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For the first time in the series, we present extensively the history and present of an Eastern-European country, which was part of the Warsaw pact during the Cold War. True, we already invited experts from other countries, part of the USSR (Ukraine, specifically). We covered the Russian and USSR’s intelligence extensively in another interview. But it is the first time we explore the secret services of a country that underwent crucial restructuring and reforms passing from being independent, then inside the Warsaw Pact, and then the European Union and NATO. It is then with a particular interest and pleasure to cover the Polish intelligence history, experience, and present. This is a great opportunity for discovering more about other perspectives and structures, which are now part of the European Union and NATO. Considering French intelligence services, Italian security services, Greece’s experience, Belgian or Dutch intelligence, the readers will see already how densely diversified and unique each country is when intelligence is concerned. With Poland’s intelligence and security services, we add another crucial piece into the complex puzzle, which is intelligence history and European “ways to intelligence.” Indeed, as we shall discover through this very deep and insightful interview, Poland’s history was as complex as few others in the European landscape. Starting from the beginning of the Polish state, professor Przemysław Gasztold covers all the main steps and evolution of the Polish secret services. As the readers will discover, this is a fascinating journey through the history of a crucial country whose history shows an impressive and unrivaled resilience. I can only be grateful to professor Gasztold for sharing with us his deep knowledge of Polish intelligence. It is then with my distinct pleasure to publish the interview on Scuola Filosofica – for those who don’t know it yet; it is one of the leading cultural blogs in Italy. In the name of Scuola Filosofica Team, our readers, and myself, Giangiuseppe Pili, Przemysław: thank you!
1# Professor Przemysław Gasztold, let’s start from the basics. How would you like to present yourself to the International readers and Philosophical School (Scuola Filosofica)?
Since the beginning of my university studies I was fascinated by the Polish history during the Cold War, with a particular emphasis on the communist movement and its security apparatus. I have written my MA thesis on the “Grunwald” Patriotic Union – a political association active in the 80s, which mixed communism with nationalism and anti-Semitism. My PhD thesis addressed the hardline communists within the Polish United Workers’ Party in the 80s and their struggle for power within the high echelons of the ruling regime. My next project embraces the Polish sympathizers of Maoism who in 1965 established an illegal party and were supported by Albanian and Chinese diplomats. Simultaneously, I’m working on a project about the Polish ties to the Global South (1955-1989), which would identify the role Warsaw in the developing world in a broader framework of the Soviet Bloc ideological agenda. I’m also conducting research on various aspects of Polish intelligence and counter-intelligence services, for example their secret ties with international terrorism during the Cold War. The new findings about the Soviet bloc clandestine relationships with terrorist organizations have recently been published in two volumes: Terrorism in the Cold War. State Support in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Sphere of Influence and Terrorism in the Cold War. State Support in the West, Middle East and Latin America (edited by A. Hanni, T. Riegler, P. Gasztold, I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury Publishing, London-New York 2020). Currently, I’m working as an Assistant Professor at the War Studies University in Warsaw, the Department of Security Threats, and as a senior research fellow at the Institute of National Remembrance – an institution responsible for research and archival maintenance of the communist intelligence records. Additionally, I’m an editor at “Security & Defence Quarterly” and a member of the editorial board at the “National Security and the Future”.
2# What is the current structure of the Polish intelligence community?
Polish “intelligence community” consists of five agencies, however contrary to the Western approach which usually makes a division into law enforcement and intelligence structures, the Polish case combines the two. According to the law, such agencies are named as “special services” (służby specjalne) which should mark their unique objectives, responsibilities and capabilities within the national security. The biggest among them in terms of people, budget and importance is Internal Security Agency (Agencja Bezpieczeństwa Wewnętrznego, ABW), which acts as a civilian counter-intelligence service and a prime security institution responsible for counter-terrorism. ABW wields investigative powers and is also responsible for tackling the rising cyber-threats. Intelligence Agency (Agencja Wywiadu, AW) works as a Polish foreign intelligence service and operates usually abroad. The Military Counter-Intelligence Service (Służba Kontrwywiadu Wojskowego) and The Military Intelligence Service (Służba Wywiadu Wojskowego) are both military agencies responsible for respectively: counter-intelligence and military intelligence, and which operate in the military domain. Additionally, there is the Central Anti-Corruption Bureau (Centralne Biuro Antykorupcyjne), which has investigative powers and belongs to “special services”, however this institution does not conduct an intelligence or counter-intelligence work.
3# Let’s come to history. What are the main steps that shaped Polish intelligence history?
Polish intelligence history might be divided into four phases: the interwar period (1918-1939), the Second World War (1939-1945), the communist period (1944/45-1990), and the last period lasting from 1990 until nowadays. I will briefly describe the first period in the 5th question and start now with the second phase.
On the 1st September 1939 Poland was invaded by the German army, and on 17th September also by the Soviet troops. The country was one more time occupied and partitioned by the hostile powers but this did not discourage Poles to fight for their freedom. While the government went into exile to London, many underground structures were quickly established in Poland with the aim to fighting the invaders and collecting intelligence about Germans and Soviets. The Polish Underground State, known also as a Polish Secret State, consisted of many political, cultural, and educational institutions, as well as of a well-organized but poorly equipped Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK). One might say that every soldier of the AK was an intelligence asset since this structure was also responsible for providing the Polish government in London with detailed information about the situation in occupied Europe. For example, AK identified in 1943 a secret research facility in Peenemünde, where Germans were working on V2 missiles. Thanks to Polish reports, the facility was then bombed by the Royal Air Force, which to some extent delayed the German research. In fact, Polish spies during the Second World War were active on almost all continents and considerably contributed to the defeat of the Germans. Poles, however, could not celebrate the full victory because Poland since 1944 became occupied by the Soviet troops. Then Moscow established its puppet regime in Warsaw, which consisted of loyal communists who until late 40s managed to quell most of the armed resistance. This is how Polish People’s Republic was born.
Between 1945 and 1990 Poland belonged to the Soviet sphere of influence, and since 1955 was a member of the Warsaw Pact. Polish intelligence structures – or better to say security apparatus, were shaped according to the Soviet patterns and experience. The Soviet advisors played an important role in building of the ubiquitous security apparatus (The Ministry of Public Security – Ministerstwo Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego, since 1956 as The Ministry of Internal Affairs) and also held executive positions in civilian and military intelligence (Oddział II Sztabu Generalnego from 1952 as Zarząd II Sztabu Generalnego) and counter-intelligence (Główny Zarząd Informacji). Although since the mid-50s their performance was less visible, a special KGB liaison unit codename “Narew” remained in Poland until 1993. During that time broadly understood security apparatus was used by the Polish United Workers Party (PUWP) to control every aspect of political, social and economic life. This was mirrored by repressions, deaths, tortures and surveillance of citizens who contested the communist rule. Since the mid-70s the security apparatus put more emphasis on surveillance of the members of the democratic opposition, while in 1980 focused on infiltrating the “Solidarity” Independent Self-Governing Trade Union. The Ministry of Internal Affairs took an active role in the preparation and implementation of the Martial Law on 13th December 1981. In the 80s both the civilian and military intelligence tried to infiltrate and dismantle underground “Solidarity” structures. Thus, during that period most of the intelligence efforts were put into the internal domain rather than the foreign one.
The last phase of the Polish intelligence history might be dated back to 1990 when communism collapsed and The Republic of Poland was established. Communist intelligence structures were dissolved or renamed. Post-Solidarity parties, which came to power conducted a vetting process, whose aim was to ban from work all functionaries involved in illegal activities, like for example the repressions against the anti-communist opposition. The screening was however limited and most of the former communist intelligence officers could continue their work at newly formed Office of State Protection (Urząd Ochrony Państwa, UOP), which combined intelligence and counter-intelligence responsibilities. UOP was replaced in 2002 by Internal Security Agency (ABW) and Intelligence Agency (AW). The military intelligence avoided vetting procedures and many officers with communist background started to work in 1991 at the Military Information Services (Wojskowe Służby Informacyjne). In 2006 they were dissolved and replaced by Military Intelligence Service (SWW) and Military Counter-Intelligence Service (SKW). From the one hand Polish intelligence services had great successes in the 90s and closely cooperated with their American and Western counter-parts, from the other however, they were often abused for political purposes and were involved in illegal activities. Nevertheless, the evaluation of their achievements and failures still waits for a proper research, which is to some extent limited due to the lack of access to intelligence records after 1990.
4# Polish history is one of the densest parts of Europe, which is an already dense place of complicated national stories. How would you sum up the Polish intelligence history to our readers?
It’s very difficult to briefly evaluate the history of Polish intelligence in the 20th century, because there was no single, comprehensive history, rather the researchers have to deal with several separate histories. Contrary to many Western, but also to Russian intelligence history, Polish case distinguishes itself with lack of continuation between particular periods: pre-war, Cold War, and to some extent post-1990. In these periods different people were involved in building and operating intelligence services, moreover, their goals, political, ideological and geopolitical agenda also varied significantly. Although there are some similarities and differences, one might conclude that Cold War period differs because at that time Poland belonged to the Soviet bloc and her intelligence apparatus was controlled by the communist party. Between 1944 and 1990 Polish intelligence could not act fully independently because it was subjected to Moscow’s influence and oversight.
5# During the two world wars, Poland was a free state but surrounded by hostile countries. How did this affect the Polish approach to intelligence those years?
After 123 years Poland regained its independence in 1918 and had to build its own security system from scratch. It was a great challenge because the country was under threat from nearly all directions, however the biggest one came from the East and took shape of the Polish-Bolshevik war (1919-1921). The need for an advance information constituted the main task for a newly established state, and Warsaw achieved in this regards much success. For example, Polish radio-intelligence played a key role in deciphering Soviet codes, which significantly contributed to the victory at the Battle of Warsaw in 1920. Polish military put much effort into developing the research on cryptography and in 1931 established a Cipher Bureau, which had great achievements in decrypting German Enigma cryptographic devise. The results of this remarkable work were shared with French and British envoys in July 1939, just before the Second World War broke out. Although Polish contribution to crack Enigma codes strongly helped allies to win the war, Polish intelligence had also other successes during the interwar period. For example Jerzy Sosnowski, an intelligence officer at the II Section of the General Staff (Oddział II Sztabu Generalnego, military intelligence) established a secret spy ring, which infiltrated German military circles in the late 20s gleaning information about the violations of the Treaty of Versailles and about the secret process of Resichswehr’s remilitarization. Polish intelligence established its stations in many European capitals which provided the authorities in Warsaw with up to date information. There were however also significant failures, depicted especially in the intelligence work conducted towards the Soviet Union, which included, for example, the inability to detect in advance Soviet disinformation campaign known at the codename “MOCR-Trust”. Overall, while Warsaw had significant achievements in collecting intelligence on Nazi-Germany, spying on the Soviet Union proved to be very challenging, especially in the 30s, in the height of building the totalitarian state by Joseph Stalin.
6# The Cold War definitely shaped Polish history as other few countries. How deep was the Polish state involved in the Warsaw Pact intelligence? More broadly, how would you describe Poland’s involvement in the Cold War?
I’m working at the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN), which is responsible for handling intelligence files from the Cold War period. Such records offer a unique insight into how the security apparatus used to operate, what its structure was, modus operandi and foreign activity. IPN Archives are probably most open intelligence archives in the world because they provide researchers with personnel records, foreign assets files, correspondence between stations and headquarters, as well as other data about the daily life of the communist security apparatus (military and civilian). Although Polish intelligence during the Cold War was fully subordinated to Moscow and often acted as its proxy, the available files allow us to place its role in the broader framework of Warsaw Pact agenda. Firstly, Polish intelligence usually focused its resources on Western Europe, especially on West Germany where many assets and “illegals” were planted. Such priority resulted from political goals pursued by PUWP and depicted a larger trend to conduct a more active intelligence policy in the region rather than on a global scale. Thus, Polish intelligence was less involved in the Global South, contrary to for example Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria or the GDR. Warsaw also rarely engaged in the covert operations or disinformation campaigns in the Middle East or in Africa. Moreover, Warsaw paid particular attention to scientific intelligence, which might help to bridge the economic gap between East and West. Thanks to bribes and corruption, Polish intelligence was able to recruit many sources in the Western countries who later delivered know-how for some cutting-edge (and obviously embargoed) technologies, which were later implemented in Polish research facilities (pharmaceutics, chemical science). The case of Marian Zacharski might also depict the pursuit of military-related technologies. He was working for Polish intelligence and recruited William Bell, an employee of Hughes Aircraft Corporation, who provided the Poles with documents about sophisticated radar systems. Warsaw obviously shared the secret files with the KGB, which fully exploited its importance. Although Polish intelligence was able to conduct an active HUMINT policy, many defections in the long term strongly limited Warsaw’s effectiveness in this matter. Moreover, preliminary research on military intelligence clearly suggests that it had serious problems in recruiting foreign assets, for example in Sweden or in Denmark. Most of the assets recruited there by military spies were Polish or of Polish origins. Overall, I’m sure that ongoing research on Polish intelligence during the Cold War will soon bring more conclusions about its capacity and a role played within the Soviet Bloc. In this regard the researchers have full access to relevant files, which paradoxically means that they have to sweep through many thousands of pages of a single intelligence station.
7# Let’s come to the present. First, there is a “Polish intelligence community”? What is the current mission? Is it more devolved to foreign intelligence or counterintelligence and counterterrorism?
We rather don’t use the term “Polish intelligence community”, and instead we use “secret services”. Moreover, not every security agency included within this framework (“secret services”) conducts intelligence and counter-intelligence tasks, for example Central Anti-Corruption Bureau has little to do with proper intelligence work and focuses on corruption and illegal activities, which may undermine the state’s economy. Thus, I would not say that there is an intelligence community in terms of information sharing, joint planning and oversight. Actually, there are several institutional and legal flaws in accountability and oversight. In other words, legal tools do not guarantee the appropriate control over “secret services” and their performances. When it comes to current challenges terrorism is indeed perceived as one of the major threats for Polish security. After 9/11 2001 Warsaw joined US led coalition and sent its troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. Hence, Poland was mentioned by terrorist leaders like Usama bin Laden as a potential target for an attack. Although no major terrorist incidents occurred on the Polish soil, there were some examples of offences related to terrorism –financing, recruitment or logistical support and assistance. Currently, I would place the main threat in the East, namely the hostile Russian activities which may be embraced within the framework of “hybrid war”. These include mainly active and multidimensional espionage, disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks. Recently similar tools were employed by Belarus, which orchestrated the migrant crisis at its borders with Lithuania and Poland. The threat from Russia and Belarus will last as long as their leaders perceive malicious actions as useful for their political agenda. Thus, such hostile approach deserves a strong response from the European Union and NATO.
8# NATO included Poland in the alliance. Do you think NATO is still relevant today? And how do you see its impact on Polish intelligence?
NATO constitutes one of the central pillars of the Polish security doctrine, and its role is not only still relevant but the alliance should work on enhancing its cooperation and be more prepared for new challenges coming from Russia and China. Poland greatly benefited from joining the NATO not only in terms of security, but also in information sharing, which have had great importance in a globalized world. Warsaw also contributed to NATO foreign missions by sending troops to Iraq or Afghanistan or by increasing the military spending. Currently, Poland spends 2.4 percent of its GDP on military purposes. Warsaw is now in a process of modernizing its military in order to improve the country’s military capabilities. The presence of NATO troops also plays a significant role in improving Polish security and deterrence strategy. Overall, the rumors about NATO demise are not true and the alliance is even more important nowadays than in the 90s.
10# How can our readers follow you?
11# Five keywords that represent you?
I better say key words which depict my current research:
Poland, terrorism, Cold War, intelligence, HUMINT