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Patriot or Traitor?
March 3, 2014   
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The new movie Jack Strong has reignited controversy over Col. Ryszard Kukliński, the high-ranking Polish Army officer who became one of the CIA’s most valuable Cold War spies behind the Iron Curtain.

Kukliński, who died 10 years ago in the United States, continues to divide the public in Poland like few other historical figures. The controversy has been rumbling on for 25 years and the new movie from Polish director Władysław Pasikowski has added fuel to it. Jack Strong (see our film review in this issue of the Voice) paints a rather hagiographic picture of Kukliński as a fearless patriot and idealist. In reality, even the most pro-Western politicians in Poland are ambivalent about “the most famous American spy in the Warsaw Pact,” as Kukliński was described by the Americans.

According to those who paint him as a hero, Kukliński first made contact with the Americans in 1971, after he analyzed the Soviet bloc’s military plans and realized that should World War III break out, a large part of Poland would be annihilated in a nuclear blast. That first meeting led to a 10-year career as a spy. Critics, in turn, claim the CIA recruited Kukliński in Vietnam by resorting to one of the oldest tricks known to man. Apparently, Kukliński had a reputation as a womanizer and some have speculated it was easy for the Americans to set him up with lovers in order to gather compromising evidence against him.

Kukliński’s supporters have called for him to be posthumously promoted to the rank of general and decorated with the Order of the White Eagle, the highest official distinction in Poland. These supporters say he delivered 40,000 important documents to the Americans, including detailed plans of a Soviet invasion of the West. Those who consider Kukliński a traitor dismiss such arguments as laughable and say that classified Warsaw Pact plans were kept in Moscow, and that no officer in a Soviet satellite state had access to them. They add that Poland was always regarded by the Russians as the weakest link in the communist system. Some also say that the CIA may have used Kukliński as a smoke screen for a real superspy who worked in the Soviet Union for years and whose identity has never been disclosed.

Kukliński’s critics add that the information he provided to the Americans gave the exact positions of Polish army and Soviet units stationed in Poland, including missile sites. In the event of war, NATO would without a doubt have targeted these units.

Some praise Kukliński for informing the Americans about Poland’s plans to impose martial law. By the time martial law was imposed on Dec. 13, 1981, the CIA had whisked Kukliński away to the United States. The problem is that except for economic sanctions against Poland some time later, Washington never did anything about this intelligence and did not warn Polish dissidents of what the communist authorities had in store for them. Years later, the Americans came up with the rational explanation that revealing such information could have triggered massive bloodshed. But some still believe Poland was just a pawn that America was using against Moscow. Those who have criticized the idealized portrayal of Kukliński even claim the communists deliberately allowed him to flee Poland in order to test the United States’ reaction to the plans to impose martial law.

Opinions are also polarized about Kukliński’s private life and the tragedy that struck his family. It is widely believed in Poland that his sons were murdered, possibly in an act of revenge by the Kremlin. One of them was hit by a car and the other one went missing at sea. Whether this is what really happened is disputed. People with connections to the Polish intelligence services have speculated that the two deaths may have been faked by the CIA in order to keep the young Kuklińskis safe and anonymous for the rest of their lives. The truth will probably never come out.
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