Romania Defector Has Happy Reunion in U.S. : New life: Daughter joins father in Washington 11 years after high-ranking Bucharest official sought asylum in the West.
Ion Mihai Pacepa remembers July 23, 1978, well. Then the acting chief of the Romanian espionage service, he stayed up all night that Saturday talking with his 24-year-old daughter, Dana, about her plans for the future. It was a warm evening, and the magnolias in their Bucharest garden were in bloom. Their conversation was a good one. His daughter had just finished her education, had a good job, and was engaged to marry a man who truly loved her.
The next morning Dana--dressed in the blue jeans and khaki shirt her father has held in his memory all the years since--drove Pacepa to the airport, where he boarded a plane for West Germany. His mission was to deliver a message from President Nicolae Ceausescu to Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. He did deliver the message, but his real purpose was a different one. Five days later Pacepa was granted political asylum by the United States, the highest ranking official from the Soviet Bloc to do so. He had told no one of his plans to defect.
The only way he could alert his daughter was to phone her the night before he left on July 28 on a hurriedly arranged U.S. troop transport plane to tell her he would be late.
“I felt terrible,” Pacepa recalled recently in an interview in a Washington hotel. “But I couldn’t tell her a word. It would have put her in terrible danger. They would have killed her. All I could say was ‘I’ll be late.’ ‘How late, Daddy,’ she asked. ‘I don’t know,’ was all I could say.”
It would not be until early January, when she arrived with her husband Radu (her former fiance) and family at Dulles International Airport, that Pacepa, 61, would see his daughter again. She and her family plan to make a new life for themselves in this country.
It would not be until after Ceausescu’s execution on Dec. 25 that Pacepa was even able to speak with her. Since her father’s defection, she had lived under a kind of house arrest. Then during the turmoil in Romania last month, Dana Pacepa and her family were taken from their home by members of the Romanian Securitate, who threatened to execute them.
Pacepa heard about his daughter’s capture when he was awakened in the middle of the night on Dec. 23 by a call from a State Department official. “They said, “We have very bad news. We are so sorry,’ ” Pacepa recalled. “They were very, very nice.”
Several days later, Pacepa got another phone call, this time from Virginia Young, an official at the American Embassy in Bucharest, who reported that Dana Pacepa had turned up at the American Embassy. She and her family had escaped when, as they were being driven to the execution site, news came over the car radio that Ceausescu had been captured. Their guards fled; the family hid out for a few days and then Dana Pacepa made her way to the embassy.
Young arranged a call between father and daughter (“Ginny said, “Here she is. Talk to her,’ and believe me I did,” Pacepa said teary-eyed). During the call, Young interrupted to tell Pacepa that the new government had approved the family’s passports. (The exit visas were already waiting at the embassy.)
He had managed to keep track of her over the years only with the help of the State Department. “Her apartment was across the street from the American library,” Pacepa explained, “and at least they were able to see her.” When Pacepa, now called Mike--an Americanization of his middle name--left Romania in 1978, he left everything behind: his two jobs as one of Ceausescu’s four senior advisers and as acting chief of the foreign intelligence service (the D.I.E. or Departmentual de Informatii Externe), his 6,000-square-foot ground-floor apartment with a large outdoor swimming pool, a sauna, a greenhouse, a basement studio for his artist daughter, his painting collection (including a Courbet), his four cars (a Mercedes, an Alfa-Romeo and two Romanian models), his two drivers and his lifetime career in the Romanian secret service.
He also left behind a bugged apartment (he estimates that there were 10 million microphones or bugged telephones in a country of 22 million people) and his virtual daily contact with Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, both of whom he said he had come to despise.
“(Ceausescu) remained in power because he knew how to lie,” Pacepa said. “He was preoccupied with subduing his audience. His idol was Hitler. He studied his speeches, particularly the speech at the 1936 Olympic Games.”
What Pacepa took with him, however, was his photographic memory, a talent encouraged by his father, who made his young son memorize a page of the telephone book every day in the hope that Pacepa would become a chemical engineer, which he did in 1951.
Pacepa could memorize not only whole pages but also faces. It was knowledge of that genius that led Ceausescu to dismantle the foreign espionage apparatus after Pacepa’s defection. Because Pacepa personally signed each photo identification card of the members of Romania’s foreign intelligence service, he was able to identify them; he estimates that within three years of his departure, 95% of that staff lost their jobs.
Pacepa’s responsibilities, which are written about in some detail in his 1987 book “Red Horizons: Chronicles of a Communist Spy Chief” (published by Regnery Gateway in Washington), ranged from the mundane (on every foreign presidential trip, Pacepa was responsible for making sure that air-conditioning was turned off if possible whenever Ceausescu was around; the former dictator, according to Pacepa, feared assassination by radiation that might come from air-conditioning) to the monumental (Pacepa was responsible for stealing Western technology for use in Romania).
Once in the United States, he learned American ways and acquired a new life as the engineer he had trained to be--although he is unwilling to talk about that life, or reveal where it is. He is also unwilling to be photographed or discuss the friends he has made, although he is generous with praise for the many people who have helped him throughout his ordeal, particularly Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.); Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger; Paula Dobrianski, assistant undersecretary of state for human rights, and William Geimer, the chairman of the Jamestown Foundation.
Pacepa is acutely aware that his daughter has had a very different experience. Immediately after her father’s defection, for example, the family apartment was seized by the Romanian government. She was allowed to keep her own clothes, her own things, but all of her father’s possessions--with the exception of one table and two chairs--were taken.
Before coming to America, she and her husband were able to leave the house only for personal reasons or for their jobs as artists working on animated films--and four or five Securitate guards were with them.
For the moment, Pacepa plans to stay in Washington with his daughter, her husband and their family. As for the future, he thinks he will continue to live his new life under his new name--it is a wonderful life, he said, and proof that an entirely new one can be started at 50.
He also will be around to help his daughter, who is 36, and son-in-law, who want to make a name for themselves as artists.
“When I left, I thought it was the end,” he recalled. “But it was really the beginning. And if I, who was already 50 when I left, could make a new life, they can do it.”
But there was one thing Pacepa was convinced would help his daughter and son-in-law in this new life. He took them shopping to buy each of them what would have cost a month and a half’s salary in Bucharest--a new pair of jeans.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.