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He Was the West’s Most Important Undercover Spy. An Affair Brought It All Down.

On April 18, 1961, the case of Polish People’s Republic v. Michał Goleniewski opened in the Warsaw District Military Court.

The defendant was accused of two offenses: stealing substantial quantities of state funds, most of it in hard foreign currency, and the more serious charge of “betrayal of the Homeland” — treason — under Article 83 of the Army’s penal code. If convicted, the latter carried an inexorable sentence: death.

Despite the gravity of the indictments, the trial was scheduled to last just one day. Only two witnesses were summoned to give evidence; they, like the prosecutor and the three judges, were both senior officers in the army or the intelligence service.

Yet this was no Soviet-style show trial. The defendant was not present in the dock, to be photographed and filmed making a damning confession of his crimes; even had he not, by April that year, been beyond the immediate reach of Poland’s government or military, there was never any likelihood that he would have been publicly arraigned.

For almost three years, Goleniewski had been the West’s most important spy, working undercover inside Communist intelligence services in Poland and the Soviet Union. Using the codename “Sniper,” he had sent hundreds of pages of Moscow’s military and espionage secrets to the West. Polish intelligence and the KGB in Moscow had harbored suspicions that Goleniewski had been working covertly for the U.S. for several weeks, which might have been a factor in his defection.

After he dropped his cover and defected to the United States in January 1961, he went on to provide yet more vital intelligence secrets — ultimately identifying more than 1,600 Soviet bloc agents spying in the West. Among the most important spies he exposed were George Blake, Moscow’s man inside Britain’s MI6; West Germany’s head of counter-intelligence; and a Swedish Air Force colonel who had sold U.S. and NATO secrets to Moscow for decades.

The court proceedings that day were terse and to the point — the entire hearing was concluded well before the day’s end — and took place entirely behind closed doors. No report was published in Poland’s state-controlled media, and there is no evidence that the CIA, or any other Western intelligence service, was even aware it had taken place.

There was a reason for this deliberate and strict secrecy: The embarrassment Goleniewski’s defection caused to the intelligence operations of the Urząd Bezpieczeństwa (UB), Poland’s secret police agency, as well as to those of Soviet Bloc espionage agencies with which it worked, was devastating. Publicizing his defection, and the secrets he betrayed, would have only deepened the wounds and highlighted the dramatically enfeebled position of the Soviet bloc spy networks to their counterparts in the West.

Hidden from public scrutiny at home, and out of the sight of its international enemies, the Polish Intelligence Service was remarkably frank. The evidence it presented to the Warsaw Court set out the details of Goleniewski’s career as a spy, the chronology of his defection, and desperate efforts by the UB to limit the damage it caused. But the trial also revealed his full personal history — a history of love affairs that had made him increasingly unhappy with his life in the Soviet bloc, and which was significantly at odds with the selectively edited biography he had given to the CIA.


Michał Goleniewski was born on Aug. 16, 1922, in Nieśwież, a city in the northeast corner of Poland, close to its border with the Soviet Union. His father, also named Michał, was an accountant; his mother, Janina Turynska, a housewife. During the interwar years, the family moved to Wolsztyn, 800 kilometers to the west and close to the border with Germany. Michał, Sr., worked for a brewery, a job that could not have helped his incipient alcoholism, while his wife ran the home and brought up their son.

Michał attended the local high school, before gimnazjum, or preparatory school, graduating just before the outbreak of war in 1939. By his own account, given to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, he spent the years in which Poland was occupied by Hitler’s troops studying law at the University of Poznan — although subsequently he also claimed to have been arrested and imprisoned by the Nazi authorities on suspicion of belonging to an illegal organization.

The truth, as presented to the Warsaw District Military Court, was somewhat less respectable than either of these alternative histories: “In the years 1940–1944 he worked as an accountant in agricultural properties at Tloka and Wroniawa in the Poznań Province,” the prosecutor reported, adding that at all times this employment “was under German administration.” He had, in short, been a collaborator.

When World War II ended Goleniewski applied for membership in the Polish Workers’ Party and started work — initially as a sentry, then as a clerk — at the new Communist government’s Ministry of Public Security, the MBP, which, under the umbrella of the UB, oversaw the state’s domestic and foreign intelligence services.

Over the next 12 years he would rise steadily through the ranks of the MBP/UB. In 1946 he was awarded one of Poland’s highest honors — the Cross of Merit — later to be supplemented by the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, cementing his status as a reliable apparatchik in the new Communist state’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.

He also evidently had powerful patrons within the intelligence service. In 1948 he was promoted to chief of the Counter-Intelligence Division for the district of Poznan, a post he would hold until 1950. Throughout those two years, fellow officers made a succession of formal requests that Goleniewski should be investigated for “cooperating with the Nazi occupier and acting to the detriment of Polish citizens.”

Each attempt was quickly snuffed out: “cancelled in Warsaw,” according to notes on an internal Polish security service report. By 1955 he was a division head within the MBP’s Department 1, which controlled civilian counterintelligence; at least part of his duties involved monitoring members of the fragmented anti-communist resistance — a task which he pursued under the cover identity of “Dr. Roman Tarnowski,” an official of the General Prosecutor’s Office, and one which earned him a reputation as a relentless and unforgiving interrogator of dissidents.

On February 1, 1955, he was appointed deputy head of the scientific and intelligence branch of Department 1. It would be his final role and, like the positions which preceded it, brought Goleniewski into close contact with all of Poland’s military and civilian espionage services.

According to the indictment against him:

As the Head of the Department VI Dep. 1 of the Ministry of the Interior, the suspect had access to materials constituting a state secret of special significance. In particular, he was thoroughly oriented in the organization of the work of the intelligence service of the Interior Ministry on the technical and scientific section, and knew the network of secret collaborators of Department VI … conducted by the Department as well as the structure, tasks, forms and methods of work of Department 1 and cooperating units.

But Goleniewski’s responsibilities extended far beyond Poland’s borders. During the 1950s he became the KGB’s “point man” in Warsaw, combining an official role as the UB’s liaison to the Soviet intelligence service chiefs with a covert remit to brief Moscow on the activities of his colleagues. Both jobs required him to travel throughout the Soviet bloc states and, frequently, into the West.

It was clear from the prosecutors’ evidence that they did not, then, realise, Goleniewski had been working with Western intelligence since 1958.

Despite the extra demands caused by this dual role, the UB found Goleniewski to be a competent and efficient worker on behalf of the Polish secret state. An internal performance review, written by his immediate boss, Colonel Witold Sienkiewicz, on August 25, 1960, reported that:

The work of the department headed by Comrade Goleniewski is very diverse and besides operational qualifications requires knowledge of technical and economic problems. Despite this specific work, Comrade Goleniewski, having organizational skills and self-denial at work, fulfills it. The contribution of Comrade Goleniewski’s work to the department is large … He [has] gained experience in working with agents and works with them both legally and illegally with good results.

Colonel Sienkiewicz did, however, note that Goleniewski’s arrogance and unconcealed ambition had made him unpopular with his fellow spies:

In relations within the office and with colleagues he is conceited. He considers himself the wisest and best on all the issues entrusted to him. He makes judgements about people too hastily, often on the spur of the moment, though he may revise them in the course of his work. He likes to show off his friendships and relate to highly placed personalities.

More tellingly, Sienkiewicz also noted his subordinate’s “difficult and complicated” personal life. It was, Sienkiewicz recorded, a marital problem that adversely affected Goleniewski’s work; it would also be one of the motivations for his defection in January 1961.

Anna Diachenko was just one year older than Michał Goleniewski, but her adult life had been rather more difficult than his seemingly effortless rise. She was born in Russia in June 1921, but had come to Poland in the 1930s and been granted citizenship. During the first years of Nazi occupation, she was transported to Germany for forced labor, before escaping with a lover she had met in the work camps; from 1943 onwards they survived by marrying under a false identity, then hiding from German troops in, or near, Wolsztyn. In October 1944, Anna gave birth to their daughter, Halina; but at some point before or just after the end of the war — the UB’s extensive files do not record an exact date — her husband died, leaving her to bring up the child alone.

That changed in 1945 when she met Goleniewski; the couple were married in March 1946 and Halina was formally registered as his adopted daughter. As his career progressed, the family also grew; Danuta, another daughter, was born in April, and a son, Jerzy, followed in November 1950. Both children were fathered by Goleniewski.

The couple’s relationship was, however, deeply troubled. Anna suffered from mental health problems — probably the result of her wartime experiences but exacerbated by Goleniewski’s frequent infidelity. She periodically walked out of their government-provided apartment on
Warsaw’s Solariego Street, and on at least two occasions she was hospitalized for “delusional schizophrenia.”

By 1954 the marriage was — according to Goleniewski’s own written account for his Polish intelligence employers — “in complete disintegration.” Anna frequently accused him of “poisoning” or “destroying” her and had come to view her husband as “Enemy Number One.” When Goleniewski’s father died, in an ill-documented industrial accident in 1952, he brought his mother Janina to live with them in the apartment; the move caused yet more turmoil — Anna vehemently objected and eventually “banished” her mother-in-law from the family home.

By the middle of 1958, Goleniewski decided he could no longer cope with his wife. He asked the UB for permission to apply for a divorce — a bureaucratic sanction necessitated by his senior role in the intelligence service — citing Anna’s illness and unreasonable behavior as justification.

But that was only half of the truth: Michał Goleniewski had another, more pressing, reason to rid himself of his unstable spouse — he had embarked on a new and passionate affair. Irmgard Kampf was 28 years old when she first encountered Goleniewski. She was a secretary in the 13th District Secondary School in Mitte, East Berlin, earning a modest 300 ostmarks a month — a fact which explained why she still lived with her elderly parents in their small apartment at 54 Wollinerstrasse.

According to his own account, Goleniewski bumped into her “accidentally” on one of his
missions to East Germany in 1958. Although Poland and the German Democratic Republic were notionally allies within the wider Soviet bloc of nations, their intelligence services maintained a cautious rivalry.

When Goleniewski and Kampf first met, across the spartan tables of the Melodie restaurant on Friedrichstrasse, he was initially suspicious, fearing that she might be an agent of the GDR’s ubiquitous secret police and that the apparently chance encounter might be “a provocation” by
the Stasi.

He introduced himself as Jan Roman, a Polish journalist “of Jewish origin,” claimed to have been a resistance fighter during the war, and said that his entire family, apart from his mother, had been murdered by the Nazis. If the story was fundamentally untrue, according to his own, internal UB account of the relationship, it evidently found favor with the somewhat impressionable Irmgard:

She spoke about the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Nazi era and expressed herself in a decidedly anti-fascist way … She told me that she liked Jews very much; when her mother worked as a seamstress in a tailor’s workshop before the war … she [Irmgard] often stayed with a Jewish resident near her, who gave her sweets and treated her like her own child. I did not hide the fact that I was a communist or the fact that I hate the FRG [West Germany] and fascists of all types. If IK had any worries, it was only due to the fact that she is German and that as a result she might lose me . . .

Soon the friendship blossomed into a clandestine love affair. Goleniewski arranged to see Irmgard whenever he travelled to East Berlin and she introduced him to her parents, Franz, 75, and Luize, 69.

Over time she invited her widowed sister, Margette Mische, and her brother Franz to cross the border from their homes in West Germany and meet her lover over meals at the apartment on Wollinerstrasse.

Irmgard Kampf was falling in love with the older, handsome, powerfully built Polish “journalist.” But the lies he had told her initially were becoming unsustainable — not least because the documents he carried on missions to the GDR identified him as Roman Tarnowski, not Jan Roman. Goleniewski further embroidered his initial cover legend, telling the Kampf family that after the war he had served in the Polish Army for four years before becoming a journalist, first in China and then in a news agency working with Poland’s foreign service.

He said that his work required frequent travel to conferences across the Soviet bloc of countries and involved writing “propaganda about fascists in the German Federal Republic.” When he came to the GDR, he said he was provided with an office in the Polish Embassy in East Berlin — an entirely bogus detail which could have caused trouble had Irmgard ever tried to contact him there.

Happily, he recorded, “for the entire period of our acquaintance she never once tried to call me at the Embassy or to ask for my phone number there.” Goleniewski attributed this good fortune to Irmgard’s “incredible discretion” — though naivety and the hard-learned East German
survival technique of never asking risky questions probably played a significant part.

Evidently unaware that their affair had been discovered by the Stasi, the couple exchanged a remarkably frank succession of letters and telegrams. These, as the UB files sniffily noted, “devoted a lot of space to erotic matters,” but they also revealed Kampf ’s insecurity, and Goleniewski’s touching attempts to comfort her.

“I have a constant concern and fear that something could happen to you,” Kampf wrote in an early letter to her lover. “That would be quite bad for me. But I believe that everything will be good and my faith wants to support you in your hard work.” Some months later, she tried to express the frustration and loneliness she felt in the periods when that work prevented Goleniewski coming to see her in Berlin. “It’s hard to be reasonable without knowing you will be back again with me … I am getting weak now … [but] you know that at the right moment I can never say “no” to you … ”

For his part Goleniewski tried to reassure her and, as the relationship deepened, he asked Kampf to marry him:

I firmly believe that everything will be fine. Try, please, once again [to] support my proposal. I would like to be with you, give you new courage and arrange everything that is only a hindrance. Travelling for my work is very complicated and time-consuming, but give me a quick reply and I will do whatever you think will be good.

However, he failed to disclose that he was already married, and had three children — a lie he justified to himself on the grounds that he “did not want to cause her [Irmgard] any worry.”

Blissfully unaware, Kampf accepted his proposal and began learning Polish in anticipation of a new life in Warsaw.

By October 1960, the Stasi had seen and heard enough. Erich Mielke, head of the East German Ministry for State Security, sent a detailed report to his opposite number in the Polish government, setting out the details of Goleniewski’s “unauthorized contacts” with Irmgard Kampf, a GDR citizen. Rattled, the UB ordered Goleniewski to write an exhaustive account of — and explanation for — his dangerous secret life, and warned him that he would have to end his affair in Berlin.

On November 11, Goleniewski delivered his response to his immediate boss, Colonel Sienkiewicz. Over nine closely typed pages he attempted to justify himself, complaining about the “harassment” he had received from his wife and asking once again for permission to divorce Anna and thereafter to marry Irmgard. Above all he stressed that he genuinely felt affection for Kampf, that she had fallen in love with him, and that they had been sexually intimate for quite some time. If the UB insisted on rejecting his pleas, and forced him to break off the relationship, he requested approval to do so in person:

The negative attitude of the Ministry management to my personal plans [has created] an unhealthy climate about a completely human matter, and … I am in a very difficult personal situation: how to give up my plans and break my acquaintance with IK. I can do this only in a humane way by personal contact … and without causing a “shocking” situation. I must inform you that, from telephone conversations with IK, as a result of phenomena and facts incomprehensible to her over the last 2-3 months, she finds herself in a state that equals complete mental imbalance. I don’t think anyone is interested in condemning this woman, whose whole fault is confined to the fact that she has human feelings for me, to irreversible or serious illness … That is why I am asking — if it must be so — to help me solve this matter in a human way. I have 14 days of unused vacation for 1960, and I am asking for permission to use it in the GDR on 7 days for the sole purpose of solving my personal matter in accordance with the decision of the Management.

Goleniewski’s claims to be in love with Irmgard might have carried more weight had the UB not already discovered that he was simultaneously carrying on an affair with a woman in Poland, and that he had also promised to marry her. Deeply unimpressed, just before Christmas 1960 the UB summoned its amorous spy to a formal meeting, ordered him to break off all contact with Irmgard, and for good measure told him he was to be moved out of his current senior post.

The best Sienkiewicz could do to soften the blow was to grant Goleniewski’s request for a final trip to East Berlin at the end of the month — and then only on condition that he combined tying up loose ends with his agents in Germany with giving Irmgard the bad news in person. He told Goleniewski to go, but to make sure he was back in Warsaw on January 6, 1961.

Faced with the likely collapse of his career and the imminent loss of the financial and travel privileges that went with it, Goleniewski realized that time had almost run out.

With no other viable route out of his troubles, he made urgent plans to defect.

Using a Minox miniature camera, he photographed the remaining documents in his office safe, stashed some of them in a secure drop site in Warsaw, and put the remainder in three envelopes to be carried separately by courier to await him in Berlin.

One of the envelopes was sealed — a security measure Goleniewski explained on the grounds that it contained sensitive “ciphers [which] must not fall into anyone else’s hands.”

He then drew 11,300 deutschmarks from office funds and sent a telegram to Irmgard, advising her that he would arrive in East Berlin around New Year, and instructing her to book annual holiday from her school between January 3 and 8.

The rest of the UB’s evidence to the court rehearsed the story of his meetings with his controller in East Berlin, his demands for more money, and his complaints about being under surveillance; then it laid out the circumstances of his presumed defection on January 4 and the events which followed.

UB headquarters discovered his absence on January 6. When he failed to make the planned rendezvous with one of his East German agents, and when he could not be found at the Berlin apartment he had rented, alarm bells began ringing inside the corridors of Polish intelligence.
Colonel Henryk Sokolac, Deputy Chief of Department 1, was dispatched to track down the missing agent. He discovered that the watchers’ last sighting of Goleniewski had been hurrying from Wollinerstrasse with Irmgard Kampf towards the border with West Berlin and came to an unavoidable conclusion: Goleniewski had defected, and must have taken with him the UB “ciphers” — the cover identities and matching real names of agents operating in the West.

Back in Warsaw, Sienkiewicz ordered an urgent investigation to determine exactly what top-secret material Goleniewski would already have betrayed. UB technical staff broke into the locked safe in Goleniewski’s office; They discovered that he had clandestinely amassed a vast range of documents detailing some of the intelligence service’s most sensitive information.

This included the “secret cooperation of the intelligence service of the Ministry of the Interior” with Polish government ministries — both military and civilian. The files also identified the UB’s “network of secret collaborators … operating in Western countries.” Worse, Goleniewski’s broad responsibilities had given him access to data on Poland’s pursuit of nuclear energy, as well as “secret information about the Polish Army.” As Sienkiewicz recorded, in a somber initial report to the state prosecutor, the loss of these secrets was the most devastating betrayal ever to hit Polish intelligence:

Disclosure of the above information to the other side paralyses our activity and will result in the arrest of individual secret collaborators — which, according to our understanding, has already taken place … Transfer to the enemy will seriously hinder the fight of security organs against espionage and other hostile activities organized or inspired by foreign centers.

On January 13 the UB flashed urgent cables to its heads of station in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, Washington, Ottawa, New York, Stockholm, Copenhagen, The Hague, Tel Aviv, Mexico, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, advising them that Goleniewski was missing — presumed defected — and instructing them to warn their agents “about the need to take precautions in personal and workplace behavior, in the city and at home . . . Ensure employees do not panic. They should not comment on this matter because it is necessary to avoid leaks.”

The UB knew, however, that this amounted to little more than shutting the stable door after its thoroughbred had bolted.

The problem for Polish intelligence chiefs and their ultimate masters in Moscow was that neither knew where Goleniewski had gone. They knew that the CIA had almost certainly spirited him away; that, in turn, suggested he was now tucked up in a safe house somewhere in America. But until they could trace his exact location, neither had any way to enforce the court’s capital sentence.

The UB decided on a dual approach. It opened a case file — code name TELETECHNIK — and assigned officers to two separate investigative strands.

The first and most urgent was to discover where Goleniewski was living. Agents throughout America were tasked with tapping every possible contact within the U.S. government for leads; simultaneously, officers in Warsaw took the first steps in what would turn into a long and grubby undercover operation to target the defector’s Achilles heel. Throughout his troubles with his wife Anna, Goleniewski had relied on and supported his widowed mother; the UB reasoned that while he was unlikely ever to contact his estranged wife or children again, he would, at some stage, telephone or write to Janina. Discreet enquiries revealed that she was 62, lived alone in a small apartment in the city center, and that she was helpfully vulnerable: She was prone to heavy drinking and, in the UB’s opinion, had a surprisingly busy sex life. Polish intelligence began searching for suitable candidates to exploit both perceived weaknesses, and through them to trick her into revealing her son’s location; once she did, it reasoned, the court’s death sentence could be fulfilled.

The second, parallel strategy was aimed at something less immediately lethal. The UB began planning a careful and subtle program to discredit the defector in the minds of those who had given him refuge.

The weapon it adopted for this was far more powerful than the poison in a KGB syringe: it was the truth. By abandoning his wife and children in Warsaw — and especially by telling Irmgard he was legally free to marry her, thus implicating the CIA in a bigamous marriage — Goleniewski would be living under a self-suspended Damoclean sword. As soon as he surfaced in the United States, the UB would ensure it fell — and very publicly; he would be shown up as a shameless liar and the CIA as credulous dupes.

Neither U.S. intelligence nor its new star informant was aware of the fate that Warsaw planned for them all. That spring of 1961, as Goleniewski and Irmgard celebrated their bigamous wedding and settled into a CIA-funded apartment in Arlington, Operation TELETECHNIK slowly ground on. It would, ultimately, last almost a decade and would eventually play a significant part in destroying Goleniewski’s credibility.

Meanwhile counter-espionage services throughout Europe and the Middle East began arresting the major Soviet bloc spies he had exposed.

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