Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish army officer who spied on his country and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact for the CIA during the communist era and later fled to the United States, has died. He was 73.
Kuklinski had a stroke Feb. 5 and died Tuesday in a military hospital in Tampa, Fla., said longtime friend Jozef Szaniawski. U.S. officials confirmed his death but would not say where he died.
CIA Director George Tenet on Wednesday hailed Kuklinski as “a true hero of the Cold War,” and former Polish President Lech Walesa said Kuklinski had “achieved great things,” despite being seen as a traitor by some of his countrymen.
Born in Warsaw, Kuklinski served in the anti-Nazi resistance in Poland during World War II. Still a teenager at the end of the war, he joined the Polish army and rose quickly through the ranks, excelling at officer training school.
His disenchantment with the Soviet regime began in 1968, when he was assigned to southern Poland for “military exercises” that turned out to be preparations for the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
In 1972, he approached the U.S. military attache in Bonn, West Germany, who in turn connected him with the CIA.
Over the next nine years, he passed about 35,000 pages of Warsaw Pact secrets to the CIA. The material included the Warsaw Pact’s five-year strategic plans from 1971 through 1986, a 300-page manual on Soviet military electronics, precise locations and descriptions of Moscow’s three secret European command bunkers for use in case of war, the placement of nuclear missiles in Poland, and a tip that the Soviets were planning to invade a nation to the south, which turned out to be Afghanistan.
The end came in 1981, when Kuklinski was assigned to help draw up the plans for martial law in Poland to counter the Solidarity trade union movement. He handed over what he had created to the CIA, and Polish officials soon suspected that they had a major leak. The CIA spirited their prized operative out of Poland, along with this wife and two sons.
After his defection, Polish officials began an investigation that led to the handing down of a death sentence for Kuklinski in absentia for treason and desertion. And far from winning broad acclaim in his homeland as a hero, Kuklinski is still regarded by some Poles as a traitor.
“He achieved great things,” said Walesa, who founded Solidarity. “Few people would have the courage to do this. He risked his life. These were special times.”
Walesa, however, refused to pardon Kuklinski when the former labor leader was president, from 1990 to 1995.
Kuklinski repeatedly said he wanted to return to live in Poland after the fall of communism in 1989. A Polish court finally cleared Kuklinski of the charges in 1998 and he was allowed to visit his homeland.
Life in the U.S. was less than idyllic for the defector. He and his family were forced to move from their suburban Washington, D.C., home in 1989 after they noticed a car with Soviet diplomatic plates in the area.
In 1994, his two adult sons died within months of each other: one in a hit-and-run accident, the other in a disappearance from a boat off Florida.
The nature and timing of the accidents suggested to many Poles the involvement of former agents of the Soviet KGB.
Kuklinski is survived by his wife, Joanna, who lived with him in Washington, and his grandson Michal.
“This passionate and courageous man helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot, providing the CIA with precious information upon which so many critical national security decisions rested,” Tenet said Wednesday in a written statement. “He did so for the noblest of reasons -- to advance the sacred causes of liberty and peace in his homeland and throughout the world.”