Declassified: the Secret Soviet Documents of a Leading CIA Spy

Polish Col. Ryszard Kuklinski passed thousands of pages of Soviet military documents to the West.

R. Kuklinski (standing) is shown handing papers to Soviet Minister of Defense Ustinov.

R. Kuklinski (standing) is shown handing papers to Soviet Minister of Defense Ustinov.

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Polish Army Col. Ryszard Kuklinski was one of the most successful CIA spies of the Cold War, and his exploits read like a manual for clandestine tradecraft.

He and his CIA handlers walked Warsaw's cobbled streets searching for rendezvous spots while dodging the secret police. He used a secret CIA-designed camera disguised as a cigarette lighter to photograph precious military secrets. And after nearly a decade of spying, Kuklinski and his family fled, ducking under the Iron Curtain while hidden beneath blankets in the back seat of a car with a CIA officer at the wheel.

On the anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland, which marked the end of his spying career, the CIA declassified 82 documents related to his work, totaling some 1,000 pages. Kuklinski, who died in 2004, never asked for money in exchange for the work he'd done, although he was relocated to Florida under government protection and an assumed name after fleeing Warsaw.

"His reports provided a deep understanding of the principal national security challenge we faced, and reduced the chance for miscalculation. In that sense, he clearly saved lives," CIA Director Michael Hayden told an intelligence symposium coinciding with the release of the documents. "We often compare intelligence analysis to putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to go by, and with a lot of pieces missing. Colonel Kuklinski didn't just give us a piece or two—he gave us the picture itself."

Kuklinski joined the Polish Army at age 17 and made a remarkable rise through the ranks, eventually becoming a trusted staff officer involved in military planning. By then, Poland had become, in essence, a client state of the Soviet Union and a pillar of the Warsaw Pact. It was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that finally persuaded the Polish colonel to begin working with the West.

It was in his capacity as a senior planner that Kuklinski first saw Soviet planning for a war with the West, plans that he realized were offensive in nature. He understood that nations like Poland would be sacrificed by the Soviet military, used as a buffer to weaken NATO forces before the Red Army advanced across Europe to the English Channel. It was a war plan that promised catastrophic destruction and the use of hundreds of nuclear weapons.

In his native Poland, Kuklinski remains a controversial figure, though the animosity of his countrymen toward him has faded with time. Many Poles still cannot reconcile the idea of a good soldier with the man who gave his nation's military schematics to the enemy so that NATO could more accurately target nuclear weapons for potential use against military sites in Poland.

When the colonel returned to his native land in 1998, after his conviction and death sentence for treason was finally overturned, he was met by supporters as well as hostile critics, particularly within the military and among veterans.

"Much of the debate around this case has been, 'If he was right, then other Polish officers must have been wrong,'" says Benjamin Weiser, author of A Secret Life, a biography of Kuklinski. "It was hard for Poles to understand his story and why Kuklinski did what he did."

Yet Kuklinski never condemned his fellow Polish officers. "I not only never placed the mission I had undertaken in opposition to the selfless service of my former comrades in arms, but I never placed it higher either," Weiser recounts Kuklinski telling an audience in Poland.

But the record shows that the colonel believed the only way to avoid Armageddon was to create a stalemate, even if that meant compromising his own government. Not that this was his initial choice. The CIA officers who initially met Kuklinski found a man offering to lead his fellow officers in a revolt, should a situation demand it. Instead, Langley convinced Kuklinski that information-sharing was the most effective means of avoiding war.

The height of Kuklinksi's usefulness to American intelligence came in 1981 as the Solidarity movement was gaining momentum in Poland and threatening to topple the government. Officials in Moscow and Warsaw considered imposing martial law and Kuklinski was in the office that drew up the operational plans. Forty-two of the 82 newly declassified documents deal with martial law planning around this period.