Hero or traitor? Film gives Poland a different view of man who passed secrets to America during Cold War

By Monika Scislowska

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 7 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

This Feb. 6, 2014 photo shows the poster for a new Polish movie about a Cold War spy Ryszard Kuklinski that opens in Poland on Friday, Feb. 7, 2014 and later this month in Britain and Ireland, in Warsaw, Poland. The riveting movie “Jack Stong,” named after Kuklinski’s CIA codename, tells how from behind the Iron Curtain, he passed some 35,000 pages of Warsaw Pact secrets to the CIA.

Czarek Sokolowski, Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland — For many Poles, Col. Ryszard Kuklinski was a traitor for passing secrets to the Americans during the Cold War — and even Solidarity leader Lech Walesa refused to honor him after he became president. A new Polish movie casts Kuklinski in a different light, as a hero who acted on conscience and helped avert bloodshed.

The movie "Jack Strong" — after Kuklinski's CIA code name — traces the arc of the colonel's life from his career as a loyal officer to his lonely and ultimately tragic years as an exile in the United States. It opens Friday in Polish cinemas.

Kuklinski served as a liaison officer between the Polish military command and the Soviet Army under communism. Disillusioned by the army's role in the bloody suppresion of a Polish workers' protest in 1970, and convinced that Moscow was planning a military conflict with the West, he contacted the CIA with an offer to cooperate — for free.

From behind the Iron Curtain, he passed some 35,000 pages of Warsaw Pact secrets to the CIA, including the communist government's plan to impose martial law in 1981 and launch a brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy Solidarity movement. He was spirited out of Poland with his wife and two sons shortly before the Dec. 13, 1981 military crackdown, and the family lived in hiding in the U.S. In 1989 the Poles peacefully ousted communism, paving the way to independence for other nations in the Soviet bloc.

Aris Pappas, a CIA analyst who assessed information from Kuklinski, said the Polish spy took no money for the information he provided over 9 ½ years.

"As an analyst I was on the receiving end of all of that information," Pappas told The Associated Press. "It was absolutely amazing. The beauty of the information that was being provided was that it allowed us to have an insight into the deliberations at the highest levels of the Warsaw Pact command. ... The information was absolutely essential."

In the fast-paced movie by director Wladyslaw Pasikowski, Kuklinski emerges as a man of courage and conscience: Raised in the best tradition of Poland's military, he comes to the conclusion that the communist-era army does not serve Poland's best interests, and that Moscow is ready to sacrifice Poland in a major conflict with the West. A talented army strategist, he decides to risk his life to avert the threat and help democracy through espionage.

The tension mounts until the dramatic scene of the Kuklinski family's passage into the West. Years later, after Poland has become a free country, he is shown telling American officials in Washington that the ordeal he endured — life in exile, the mysterious death of a son — was worth it.

President Bronislaw Komorowski, who attended a gala screening this week, said it was an "unusual movie about an unusual man" and about "very difficult, sometimes squalid times" under communism in Poland.

He said Kuklinski was a "hero who will always be a source of some controversy," but who was driven by pure intentions in his "dramatic decision to serve the homeland in the way he considered the best."

Previous presidents, including Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, refused to bestow state honors on Kuklinski, questioning his loyalty to Poland. But Kuklinski's ashes were ultimately laid to rest in 2004 in Warsaw's historic Powazki military cemetery.

Kuklinski's role was less ambiguous to the Americans. When he died in Florida in February 2004, aged 73, then-CIA director George Tenet hailed him as a "true hero" and a "passionate and courageous man (who) helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot."

To young Poles, born under democracy, the movie is revealing, with its well-reconstructed atmosphere of Poland under communism.

"I have not heard much about Kuklinski, but I see that he was a real hero who prevented a nuclear conflict," said Ewa Kalinska, 26, after a pre-screening of the movie this week.

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