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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Poles Sold Soviet Arms Secrets

The freighter left the Polish seaport of Gdynia with a highly classified cargo: a state-of-the-art air-defense system built in the Soviet Union. Its ultimate destination -- the United States -- was a secret, known only to a few people in the U.S. intelligence community.

The shipment, arranged in the late 1980s, was the culmination of an extraordinary intelligence effort coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency: The acquisition of advanced Soviet weapons from Warsaw Pact countries at the peak of the Cold War.

Using foreign intermediaries, European bank accounts and third countries, the U.S. government made scores of clandestine purchases, paying hundreds of millions of dollars to Eastern Bloc officials who were willing to betray Soviet military secrets.

Reports about the secret operation, including deals made between the CIA and the Communist-era Ceausescu regime of Romania, first appeared in 1990 following the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe.

But new interviews with government and intelligence sources in the United States and Eastern Europe make clear for the first time that the most significant collaborator in the program was Poland, which acted on its own or in concert with other Warsaw Pact nations in selling the United States advanced Soviet systems.

In the dozens of deals involving Poland, the sources said, the United States paid an estimated $150 million to $200 million so the Pentagon could acquire top-of-the-line Soviet air-defense systems, radar, armed helicopters, torpedoes, tanks and self-propelled artillery.

The Poles "were the chink in the Soviet armor," said one U.S. intelligence source. "What they provided was a turnkey operation. Not only could you go pick from the menu of items that they had available, but over time you gained confidence that once you made that selection, and once they had agreed to that sale, all other things would follow in due course."

U.S. officials said they have no direct evidence that Poland's Communist leader in the 1980s, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, became personally involved in the deals, but several said that because of the scale and the sensitivity of the covert transactions there must have been tacit approval from the highest levels in Poland's Defense Ministry. For one thing, the Polish bureaucracy had to be fooled into believing that each weapons shipment out of Poland was legitimate, which meant surmounting the security services, customs controls and transportation networks.

"Every one of these internal checks had to be overcome," said a former U.S. intelligence officer. "The only way was from the top down; you could not do it from the bottom up."

In the air defense deal, officials from Poland and a second, unidentified Warsaw Pact nation that provided the equipment shared a payment of $40 million to $50 million for a full battery, including surface-to-air missiles, sensitive radar and hundreds of specialized components that the Pentagon had not previously examined.

The clandestine program to buy Soviet weapons "was the cheapest strategic asset we had," said retired General Edward C. "Shy" Meyer, the U.S. Army chief of staff in 1979-83, who oversaw its early stages.

Though Meyer declined to discuss what systems were obtained, he said, "We were going down blind alleys or dark alleys ... and anything accurate that we knew in those days about enemy capabilities could save us billions of dollars in the development phase." A CIA spokesman declined to comment, but other intelligence sources confirmed the deals and Poland's role as the largest provider of Warsaw Pact arms to the United States throughout the 1980s.

The deals were carried out during a period of heightened East-West tensions and subservience by Soviet Bloc defense ministries to Moscow.

The infusions of hard currency appear to have been a major motivating factor for the Poles, U.S. officials said, as Poland had a large foreign debt and was increasingly isolated because of the economic sanctions imposed by the Reagan administration from December 1981 until February 1987 over Jaruzelski's suppression of the Solidarity labor movement.

As with those involving Romania and the other Soviet Bloc countries, the Polish sales were structured to afford Communist officials full "deniability," according to sources.

U.S. intelligence typically worked through a select group of foreign intermediaries, such as arms dealers or businessmen, to negotiate the complex transactions. Documentation was prepared listing plausible destinations for the materiel, such as Soviet allies in the Middle East.

The Pentagon kept "a tight string" on the large sums budgeted for each deal, said a former Pentagon official, retired Army Major General E. R. Thompson. Thompson would not discuss the operation in detail but stated that no payments were made to other countries until U.S. military experts inspected the weapons in transit.

Thompson, the Army's assistant chief of staff for intelligence from 1977 to 1981 and later a deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the Pentagon wanted to ensure "that what we think we're buying is what we've actually got."