Benjamin Weiser, A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004)

[From Defense Intelligence Journal 16, no. 2 (2007): 155-156]

When Polish Col. Ryszard Kuklinski decided to challenge Soviet domination of his beloved homeland, he turned to the West. Doing so moved him into the murky and dangerous world of real spies, a world where the dividing line between patriot and traitor is blurred by emotions, national sentiment, and personal viewpoint. Benjamin Weiser tells the Polish spy's story with sensitivity, grace, and awareness of the realities of the world in which Kuklinski operated. The author has captured admirably the tensions and nuances of the spy's existence and of the intelligence officers whose job it was to get the most information possible from their unique source while at the same time keeping him alive.

Strategically situated in the Polish General Staff Headquarters, Kuklinski spent the years from 1972 to 1981 providing the CIA with tens of thousands of pages of highly classified Soviet and Warsaw Pact documents. Weiser's eminently readable telling of Kuklinki's story takes the reader deep into the life of a courageous and noble man. It also provides unique insight into the practices of CIA clandestine tradecraft in human intelligence operations. The exfiltration of Kuklinski and his family from Poland is an exciting standalone story. The frustrations sometimes encountered in using modern technology for agent and handler communications represent an interesting subset in the detailing of Kuklinski's years "in the cold."

This was a story that Weiser clearly wanted to write. Just as clearly, the CIA wanted the story written. However, Weiser was not about to allow his work to be vetted by the CIA; and there was no way that he was going to be given unfettered access to the Agency’s files. The compromise, while unusual, seems to have worked to perfection. Weiser was allowed to hire a cleared and knowledgeable former clandestine services officer, Peter Earnest, who was given access to the classified archives. Earnest copied parts of documents and made notes from files, which were then cleared for release to the author. Supplementing these materials with "extensive interviews with Kuklinski and others," Weiser was able to chronicle "a secret life" in a manner that on the surface has few apparent holes. Still readily available in paperback (which edition adds a brief note in the "Postscript" on Kuklinski's death in 2004 and the return of his ashes to Poland), this is a work that warms the spirit. It also reminds us that "cold" though it may have been, the secret Cold War nonetheless had its share of warriors who made sacrifices in the name of liberty.

Reviewed by J. Ransom Clark, retired CIA Senior Intelligence Service officer and Emeritus faculty at Muskingum College, New Concord, Ohio. Clark's book, Intelligence and National Security: A Reference Handbook, was published earlier this year by Praeger Security International.

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