Poles can't decide whether spy for CIA was traitor or hero


WARSAW -- Poles are not quite sure whether they should honor Ryszard Kuklinski as a national hero, or hang him as a traitor.

The CIA harbors no such doubts.

Between 1971 and 1981, Colonel Kuklinski of the Polish Army provided the agency with 35,000 pages of documents outlining the Warsaw Pact's top-secret contingency plans for a war in Europe, including possible scenarios for a nuclear launch.

Although the full extent of his espionage on behalf of the United States was not disclosed until 1992, more than a decade after he had fled to the United States, it is now clear that Colonel Kuklinski was one of the CIA's most valuable human assets during some of the chilliest years of the Cold War.

In America, Colonel Kuklinski was rewarded with a medal, a new identity, a house and an annual stipend. Back in Poland, a military tribunal tried him in absentia and sentenced him to death. The sentence was later commuted to 25 years in prison.

Now, nearly six years after the collapse of communism in Poland, Colonel Kuklinski has been invited by Poland's highest court to return to his homeland for a new trial and a chance to clear his name.

But the outcome of such a trial is far from certain.

Poles still remain bitterly divided over whether Colonel Kuklinski was a patriot who risked his life for his country or a scoundrel who betrayed it.

The argument rages in newspaper columns and on radio talk shows -- all of it part of a larger, long-running national debate over who bears moral responsibility for the evil that was done in the name of communism.

While Poland has not yet made peace with its past, it has, for the most part, avoided the temptation to damn everyone tainted by association with the former regime.

At the same time, it has refused to whitewash the past or rewrite history to suit the new rulers.

Instead, Poland has embarked on a meticulous and legalistic -- many would call it slow and tedious -- process of unraveling the past and holding it up for public judgment.

One of the chief beneficiaries of this process has been Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last Communist leader, the man who ordered out troops to crush the Solidarity labor movement.

Still a forbidding presence behind tinted glasses, General Jaruzelski is now seen by many of his countrymen as a more sympathetic figure, an honorable soldier who did his best to serve the nation's interests.

A recent opinion poll showed him to be "more trusted" than President Lech Walesa, his longtime nemesis.

For several months, the 70-year-old general has been making regular appearances before a parliamentary "accountability commission" to discuss his 1981 decision to impose martial law.

He has apologized for using the army against civilians, explaining that he acted only to forestall a more brutal crackdown by the Soviet Army.

Ironically, to back up this contention, General Jaruzelski has been relying on the word of his former aide, Colonel Kuklinski.

The spy, in a 1987 memoir on the events leading up to martial law, described in detail how Moscow was putting tremendous pressure on General Jaruzelski, and how the general maneuvered to avoid Soviet intervention.

The CIA pulled out Colonel Kuklinski a month before martial law was imposed.

Even today, it cannot be said with certainty whether it was General Jaruzelski's choice of the "lesser of two evils" or Colonel Kuklinski's espionage -- he alerted the United States to Soviet intentions -- that stayed Moscow's hand and prevented an invasion.

But while General Jaruzelski is able to justify his own deeds, he insists that Colonel Kuklinski was -- and always will be -- a traitor.

"I am of the opinion that Kuklinski could be pardoned, but never judged not guilty. He cannot be considered a national hero.

"An officer who spies [on his own country] will always be a traitor," General Jaruzelski said in a recently published interview.

Many Poles agree.

Czeslaw Kiszczak, a former interior minister and once Colonel Kuklinski's friend and mentor, has said Colonel Kuklinski's exoneration would be "a slap in the face for the entire officers corps."

Mr. Kiszczak is now on trial for issuing the 1981 order to shoot striking coal miners.

Even committed anti-Communists have difficulties sorting out their feelings on Colonel Kuklinski's case.

"He is a traitor no matter what. He betrayed his country," said Jolanta Lisowska, a university professor and former Solidarity activist.

But she quickly added that she would like to see him retried "because maybe there are some circumstances to pardon him."

Then there is Tygodnik Solidarnosc, the Solidarity weekly, which last week collected more than 20,000 signatures on a petition that describes Colonel Kuklinski as a heroic patriot and demands that his conviction be annulled.

"This is a very difficult question for Poland," explained Andrzej Paczkowski, head of the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Science.

"Being an agent, being a spy -- it is a poisoned weapon even if it is used to serve a good cause."

In his memoirs and in a lengthy magazine profile published two years ago, Colonel Kuklinski, now 64 and a U.S. citizen, explains how he came to see Poland as a nation virtually enslaved by the Soviet Union.

He acted, he said, to liberate his homeland from a system that he considered immoral and illegitimate.

For many Poles, the key question is whether he did it for money. Colonel Kuklinski has said he never accepted anything from the Americans until he was faced with exposure and had to flee Poland. The CIA has corroborated this.

At the time of his original trial, prosecutors alleged that he was paid. They claimed he owned a large villa in Poland and drove a Western-made car, but these accusations don't jibe with the cautious persona that allowed Colonel Kuklinski to operate for nearly a decade without arousing the suspicions of colleagues.

On several occasions Colonel Kuklinski has expressed a desire to clear his name, but thus far he has rejected the Polish Supreme Court's offer of a new trial, even though Polish authorities guarantee that he would be allowed to return to the United States if found guilty.

Colonel Kuklinski's lawyer in Warsaw, Piotr Dewinski, declined to explain the reasons behind his client's reluctance. "He just doesn't want to come," said Mr. Dewinski.

The high court says it will proceed with the case next month, with or without Colonel Kuklinski.

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