Helping the Poles Throw off Moscow’s Yoke: A Conversation with Seth G. Jones

Seth G. Jones, a former civilian in U.S. Special Operations Command, has a new book out called A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland. Previous books by Jones, whose op-eds have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, include In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (2009) and Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa’ida since 9/11 (2012). A veteran of the RAND Corporation, he is currently the Harold Brown Chair and Director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Law & Liberty’s Lauren Weiner put questions to him about A Covert Action. Here is our Q and A.

Lauren Weiner: Some of our readers might be unfamiliar with the events that are the subject of your book, when Poland’s communist government, in late 1981, declared a state of martial law. Could you tell us why it did so and what martial law in Poland meant in the context of the Cold War?  

Seth G. Jones: At that time Poland was Soviet-aligned and an important member of the Warsaw Pact, Moscow’s military alliance of Central and Eastern European countries. Yet Poland also had a growing opposition movement, which Ronald Reagan, who was President at the time, recognized was a potential crack in the Soviet empire.

Chief among the dissident groups was the trade union Solidarity, which had grown out of demands for worker-led unions that were independent of state control. After a series of strikes in the shipyards of Gdansk, the movement’s most visible leader, Lech Walesa, began to pull other dissident groups into Solidarity’s orbit.

In December 1981, the Kremlin-backed Polish prime minister, Wojciech Jaruzelski, attempted to crush the budding opposition movement and declared martial law. Polish forces began arresting members of Solidarity and carrying them off to internment camps. All gatherings, processions, and demonstrations—except for religious services—were now banned in Poland. All trade unions and student organizations were suspended. All mail and telephone communications were censored. The government imposed a curfew and everyone over the age of 13 had to carry an identity card. Poland was now sealed off from the outside world.

The stakes were high. Martial law was by far the most significant crisis of Reagan’s fledgling presidency. It was also a watershed for Reagan himself. U.S. government officials had already discussed allowing the Central Intelligence Agency to provide covert assistance to Solidarity. But there was little consensus about this. Some officials in the State Department and White House were alarmed that U.S. aid to an opposition group behind the Iron Curtain might be unnecessarily provocative.

The evening after a National Security Council meeting to debate U.S. policy options, Reagan wrote in his diary:

I took a stand that this may be the last chance in our lifetime to see a change in the Soviet Empire’s colonial policy re Eastern Europe. We should take a stand & tell them unless & until martial law is lifted in Poland, the prisoners were released and negotiations resumed between Walesa & the Polish govt.

Reagan viewed the Polish struggle in black and white. The Soviet government was evil. “Containment,” the buzzword of the Cold War, was too static. It was time to adopt a more audacious strategy, “rollback.”

A free and democratic Poland would loosen the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe, Reagan believed. Other states might follow. Looking back on that moment years later, Reagan said: “we were witnessing the first fraying of the Iron Curtain, a disenchantment with Soviet Communism in Poland, not realizing then that it was a harbinger of great and historic events to come in Eastern Europe.” He added, “I wanted to be sure we did nothing to impede this process and everything we could to spur it along. [Emphasis in original.] This was what we had been waiting for since World War II. What was happening in Poland might spread like a contagion throughout Eastern Europe.”

LW: You write that the Americans played a skillful role in supporting the Solidarity movement against the Jaruzelski regime. How key was their role to the outcome?

SJ: A proper understanding of the impact of QRHELPFUL, the CIA’s covert action program in Poland, needs to address several questions. How significant was CIA aid compared to other types of assistance to Solidarity? Were a substantial number of Solidarity members and supporters influenced by CIA aid? How concerned were Soviet and Polish authorities about CIA support to Solidarity? Based on answers to the above questions, what was the net impact of QRHELPFUL?

First, QRHELPFUL was the single largest source of external aid to Solidarity, based on available evidence. The CIA spent roughly $20 million on assistance to Solidarity.

The next largest U.S. entity, the National Endowment for Democracy, devoted approximately $9 million to Polish programs between 1984 and 1989. But most of this aid came at the end of the 1980s (over one third came in 1989 alone), which was too late to help Solidarity survive during its darkest days after martial law. The National Endowment for Democracy also supported a wide range of programs like Polish conferences; not all of its funding went to Solidarity. Most funding from the AFL-CIO, which totaled more than $4 million, was subsumed under the National Endowment for Democracy.

All told, the CIA sent roughly double what the National Endowment for Democracy sent, particularly in the immediate years after martial law when there was comparatively little help from outside. In 1983, the roughly $2 million sent by the CIA was crucial; it was the high point of the Jaruzelski regime’s attempted to decimate Solidarity and there was little other outside aid coming to the Polish opposition.

Second, those who wrote and spoke in favor of Solidarity’s resistance to the regime also got help from the CIA. The agency provided funding and other assistance to Polish magazines like Tygodnik Mazowsze, a four-page weekly produced by Solidarity; Polish journals like Aneks and Kultura that were smuggled into Poland; and Radio Solidarity. CIA assets and surrogates smuggled everything from typewriters and photocopiers to money and ink through key European countries like France, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Belgium, and West Germany.

Third, we know that the Soviet and Polish authorities were seriously concerned about CIA assistance to Solidarity. Polish intelligence collected information on CIA and other Western aid to Solidarity. Intelligence operatives identified Solidarity sympathizers involved in printing and distributing opposition media and then planted moles in the underground, made arrests, and intimidated their families.

Over the course of the 1980s, Polish police and intelligence units conducted thousands of dramatic raids against the Solidarity underground, seizing people, radios, printing presses, leaflets, and other material. Internal records from the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa (SB), Poland’s security service housed within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, indicate that they confiscated millions of leaflets, journals, and other items—though they barely made a dent in underground publishing. Years later, the Polish parliament looked into Western intelligence efforts and concluded that the regime failed to intercept most of the money and nearly three quarters of the equipment sent to Solidarity from outside the country.

All of this suggests to me that CIA assistance was useful, though it is impossible to know how much it helped Solidarity survive and ultimately prosper. CIA aid likely ensured that neither Jaruzelski nor the KGB could crush the Polish opposition movement, even during the bleakest days of persecution after martial law.

The CIA helped generate media coverage and provided money and resources to help Solidarity organize demonstrations, distribute newspapers and leaflets, run radio stations, and interrupt television programs such as the evening news by flashing words like “Solidarity Lives” on the television screen that boosted the opposition’s local support, morale, and effectiveness.

QRHELPFUL was also cost-effective. The total bill amounted to less than $20 million. What made the program particularly notable was that it didn’t create anything. Reagan and the CIA had a readymade ally: a popular democratic movement whose power came from the country’s vast trade unions. The patience of Reagan and the CIA helped Solidarity survive its darkest days. And when, in 1989 Solidarity’s opportunity finally came, as the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact neared an economic and military precipice, the Polish people embraced democracy.

In the end, Solidarity members like Lech Walesa were unquestionably the true heroes, with an important assist from QRHELPFUL.

LW: What were the probabilities that Moscow would react to U.S. actions with a military response?

SJ: Reagan and his advisors were fairly certain that Moscow would not react militarily to U.S. assistance to Solidarity, unless the United States had provided weapons. The CIA did send one of its paramilitary operatives to the “Farm,” the CIA training facility in Virginia, to do an inventory of arms and ammunition just in case the White House approved lethal aid to Solidarity. But there was significant resistance within the CIA to arming the Polish opposition. Several officials from the CIA’s International Activities Division, including Walter Raymond, Jr., argued that infiltrating arms to Solidarity would trigger a robust Soviet military response against the United States and other NATO countries. Richard Pipes at the National Security Council also objected to providing weapons to Solidarity, arguing that “Solidarity didn’t need or want arms.” Some officials also had strong reservations that the CIA could sustain plausible deniability, particularly in the face of heavy casualties if Polish opposition members engaged in combat with Jaruzelski’s security forces.

But since the CIA did not send weapons to Solidarity—only money to buy duplicator machines and other material to run an information campaign—Reagan and his advisors believed that the Soviets would not react militarily because the KGB was involved in its own propaganda campaign against the United States in regions like Latin America. Washington’s actions were not an escalation. Instead, Washington simply leveled the playing field. The Russians were already involved in a campaign best captured in the phrase aktivnyye meropriyatiya—or “active measures.” Active measures encompassed a range of activities, none of them what you would consider typical espionage and counterespionage activities. Examples included: written and oral disinformation (or dezinformatsiya); forgeries and false rumors; “gray” (unattributed) and “black” (falsely attributed) propaganda; use of foreign Communist Parties and international front groups for pursuing Soviet foreign policy objectives; and targeted assassinations, including the killing of defectors.

Soviet active measures focused primarily on the United States, which it referred to as the “main enemy.” The Soviets had multiple objectives: to influence global and U.S. public opinion against U.S. policies that they believed threatened USSR; label the United States as an aggressive, colonialist, and imperialist power; sow discord between the United States and its allies; discredit those who cooperated with the United States; discredit and weaken Western intelligence services and expose their personnel; confuse world opinion regarding the nature of Soviet policies and actions; and create a favorable environment for the implementation of Soviet foreign policy.

Consequently, U.S. actions in Poland simply meant turning the tables on Moscow.

However, Moscow—particularly the KGB—was certainly concerned about CIA activity in Poland. As outlined in a secret KGB document with the bulky title “Plan for Basic Counterintelligence Measures to Step Up Still Further the Effort to Combat the Subversive Intelligence Activities of the United States Special Services,” the KGB assessed that the CIA was involved in a broad ideological war designed to subvert the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, including Poland. Vadim Pavlov, head of the KGB mission in Warsaw, correctly suspected that the CIA was helping Solidarity. The Soviets viewed such activity with alarm, interpreting it as a campaign to destabilize Poland and other Eastern European countries and to undermine Soviet influence in its backyard. While some Russians may have been alarmed, however, U.S. actions didn’t mean that Moscow was poised to initiate World War III.

LW: QRHELPFUL is little known, you write; and historians of the CIA and the presidency of Ronald Reagan have not given it much attention. What accounts for this relative neglect?

SJ: The primary reason is that the CIA has not acknowledged this covert action program. Much of it remains classified to this day. Most people who have written about the CIA and Reagan simply didn’t know QRHELPFUL existed.

In researching the book, I spent considerable time in U.S. archives (including those available at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the National Security Archive, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Hoover Institution), Polish archives, Soviet archives, and Churchill Archives (which house the Mitrokhin Archives). I found information on U.S., Soviet, and Polish transcripts; intelligence assessments; first-hand accounts; and secret records of meetings and conversations.

The CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) at the National Security Archive, for example, includes situation reports, national intelligence daily briefs, information cables, special analyses, intelligence memoranda, and national intelligence estimates. Vast quantities of material pertaining to martial law were also made available at the Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (Institute of National Remembrance) in Warsaw. Finally, the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk made available a substantial amount of primary source information, including nearly 1,800 archival objects, documents, manuscripts, photographs, and video footage.

LW: Are there information-warfare lessons here that you would like to see applied today?

SJ: Yes, absolutely. Moscow is still at it, although it has updated its strategy and tactics for the information age of Facebook, Instagram, bots, and trolls. As Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats recently acknowledged, “we continue to see a pervasive messaging campaign by Russia to try to weaken and divide the United States.” Organizations like the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, often referred to by its previous abbreviation GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye), have engaged in cyber operations inside the United States.

It is important to play defense—including protecting U.S. and allied cyber networks, exposing Russian bots and trolls, and preparing for cyberattacks and disinformation—but the Russians will continue to target us until we go on offense by implementing an aggressive information campaign. The goal should be to coerce Russia to curb its information warfare, punish Moscow when these incidents occur, and exploit Moscow’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

An offensive U.S. campaign might include several steps.

The first involves blunt and regular U.S. warnings to Russian leaders, both in public and private, that their information-warfare campaign will be met with an equally forceful response. Senior U.S. officials like President Trump have not seriously threatened Moscow despite substantial evidence of Russian activism in the 2016 elections; Russian efforts to exploit politically divisive issues like gun control, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo movement; and cyber attacks against even conservative U.S. organizations like the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute.

What President Reagan did after the Soviet Union’s global active measures campaign against the United States was vow to respond in kind and, ultimately, to “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.” Moscow understood that the Americans were deadly serious about combating Russian active measures, which is what Reagan did in authorizing effective overt and covert action programs against the Soviet Union.

Second, the United States needs to continue developing its offensive cyber capabilities and—just as important—it needs to use them, if necessary. President Trump’s decision to sign National Security Presidential Memorandum 13, a directive facilitating offensive U.S. cyber operations, is a helpful step. This directive rescinded the Obama administration’s more cautious approach under Presidential Policy Directive 20.  But this change means little if Washington fails to use—or, more importantly, to threaten to use—cyberattacks to protect itself from cyber operations by countries like Russia.

In his influential 1966 work Arms and Influence, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling wrote that “it is the threat of damage, or of more damage to come, that can make someone yield or comply.” Moscow needs to understand that Washington is prepared to use all available instruments—including cyber operations—if it continues to be threatened.

Third, the United States should take steps to weaken and isolate Russia economically, militarily, and diplomatically. We could provide overt and covert assistance to governments like Ukraine and Georgia that are battling Russian-backed groups. In addition, Moscow’s authoritarian political system and attempt to control access to information—including through its state-run media—make it vulnerable to a U.S. and Western information campaign. Washington needs to proactively highlight examples of Russian malign activity, human rights abuses, and corruption.

U.S. intelligence agencies need to work closely with the White House to quickly declassify information. In some cases, it may make sense to release information on Russian activity through third parties—like the media or WikiLeaks—as Russia did with the emails from the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election.

The irony of today’s situation is that Moscow is weaker now than it was during the 1980s. The Russian economy is frail, Moscow has lost most of its Central and Eastern European allies, and it doesn’t have a popular ideology to sell to its own people, let alone to the world. It is time for the United States to resurrect a modified version of its Cold War playbook and develop an information campaign that can compete with Moscow’s.


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