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The untold story of how Polish spies helped the CIA carry-out secret missions around the world

Judge William Webster, CIA director, on the first trip of a CIA director to Eastern Europe in November of 1990, after the exfiltration operation.
William Webster is in the center of the picture. (Courtesy)
Judge William Webster, CIA director, on the first trip of a CIA director to Eastern Europe in November of 1990, after the exfiltration operation. William Webster is in the center of the picture. (Courtesy)

A new book tells the story of how Polish and U.S. spy agencies began working together after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and how Poland became one of the closest allies of America’s intelligence agencies.

Polish spies helped free U.S. intelligence operatives captured in Iraq, and continue to play an unsung role in America’s spycraft around the world.

Here & Now‘s Scott Tong speaks with John Pomfret, former Washington Post correspondent and author of “From Warsaw with Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance.”

Book excerpt: ‘From Warsaw with Love’

By John Pomfret

On February 1, 1977, Marian Zacharski, a Polish salesman, rolled into the late-afternoon light of Los Angeles in a Pontiac Catalina with his wife and daughter. At the end of a four-day drive from wintry Chicago, their destination was a tidy apartment complex within earshot of Los Angeles International Airport.

A rangy tennis player with a big serve and an easy smile, Zacharski exuded the entrepreneurial chutzpah of a fresh-faced immigrant answering the long pull of the California dream. But Zacharski would not become an American; instead he’d become a spy. As an agent from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, Zacharski robbed the United States of its most closely held military secrets. In so doing, he achieved a legendary status among the FBI agents and CIA officers who tracked him down.

As he guided the Catalina into the parking lot of Cross Creek Apartments, Zacharski wasn’t yet a master of espionage tradecraft. He wasn’t even an intelligence officer. Zacharski had been sent to America for the mundane task of selling lathes. He represented an outfit called the Polish American Machine Company, or POLAMCO, which was founded in 1975 as Poland’s Communist government sought to stabilize its tottering economy with exports to the capitalist world. Between 1970 and 1977, Poland borrowed $20 billion from Western banks and institutions in a failed bid to put money in people’s pockets and food on empty shelves. Poland counted on increased exports through state-run firms like POLAMCO to repay its debts.

POLAMCO was a subsidiary of Metalexport, the trading wing of the Ministry of Machine Building. Zacharski had joined Metalexport in 1973, after graduating from the University of Warsaw with a degree in law. At six-two with sandy blond hair and an engaging if somewhat narcissistic personality, Zacharski impressed his bosses as an ambitious man on the make.

Zacharski had been born into, as he put it, “a respectable” Polish family. During World War II, his father, Wacław, served in the underground resistance forces known as the AK, the Armia Krajowa, or the Home Army, which battled the occupying German Wehrmacht. Over the summer of 1944, Wacław fought in the Warsaw Uprising, which sought to liberate Poland’s capital from German occupation.

The Warsaw Uprising failed. German forces massacred thousands of Poles, obliterated the AK, and gutted Warsaw while the Soviet Red Army watched and waited on the east bank of the Vistula River. For the remainder of the war, Wacław and thousands of other prisoners were confined to a slave labor camp in Bavaria. After the Allied victory, Wacław returned to Poland. With Warsaw in ruins, he opted for a small city on the Baltic Coast near Gdańsk, where he met Zacharski’s mother, Czesława.

The Soviet-installed government of the newly minted People’s Republic of Poland mistrusted those who’d served in the anti- Communist AK. For years, Wacław was monitored by the secret police. Still, he succeeded in building a modest manufacturing business allowing Czesława to stay at home to raise Marian and his younger brother, Bogdan. Small firms, like small private farms, were fixtures of Poland’s socialist economy. Communism never took root in Polish soil, as it had in the neighboring USSR. The heft of the Catholic Church and the cussedness of the Polish peasantry were mostly to blame. Imposing Communism on Poland, Soviet leader Josef Stalin once quipped, “is like saddling a cow.” He mocked Polish Communist comrades as “radishes,” red only on the outside.

Zacharski’s parents gave their son opportunities that many of his peers could only dream of. Thanks to study in England, his English was practically fluent. He’d backpacked around Europe, too. So, when POLAMCO began operations in the United States in 1975, Zacharski, barely twenty-four years old, was tapped as one of the firm’s reps. Zacharski’s wife, Basia, and ten-month-old Małgosia joined him in America in the fall of 1976.

The Polish government based POLAMCO in Elk Grove Village, near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, banking on a warm embrace from a metropolitan region home to a million and a half Polish Americans. But after suffering through the winter of ’76, the third coldest in Chicago’s history, Zacharski wanted out of Illinois. He hadn’t come all the way to America just to endure Warsaw-like iciness in the Windy City. He’d also found promising leads for POLAMCO’s products among US aeronautics firms on the West Coast. California made sense for a satellite office. Besides, the tennis was better in L.A.

At the end of January 1977, Zacharski and his family packed the Pontiac to the gills and headed west. The day they left Chicago was so blustery it felt like minus fifty. Zacharski had never seen so much snow, which says a lot for a Pole from the shores of the Baltic Sea. Through Nebraska and Wyoming, there wasn’t an automobile in sight, just the vast, white emptiness of the Plains. The weather finally broke in Utah. At a gas station outside Provo, little Małgosia wouldn’t get back in the car because it’d seemed like forever since she’d seen the sun. Four days after bidding goodbye to Chicago, the family rolled up to Cross Creek Apartments on Redlands Street in Playa del Rey, a thirty-minute stroll from the shores of the Pacific. “California!” Zacharski recalled in 2018 gazing up at the green hills above Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, where he resides. “I have been searching for California ever since.”

Reprinted with permission from FROM WARSAW WITH LOVE: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance, by John Pomfret. Copyright © 2021. Excerpted with permission by Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.