By Seth G. Jones
W.W. Norton, $27.95, 394 pages
A surge of labor unrest in Poland in 1981 set CIA minds into motion. Officers saw a splendid opportunity to give the tottering Soviet Union a swift kick and bring freedom to people who had suffered for decades under foreign domination.
But one factor was hyper-important: To ensure that no U.S. fingerprints could be detected on the secret aid given to the insurgent unionists.
Thus was hatched Operation QRHELPFUL, a covert operation which (understandably) drew no public attention. Now Seth G. Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies melds interviews with CIA principals and now-unclassified documents into a fascinating account of the how-to of a covert action.
The central Polish character in the drama was Lech Walesa, an unlettered union leader at the Gdansk shipyard whose dramatic oratory about industrial injustice and horrid living conditions electrified crowds.
Over several years, Mr. Walesa melded Polish labor groups into a movement named Solidarity, with 10 million members.
Mr. Walesa’s success terrified Polish strong man Wojciech Jaruzelski, a puppet prime minister installed by the USSR. In late 1981 a CIA estimate stated, “Poland presents the USSR with the most threatening and complex challenge to its vital interests to emerge in the postwar period.” The CIA predicted the imposition of martial law to suppress Solidarity.
And such was what happened in December 1981. The CIA saw the move as a prelude to intervention by the Red Army. Such was Moscow’s tactic in 1968, when Soviet rulers dispatched troops to quash a reform movement in Czechoslovakia. Nine to 11 divisions were poised on the Polish border.
Security forces commenced a brutal crackdown on Solidarity, smashing windows and doors, and hauling members (including Mr. Walesa) off to jail. All public gatherings (save religious services) were barred.
The crackdown enraged President Reagan, who considered the Soviet government “irreconcilably evil.” He scrawled in his diary, “D___ those inhuman monsters.” And he signed a series of national security directives aimed at undermining Soviet control in Eastern Europe.
One decision approved a CIA covert action program to provide money and other nonlethal assistance to Solidarity. Thus was born QRHELPFUL.
Implementation of the operation fell to William C. “Bill” Casey, Mr. Reagan’s director of central intelligence.
To understate, Mr. Casey was a man of deceiving appearance. In Mr. Jones‘ dead-on description, Mr. Casey “was recognizable by his stooped physique, heavy glasses, and virtually indecipherable speech .He sounded like a shortwave radio broadcast with bad reception.”
But beneath Mr. Casey’s muddled exterior was the mind of a crafty spymaster who honed his skills with the OSS and then made a minor fortune on and around Wall Street.
Mr. Casey watched with frustration Soviet “active measures” aimed at undermining U.S. influence. Poland gave an opening to strike back.
At the operating level, a driving force was an officer named Richard Malzahn, a Yale graduate who joined the agency in 1956. After assignments abroad, Mr. Malzahn was an in-house expert on Soviet programs, and QRHELPFUL at times mirrored enemy techniques.
Early talk about supplying arms to the resistance was abandoned for fear of touching off an all-out war.
Instead, the focus was non-lethal aid to help Solidarity spread its message — in essence, information warfare.
Importantly, lest Solidarity be labeled a “CIA front,” officers worked through non-American nationals. Quiet subsidies went to the AFL-CIO and other organizations supporting Solidarity.
The insurgents already had many publishing outlets whose products ranged from newsletters to posters that could be slapped onto building fronts. But their equipment was crude — for instance, washing-machine wringers were modified to do home-made printing.
Agency experts developed a plethora of methods to modernize Solidarity’s efforts. Covert radios enabled Radio Solidarity to “override” domestic television broadcasts. Thousands of antennas that could receive satellite broadcasts were sneaked into the country.
Smugglers evaded border guards to supply photocopiers and duplicating machines, plus reams of paper. Legitimate trade channels brought in crates labeled “tractor parts” or “machine tools” — but contained printing materials. Cash subsidies kept activists’ families fed.
At a crucial moment, Pope John Paul II made a dramatic appearance in his native Poland to add his moral authority to the Solidarity cause.
The struggle ended in 1989, when Mr. Jaeruzelski stepped aside, to be replaced by a Solidarity prime minister. As Mr. Jones writes, “At a cost of less than $20 million, CIA helped the Poles — without arms — resist and defeat the Moscow-backed regime in Moscow and set in motion the momentous events that followed.”
Today, Ronald Reagan Park is prominent on the Gdansk waterfront — a silent tribute to America’s part in freeing Poland.
• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and foreign affairs.
Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.