Jr., served in the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence.