Communist era spy scandals still haunt U.S. government broadcasters
by Ted Lipien
Journalists’ links with communist secret police and intelligence services raise doubts about their independence
FreeMediaOnline.org Free Media Online, San Francisco, June 8, 2007
Communist spy services efforts to recruit journalists in Poland and abroad had been so vigorous and massive that a number of secret police and intelligence informants, both active and inactive, ended up working as journalists for U.S. government funded radio stations which were broadcasting across the Iron Curtain. From the early 1950s until the middle of the 1980s, the Voice of America (VOA), based in Washington, D.C, and Radio Free Europe (RFE), which during the Cold War was based in Munich, Germany and is now in the Czech Republic, hired a number of asylum seeking Polish journalists who had previously agreed to spy for the communist regime in Warsaw. While most of these journalists were most likely victims of intimidation, ceased to be agents once they fled to the West and, with perhaps one exception at Radio Free Europe, did not have control over program content at VOA and RFE, their secret past raises concern about their ability to be fully independent as journalists. This episode also shows how successfully the communist regimes in East Central Europe penetrated and subverted the journalistic community.
Andrzej Czechowicz is perhaps the most well known communist-era Polish spy who was still an active agent while working at RFE in the late 1960s. Technically, he was not a journalist. As a historian by training, he worked in the RFE’s media analysis service in Munich. After more than five years, Czechowicz returned to Poland in 1971 and participated in propaganda programs aimed at embarrassing Radio Free Europe and the United States government.
Several other journalists hired by VOA and RFE had also worked as informants for the communist regime at some point of their university studies or during their journalistic careers, but it is unclear how many of them did it willingly and whether any of them were still active agents while employed by U.S. government funded news organizations. This can only be determined by a painstaking examination of their communist-era files, although some of the material in them may be missing, incomplete or containing exaggerated claims made by overambitious police and intelligence officers. The extent of their cooperation is open to wide interpretations and the full truth may never be known.
Until recently, almost all of the former agents and informants kept this aspect of their past life secret from other journalists who were working with them in Washington, D.C. and in Munich. Their possible links with the communist secret police and intelligence services came to light only after the publication in Poland in 2005 of the so-called “Wildstein's List” and other information leaked to the Polish media from the communist-era files.
During the 1980s, I was in charge of VOA Polish broadcasts to Poland. At the time, I hired more than a dozen journalists, most of whom had been asylum seekers in the United States. VOA Polish service urgently needed new broadcasters to produce additional radio programs which we launched in response to the imposition of martial law in Poland by General Jaruzelski’s regime. We knew that some of these journalists had worked before for the communist media. None of them was seen, however, as being among the regime's active political supporters. (We rejected a few with such a background as well as at least one other person whom we knew to be a former Polish intelligence officer.) Those whom we hired all claimed to be opposed to the communist dictatorship, and no one suspected them of spying.
During that period, both VOA and RFE had a routine security clearance process for new hires. It is possible that some of these candidates for employment had revealed to the FBI their past collaboration with the communist security services, but such information would not have been shared with mid-level managers at VOA. A high-level VOA official at the time also told me that U.S. government security personnel had not informed him of any concerns with the background of the newly hired Polish journalists. In response to my inquiry this month, a spokesman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which now manages the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, said that BBG does not comment on personnel and security matters. He would not confirm it, but it was clear to me that BBG has not been aware of this issue until now.
While working at VOA during the Cold War, I was personally well familiar the Warsaw regime's vigorous recruitment efforts among Polish journalists in Poland and abroad. Polish diplomats in Washington, D.C. made several not so subtle attempts to see if I would be inclined to give them classified information. While I was applying for a visa to go to Poland on a reporting trip, a Polish diplomat, whom the FBI identified to me later as a spy, had invited me for lunch to one of the most expensive restaurants in Washington. He asked probing questions that left little doubt what he was after but never crossed the line into a direct recruitment request. At the end, he did make a point of showing me multiple 100 dollar bills while trying to pay the restaurant bill and was visibly disappointed when I paid it myself.
Another Polish diplomat, whom I had to meet to renounce my citizenship in the Polish People’s Republic, gave me a long explanation on the benefits of owning real estate and retiring in Poland while dropping hints that the communist government might be able to help me. He also did not make a direct request for cooperation, but such requests usually came later if a candidate showed any kind of interest. I learned recently that another VOA Polish service manager was also approached with similar propositions in a more direct way while visiting Poland in the late 1980s.
Surprisingly, the last apparent attempt to recruit me came in the early 1990s when Poland already had a democratic government. A media acquaintance in Poland, whom I had suspected of being a communist spy, asked questions which I interpreted as testing my willingness to become an informant for the new government. Recent media reports revealed that in the early 1990s the Polish intelligence services, still then dominated by the old communist operatives, managed to recruit more than a hundred journalists. Some of them may have been the same journalists who had been previously compromised. This may have been part of an effort to keep these quiet about their past collaboration while still using them for protecting the old communist spy network, which was by then engaged in taking over various economic enterprises.
While I was still in charge of VOA Polish service, some of the journalists with links to the communist secret services have been my daily co-workers and friends. The best known among them is Henryk Grynberg, a talented Polish-Jewish writer and poet who in a newspaper interview in Poland in December 2006 admitted to having been blackmailed into cooperating with the communist secret police and intelligence services. He made this admission shortly before the Polish media publicized information about his communist era secret past. (Grynberg pointed out that he gave an interview to a Polish newspaper after being contacted by a reporter who was working on this story but before the Polish media publicized his case. An earlier version of this story may have given an erroneous impression that Grynberg made his admission after news reports about his secret past had already appeared. It was obvious at that point, however, that the Polish media was going to cover this story.)
Grynberg told the newspaper that the only reason he had signed a recruitment document was to protect his family. He said he was afraid that if he had refused to cooperate, his stepfather would have been charged with economic crimes and put in prison. Use of intimidation and blackmail was a typical communist method for recruiting spies and informants.
At the time of his recruitment, Grynberg was studying journalism in Warsaw. According to Polish media reports, his code name in communist secret police files was “Reporter.” Grynberg revealed that names of many of his fellow journalism students are on the “Wildstein’s List.” He kept quiet until this year because his name was not on the list, but someone leaked the contents of his file to the media.
According to a Polish newspaper report, intelligence services used his apartment in Warsaw as a contact point. (See IPN press review, Dec. 04, 2006 link...) Grynberg disputes this claim. (See Henryk Grynberg's explanation in the right column.) Grynberg also admitted to writing innocuous reports for the intelligence service about three of his friends and acquaintances. He said that he had made numerous efforts to terminate his cooperation and was successfully avoiding coming to meetings with his handlers. (Grynberg insists that his contacts lasted no longer than five months and that attempts to terminate his cooperation amounted simply to playing a cat-and-mouse game with his handlers.) Once he had left Poland, he became the regime's critic, and that's how I remember him while working with him at VOA.
In his weekly cultural program at VOA, Grynberg used his considerable intellectual talents and creative irony to condemn the regime’s human rights violations. I saw his programs as a major and effective contribution to overcoming communist censorship and promoting human rights. He had also worked at the America magazine, which during the Cold War was published in Polish by the United States Information Agency (USIA). At least in his case, I do not believe that his past affected his writing and reporting at VOA.
Grynberg said in a Polish newspaper interview that he had told the FBI about his association with the communist secret police and intelligence service. He eventually became a U.S. citizen.
While living in the United States, Grynberg has written extensively about the extermination of Jews by the Nazis during the Holocaust and dealt with the sensitive topic of ethnic Poles who had murdered Jews during and immediately after the war. Grynberg’s father was one of those murdered by his Polish neighbors who wanted to take over his property, while the Nazis killed his two-year-old brother after the neighbors led them to his hiding place. While many Poles applauded Grynberg’s efforts to shed light on the Polish crimes against Jews, others – mostly on the political right – condemned him for ignoring the Poles who had lost their lives for hiding Jews from the Nazis.
Reporting on Grynberg’s secret past, the Polish media did not focus on his association with the Voice of America, probably because at VOA he used a pen name of Robert Miller. The mainstream media in Poland published interviews with Grynberg after his past collaboration with the communist secret police became public knowledge and generally refrained form condemning his behavior. Some extreme right-wing publications, which promote anti-Semitic and anti-Western conspiracy theories, expressed satisfaction that Grynberg’s secret past has been exposed.
The names of many well-known Polish journalists are as well on the “Wildstein’s List.” The Newsweek magazine reported in May of this year that Ryszard Kapuściński, a Polish journalist and writer well known and published in the West, had been listed as a communist intelligence service informant from 1965 until 1972.
Two of my former Polish journalist colleagues at VOA have recently admitted to me privately that they had also been briefly communist era informants recruited through pressure, blackmail and a desire for travel abroad. [Subsequently, one of them made a public statement to the Polish media.] Both of them also claim that they had no intention of providing any truly damaging information on anyone and insist they never did. Since I had no access to their files in Poland, I was not able to verify these claims.
One of them had wanted to study abroad and met a few times in a cafe with a communist secret police officer until he received his passport. He told me that his handler had wanted to find out about foreigners with whom my colleague was meeting. He claims that he had never given away any valuable information and his handler ceased to contact him after a while.
Another former colleague was also a university student who needed a passport. In response to what he described as a “strong request,” he agreed to provide information about some of his fellow students. He admitted that he had handed over a list of students which was available to anyone at the university he attended. He claims that the whole experience caused him many sleepless nights. He first accepted and then claims to have returned a sum equivalent to about $200 and eventually broke all contacts with his handlers.
I have no doubt that some if not most journalists who had become spies were victims of similar blackmail and intimidation and ceased to be informants soon after they had left Poland or even earlier. Henryk Grynberg stated that he had successfully terminated all cooperation in February or March of 1957, well before he left Poland. The communist regime created and used many human tragedies to keep itself in power. It would be cruel and unfair to make blanket moral judgments without knowing the full details of each individual case – something that may never be possible due to incomplete files and various questions about the reliability of the information they contain.
It is a fact that names of many well-known and respected opponents of the regime and human rights activists appear on the “Wildstein’s List.” In some cases, it only proves that the communist secret police was interested in anyone who could be useful and wanted to obtain a passport to travel abroad. We can also assume that most individuals would not give a complete and objective account of their dealings with the secret police and are likely to try to diminish the extent of their cooperation and any possible harm they might have done to others.
To deal with this problem, the Polish lustration law required all journalists in Poland to declare whether they had been communist secret services agents or informants, but a Polish court recently struck down this provision as unconstitutional. I agree that despite good intentions, this law was blatantly repressive in its requirement for self-incrimination and would not have been passed by any democratic parliament in the West.
On the other hand, even after the collapse of the communist regime, none of the thousands of journalists under suspicion has admitted publicly to being an informant and expressed regret. (My former VOA colleagues did express some regret to me privately.) At the time of their recruitment, these journalists had to promise that they would never reveal their cooperation to anyone and were threatened with imprisonment and prosecution if they did.
Some of them, including Grynberg, apparently felt that they were not outside the reach of the secret police even while living in the United States. He claims that strangers approached him in the U.S. and made veiled threats. And even if these journalists could not be harmed, their families in Poland may have been vulnerable to pressure and intimidation. Some of them may have owned real estate in Poland. Such concerns almost certainly could have undermined their journalistic independence and credibility.
It is perhaps then not surprising that only a handful among hundreds of thousands of former informants and spies have fully and publicly acknowledged their activities and admitted that they did something wrong. Most of them, even those who were victimized by the communist regime, keep quiet out of shame. Grynberg insists, however, that he has never never felt "shame because I had played that cat-and-mouse game. I had no better choice and I have not compromised even one bit of my integrity."
While each case is different and should be judged on its own merits, I became aware of the tortured denials and attempts at whitewashing while doing research for my soon-to-be-published book about Pope John Paul II and his views on women and feminism. According to Polish media reports and a book written by a Polish Catholic priest, some of Pope John Paul II’s closest friends and associates may have been spying on him for the communist regime for many years. Since some of them apparently were feeding information to Western journalists and papal biographers, the journalistic record of Pope John Paul II’s life and his views may have been compromised as well. The best known among them is Archbishop Stanisław Wielgus who was nominated by Pope Benedict XVI in December 2006 to be the next archbishop of Warsaw. He resigned in January 2007 after the Polish media published reports about his alleged cooperation with the communist secret police from 1973 until 1978. Archbishop Wielgus and almost all of the priests involved in the spy scandal deny any guilt or responsibility. He and most of the others claim that they had to meet with secret police officers to obtain permission to build churches or to get passports to travel abroad but deny giving away any sensitive information. One of the priests now under suspicion was also a well-placed journalist.
Despite these high-profile cases, Polish priests have been far less guilty of collaboration than journalists and perhaps any other professionals engaged in public life in Poland under communism. While about 10 percent of Catholic priests are believed to have been recruited at some point as willing or unwilling informants, the vast majority of priests and nuns and the Church as an institution remained strongly opposed to the regime. Their record of resisting totalitarian temptations was far better than the record of Polish journalists (those who had remained in Poland), writers, artists and intellectuals. With the exception of the Catholic Church and a few Catholic intellectuals, the secular intellectual elites supported the communist ideology and the regime, at least during the initial post-World War II period. Sooner or later many switched sides. Even Czesław Miłosz, the best know Polish poet of Lithuanian background and the 1980 Nobel Prize winner in literature, had initially worked as a cultural diplomat for the Warsaw government in Washington and in Paris. He defected to the West in 1951 and wrote The Captive Mind, a seminal book about the subversion of intellectuals by communist ideology.
The only effective opposition to the regime came from the very beginning from the Catholic Church and from a rather small group Polish journalists working in the West at Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America, the BBC and a few other Western radios broadcasting to Poland. While concerns about journalistic credibility and independence should be taken very seriously, if any communist informants were still active at the Voice of America, their overall impact on programming would have been minimal while I was still in charge of the Polish service. None of them had any effective control over VOA program content. Interestingly, at least some of them chose to specialize in music programs rather than writing political reports. There was clearly a danger that an embarrassing past and fear of reprisals may have affected the independence of some journalists. What is more troubling, however, is that tens of thousands of Polish journalists willingly worked for the communist regime for many decades and that many of them agreed to be recruited as spies and agents of influence even after the fall of communism in 1989.
Despite the apparent penetration of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe over their long history by a few communist secret services operatives, these two institutions contributed significantly to the peaceful fall of communism in Poland and in the rest of East Central Europe. In meetings with me in the 1980s, both Pope John Paul II and Lech Wałesa personally acknowledged the critical role of these two news organizations in overcoming censorship and defending human rights. The BBG discontinued VOA Polish programs in 2004. (RFE Polish broadcasts from Munich ended even earlier.) That move was not unexpected considering the growth of free media in Poland and other broadcasting priorities, but I still felt that giving up VOA Polish broadcasts as a bridge builder between the two societies was a mistake. Some of the VOA Polish service journalists had retired and a few found work in other Voice of America services.
Right now, however, the Voice of America is facing a far more serious crisis brought on not by any external threats or spies but by a lack of vision and bureaucratic inertia. The White House and the bipartisan Board of Broadcasting Governors have eliminated all of VOA broadcasts to the Middle East and have given them to semi-private entities such as Alhurra and Radio Sawa. Not surprisingly, without the VOA’s charter requiring accuracy and balance, Alhurra gave extensive and many claim unfairly one-sided coverage of the Teheran conference of Holocaust deniers. A Republican Board member Blanquita Cullum has called for an investigation of news handling practices and management of Alhurra.
In addition to killing VOA programs to the Middle East, another misguided decision, which was apparently supported not only by a few Republicans on the Broadcasting Board of Governors (some Republican members opposed the decision) but also by some of the BBG’s Democratic members, is the current Bush Administration proposal to eliminate all VOA Russian radio broadcasts and to make additional Russian-language program reductions at Radio Liberty. This happened while President Putin has consolidated his control over all the major television channels in Russia and has clamped down hard on the political opposition while making outlandish propaganda claims against the U.S. Apparently responding in part to President Putin comparing the U.S. foreign policy to that of the Third Reich, the House Appropriations Subcommittee for State and Foreign Operations recommended Wednesday reversal of all the VOA, RFE/RL, and Radio Free Asia cuts. The full committee is scheduled to vote on the proposal next week.
As to the spy scandal, it is important to point out that any damaging actions of just a few individuals, who had no significant impact on programming, cannot diminish the enormous contributions to independent journalism, freedom and democracy made by the vast majority of VOA Polish service journalists. As a former head of the Voice of America Polish service, I do want to apologize to anyone who may have been harmed by these few individuals.
Ted Lipien is a former Voice of America Polish service director and had served in a number of other journalistic and management positions at VOA. He retired from VOA in 2006 as acting associate director. He is now president and executive director of FreeMediaOnline.org, a nonprofit organization which supports freedom of the press and independent journalists worldwide. Information about Ted Lipien’s book A Mutual Misunderstanding: Pope John Paul II’s Vision of Women and Family, which will be published by Hippocrene Books, can be found on his personal web site: TedLipien.com. Emails to Ted Lipien can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org