The Decline of the Communist Foreign Intelligence Service

Although more than twenty-five years had passed since the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, not a single comprehensive scholarly study focusing on the history of the country’s foreign intelligence has yet been written. Last year the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes published a book entitled The Czechoslovak Secret Service and the Prague Spring written by Jiřina Dvořáková, Zdeňka Jurová, and Petr Kaňák. The book consists of three parts and is furnished with a vast number of footnotes, with nearly half of the volume comprised by facsimiles of documents from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the opening chapter, “Organizational development of the foreign intelligence service and its place within the system of State security,” the authors give a concise summary of the agency’s development from 1960 until the advent of the Prague Spring. Throughout this period, despite being restructured several times, the agency had functioned as a separate entity within the State security apparatus and was known as “First Administration,” scoring its greatest successes in the 1960s. Following the bloody fifties, when the foreign intelligence service was involved in a number of kidnappings and several murders, the situation gradually changed. (The last known murder committed by a Czechoslovak intelligence agent on KGB orders dates back to 1961, when Alfréd Petrovič, the agent codenamed Alpe, Duda, 135, and Květen [May], an officer of Stapo, the Austrian state police, assassinated a Hungarian counter-intelligence defector, Béla Lápusnyik, by dimethyl sulfate poisoning. The last known case of kidnapping carried out by State Security took place one year later.)

The intelligence operatives were adept at exploiting the gradual politi- cal liberalization of the 1960s. In talking to potential contacts they constantly emphasized the communist leadership’s endeavor to turn Czechoslovakia into a second Yugoslavia or even Finland, i.e. to break free of direct control and dependence on the USSR. Even though this was a ploy aimed at deceiving their chosen victims, it did work in quite a few cases. The 1960s can be regarded as the “golden” era of Czechoslovakia’s foreign intelligence, as the agency managed to catch in its web a number of key Western politicians, journalists, and scholars. Individuals recorded in the files as agents include French politician Claude Estier; Libération’s deputy editor-in-chief Albert Lentin; high-ranking officer of the Paris prefecture Gérard Lecond; and leftwing German politician Alfred Gebhardt. However, the book’s introductory essay focuses on the internal transformation of the service’s structure, completely ignoring its key instrument—the intelligence network.

The following chapter revisits the reasoning some intelligence officers gave as grounds for separating the foreign intelligence from the State Security. Its main motivation was an attempt to draw a line under the unlawful activities of the State Security in the 1950s, which later became subject of rehabilitation court proceedings. Unfortunately, the book’s authors fail to point out that most intelligence officers had started their careers in the ranks of State Security counter-intelligence and that many of them had themselves been implicated in unlawful killings committed in the course of the 1950s.

In their account of the Ministry of the Interior 1968 Action Plan, the publication‘s authors provide a detailed list of officers who supported the Prague Spring and highlight a conservative pro-Russian faction within foreign intelligence that was completely loyal to the KGB. Nevertheless, they fail to explain the contradictions entailed in these documents. For example, they present Deputy Commander Jan Paclík as a reformist. Yet, only a few pages further on, in their account of the dismissal of the intelligence agency’s conservative Chief Josef Houska (an honorary KGB officer), they say it was he who nominated Jan Paclík as his successor, with the proposal seconded by Viliam Šalgovič, another pro-Soviet officer who became federal minister of the interior after the suppression of the Prague Spring.

In the final part of the publication the authors focus on developments within the intelligence service after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. The agency’s leadership was taken over by Stalinists, marking the end of attempts to create a professional intelligence service in communist Czechoslovakia. In fact, this attempt had been doomed to failure from the outset. Not for a moment had the communists considered a pluralist political system or abandoning the leading role of the communist party. It was therefore a foregone conclusion that, wherever the agency would have been placed, it would have always been completely subject to the dictates of the communist party.

The advent of what is known as “normalization” was followed by purges in the entire state apparatus including foreign intelligence. Whereas in 1968 only three officers had left the agency, a year later the number rose to 50, and the following year as many as 147 officers lost their job. Even though only 27 percent of the agency’s staff had university degrees, 55 percent of those dismissed had higher education. The department of scientific espionage was most affected by the purges while the lowest number was fired from departments dealing with ideological diversion and emigration (the authors gloss over the fact that none of the people involved in illegal intelligence operations had been fired). The departments engaged in operations aimed at exile organizations were often staffed with comrades who were completely devoted to Marxism-Leninism but entirely incapable of learning any foreign languages.

What posed a more serious problem were the defections of several operatives to the West, who provided information to intelligence agencies in democratic countries. Following the defection of Ladislav Bittman in September 1968, foreign intelligence operations ceased altogether and a commission was set up with the task of identifying all the information Bittman could have passed on to Western agencies. Since he had been involved in several key disinformation operations and, as a high-ranking officer, he had helped to shape the activities of the entire agency, the extent of his knowledge was considerable. The agency terminated its cooperation with all agents whose identity was known to him. Individuals that were at risk of imprisonment due to their involvement in kidnappings or murders were recalled to Czechoslovakia.

The intelligence network gradually started to disintegrate. Most agents turned down contacts with new controllers on the grounds that they were not willing to cooperate with an agency that served an occupying power. Several promising future agents or agent prospects were directly taken over by the KGB. In Italy, for example, Soviet “friends” took over control of Ingeborg Mašatová, codenamed Ago, who worked in the Vatican, as well as of promising young conservative politician Giuseppe Ferrarini, recorded in the files under the code name Docent. He later served as personal secretary to three ministers of interior and had access to highly sensitive information while his wife worked as a secretary of one of Italy’s presidents. A further key source of information in Italy, with whom the Czechoslovak intelligence had to severe contacts, was Emo Egoli, formerly Jiří Pelikán’s deputy in the International Student Union and chairman of the Italian-Arab Friendship society, a man completely devoted to the KGB.

After being painstakingly built over twenty years, further defections were the last nail in the coffin of the agency. The most significant was probably that of Josef Frolík. Having served in London in the 1960s, he knew the local agents and their sources. The publication quotes Frolík’s testimony before the US Senate Justice Subcommittee in November 1975 where he named several associates of the Czechoslovak intelligence. In his memoir The Frolik Defection: The Memoirs of a Czechoslovak Intelligence Agent he gives detailed information on agents active in Great Britain and in spite of some inaccuracies his assertions are surprisingly comprehensive. The text evidently contains some disinformation, primary aimed at influencing the communist security apparatus: as an experienced intelligence man he knew that his book would be scrutinized on the other side of the Iron Curtain, not just in dissident circles but especially by the State Security.

The publication includes the facsimile of several key documents that depict the state of foreign intelligence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including “Proposed Measures within Czechoslovakia’s Intelligence” dating from 1969. What makes this remarkable is the speed with which with hollow phrases familiar from the 1950s had found their way back into key policy documents: “Imperialism as a social system has been and remains the main obstacle on the path of mankind‘s inevitable progress to eliminating exploitation…” The second part of the document gives an assessment of intelligence operations over the past year: “Another significant factor was the fact that the extensive development and fallacious claims of greater benefits of education compared to an individual’s political and moral profile resulted in disrupting the education of cadres.” Professional standards of the entire agency were undermined by the tendency to appoint “politically reliable individuals.” For instance, the deputy resident officer in London in the early 1970s was a politically reliable comrade who, due to his lack of linguistic skills, could not even read local daily press.

The document mentioned above further recommended an expansion of illegal activities, i.e. using individuals deployed abroad under a false identity to control agents and gather information. However, this was an extremely complex procedure since a secret agent could not possibly maintain contacts with intelligence officers who were deployed in a given country under diplomatic cover. This made the passing of information inordinately difficult; furthermore, a thorough probe would have been likely to detect most illegal agents, which meant they could not infiltrate institutions with access to confidential information. Illegal agent Bohumil Gottwald is a case in point. In the mid-1960s he worked for the French intelligence service under a false identity (as Pierre Cardot), only to be exposed and arrested within a few months. Another illegal agent, Jan Kondek, who had defected to France a few years earlier while on a business trip to Switzerland, helped to convict Gottwald. A few weeks after Bohumil Gottwald was exchanged for a French student arrested in Czechoslovakia on suspicion of espionage, Jan Kondek was found dead from gas poisoning.

Probably the most fascinating part of the whole book is a 1972 document detailing the vetting of political intelligence agents working for the First Administration of the Federal Ministry of the Interior and problems of running the agent network. Summarizing the state of the network the document states that it comprised 268 agents, confidential and “ideological” collaborators. This figure would have been quite impressive, provided these people were an interesting source of information. However, as it turns out the category “ideological collaborators” was applied to Czechoslovak citizens who had been working abroad for a long time, while “confidential contacts” was a label designating individuals who had shown willingness to meet with intelligence officers but were not covered by rules of conspiracy. Only 51 out of the total 268 recorded were listed as agents, in addition, in 35 cases the Western secret services were aware of these individuals’ contacts with Czechoslovak “diplomats.” A mere 24 people were employed by an institution of interest to communist foreign intelligence; moreover, not a single agent worked in an institution that was under surveillance by the intelligence agency in the USA, Federal Republic of Germany, and France. This was one of the reasons why in the early 1970s individuals listed as “confidential contacts” were moved to the category of “agents.” In this way the local intelligence officers met their quotas, the foreign intelligence chief could boast of a newly recruited agent to the ministry of the interior, and two years later the file would be switched back to the original category or quietly archived.

Communist Czechoslovakia’s foreign intelligence never recovered from the personnel and professional upheavals brought about by the Prague Spring. It had lost the confidence of the KBG and was gradually reduced to a travel agency for the offspring of nomenclature families, who preferred to spend time in Paris or Rome rather than in Moscow. Current research has revealed the identity of at least ten State Security officers who cooperated with Western intelligence services after 1968. The State Security had no chance to defend itself against this level of penetration, and foreign intelligence gradually gave up competing with Western intelligence agencies, increasingly turning into political police whose main focus was monitoring Czechoslovakia’s democratic exiles.

Radek Schovánek

A specialist in the digitisation of documents at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague. He has been studying StB materials since 1993, when he joined the Institute for the Documentation and Investigation of StB Activities.

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