On a stretch of highway in the mountains of northern Iraq one chilly autumn evening in 1990, a Polish intelligence officer pulled four bottles of Johnnie Walker Red out of a satchel and passed them to six new friends--from the United States.
Drink, was the command.
Although they had not had a bite to eat all day, the Americans obeyed the order and downed the Scotch. It was meant to help camouflage them as drunken Eastern Europeans, but it had no effect. Stone cold sober, the six men and their Polish chaperons reached the border crossing between Iraq and Turkey at sunset.
Their alcohol-soaked ride was the culmination of a remarkable clandestine operation following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990: Polish intelligence agents trained to serve the Warsaw Pact smuggling six American intelligence officers out of Iraq.
The escape came after the six agents spent weeks on the run in Kuwait and Baghdad while White House and CIA officials desperately searched for a way to save them. Eventually, they turned to the Poles, who had ties throughout Iraq because of construction work carried out there by Polish engineering firms.
With the help of a senior spy flown in from Warsaw, the agents were given refuge at a Polish construction camp. And in the end, a civilian Polish technician managed to get them out.
The daring exploit was one of three covert Polish actions that aided the allied war effort, according to Polish and U.S. sources.
Using skills and knowledge acquired during their late autumn escapade, the Poles carried to freedom 15 other foreigners, mostly Britons, held hostage by the Iraqis. Polish agents, mining information from Poland's substantial construction business in Iraq, also provided the United States with detailed maps of Baghdad and with particulars about military installations scattered throughout Iraq, as has previously been reported in the Polish press.
"It was high risk," said William Webster, who directed the CIA at the time and traveled to Poland in early November, 1990, to commend the Polish government for its help. The Poles "deserve a lot of credit. It was a good beginning for our relationship in the future."
A CIA spokesman declined last week to comment on the extraction of the agents, saying the agency never discusses covert operations.