Karel Koecher was a horrible choice to become an intelligence officer for any self-respecting spy service. Born in 1934, he grew up in Czechoslovakia and was always in some kind of minor trouble with the authorities.
Disgruntled at the shackles placed on him by a repressive one-party state, he reasoned that he would have the greatest amount of personal freedom if he wormed his way into the Czechoslovak security service, the StB. Koecher did in fact land a job there. Then, in spite of the StB’s psychologists assessment of him as being “over-confident, hypersensitive, hostile toward people, money driven, showing a strong inclination toward instability, emotionally volatile, possessing an anti-social almost psychopathic personality, touchy, [and] intolerant of authoritarianism,” the service sent him and his wife Hana, who would support him in his operations, to the United States as illegals, deep cover officers meant to blend into society.
They departed Czechoslovakia in 1965, arriving in America pretending to be anticommunist political refugees. Karel snagged a job at Radio Free Europe, but unsurprisingly, his work was indifferent and his StB superiors began to grow disgruntled with their ill-chosen officer. That changed in 1973, when he got a job with the CIA as a translator/analyst, giving him access to sensitive foreign espionage operations.
This is just the surface of the remarkable story told by Benjamin Cunningham in his new book, The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man. Cunningham, a correspondent for The Economist, interviewed the Koechers and other major participants and exploited records from the Czech Republic’s State Security Archives. The book, while not without its flaws, is a useful contribution to the history of Cold War espionage and tells us much that we never knew about the Koechers and their work.
When Karel worked for the New York office of Radio Free Europe in the late 1960s, it was a CIA front organization. Of course, the StB pushed him to report on his coworkers at RFE. Karel resisted these demands, however. Years later, he claimed that he had some sympathy for the anti-Communist “dissent and opposition” RFE was supporting in his home country. “Because of the [Soviet] invasion, I was furious and hated the scum that took over,” he told Cunningham. He even made a tentative approach to the FBI with a view toward perhaps arranging a defection but after two inconsequential contacts circling around the issue, neither party moved to close the deal.
Whatever his sentiments, Koecher soon quit his job without having another one lined up—not ideal spy behavior. He also entered a Ph.D. program in philosophy at Columbia University. There he tried to develop relationships with people who had or might in the future have access to secrets. Indeed, he met Zbigniew Brzezinski, though the future White House national security adviser remained merely an acquaintance. After receiving his Ph.D., Koecher’s academic career never took off and, for a time, the family lived entirely on Hana’s salary from a retail job selling diamonds.
In 1971, Karel became a U.S. citizen and a year later applied for a job with the CIA. Perhaps because he had been trained on how to defeat the polygraph, he beat the machine, received a security clearance and began working as a contract translator processing recordings from audio surveillance of Soviet facilities.
Cunningham reports that among the things Karel worked on was the take from four phone lines into the Soviet Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. Karel was able to tell the StB that the CIA was preparing to recruit a Soviet diplomat and provided a description of the CIA officer in charge of the operation. Later, he reported that the CIA seemed particularly interested in two Soviet officials at the embassy, one of them a diplomat named Aleksandr Ogorodnik. This man had, indeed, been recruited in 1973 by the CIA, which code-named him TRIGON. The KGB would arrest Ogorodnik in 1977 and he would commit suicide with a poison pill provided by the CIA.
Despite having provided this remarkable information, in September, 1976 Karel was called back to Czechoslovakia over suspicions about his loyalty. In a safe house, he was subjected to interrogation by the StB and then by a KGB General. This was Oleg Kalugin, now a well-known figure who left Russia for the United States in 1995 and wrote critically of the Soviet Union but who does not consider himself a defector. At the time of Karel’s interrogation, he was the head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB. (Full disclosure: I know Kalugin and am on friendly terms with him though we are not close.)
Remarkably, Cunningham found an audio recording of this encounter in the Czech State Security Archives and so is able to exactly reproduce portions of that confrontation. It unfolded politely, with no explicit accusations, but nevertheless Kalugin (incorrectly) assessed that Koecher had switched sides. Perhaps the StB didn’t fully agree with Kalugin: It allowed Koecher to return to the United States but demanded that he cut his ties with the CIA. Thus, their agent was sidelined during the entire Carter Administration. The timing was exquisitely bad because Zbigniew Brzezinski, whom Karel knew from Columbia, had become President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser.
Koecher was reactivated early in the Reagan Administration amid fears in Moscow, radiated throughout the Warsaw Pact, about Reagan’s bellicosity and even the possibility of a U.S. first strike. This time the KGB hoped he could pass along informed rumors about Reagan’s intentions.
At some point after his reactivation, Koecher and his wife realized they were under FBI surveillance. It is not clear how the FBI came to focus on them, though Cunningham plausibly speculates that the couple’s StB case officer was reporting to the bureau. In any event, in 1984, the FBI tried to double them back against the StB. When that failed, the Koechers were arrested.
The Justice Department, however, had a problem. It knew that the Koechers were spies but the U.S. attorney in charge of the case, Rudy Giuliani, realized he would not be able to prove it in court. As the affair played out, Koecher spent an extended time in prison, fearing all the while that U.S. authorities would have him killed. Eventually, he had the idea to ask his lawyer to float the idea of a swap for Soviet refusenik Anatoly Shcharansky (later Natan Sharansky). The Soviets agreed and after a swap at the Glienicke Bridge, the Koechers returned to Czechoslovakia, where they retired.
Cunningham tells this story in a sprightly way, giving the reader a good sense of the lives of Karel and to a lesser extent Hana. Mercifully, he discusses but does not dwell on the fact that Karel and Hana were swingers and he makes it clear that though this aspect of their lives is often the first thing to pop up in discussion of the pair—with insinuations that they gained valuable material swapping sex with Washington officials—swinging played little if any role in their espionage. Perhaps the most telling thing to emerge from this portion of the book is that Karel apparently was a selfish lover.
Despite its many positive points, however, the book is sometimes dissatisfying. Cunningham has a tendency to digress. He describes, for instance, the arts scene in mid-1960s Czechoslovakia, the growth of the Republican Party’s right wing in the late 1970s, and George Carlin’s monologue comparing football to baseball on the debut of Saturday Night Live. Such digressions seem intended to put the Koechers’ lives in the context of the times but seldom connect satisfactorily to the story. He also makes explicit his distaste for Kalugin and to a lesser extent a few other minor characters in the story, notably Rudy Giuliani and the FBI agents who worked on the Koecher case.
In one lengthy section of the book, Cunningham festoons the Ogorodnik case with “wilderness of mirrors” intrigues that don’t seem warranted by the evidence. Perhaps, Cunningham speculates, Oleg Kalugin, as head of foreign counterintelligence for the KGB, was merely incompetant when he seemingly failed to uncover the Soviet diplomat’s treachery. Or, as Karel Koecher believes, maybe Kalugin actually worked for the CIA and may have “used Ogorodnik to interface with the CIA” and then brought about his death “for fear that Ogorodnik would tell others about their collaboration.” Cunningham also explores the idea that Ogorodnik was a channel for CIA-produced disinformation. He hints at his guess as to which of these theories is true by referring to Kalugin as an “apparent double agent.” The problem is that none of these theories are supported by any evidence and, furthermore, they have nothing really to do with Karel Koecher.
Cunningham’s epilogue is a fascinating, if somewhat confusing, first-person narrative of his final interview with Koecher. The retired spy, now 88, spouts Russian talking points: “[I]t’s the Russians who are defending the basic Western values…family values. Possibly you could even say it about fighting terrorism and so forth, too.” He denounces political correctness, saying “the whole transgender thing is a bit too much,” and blithely refers to “no-go zones” in Western cities. Koecher also argues that the Soviet Union never had aggressive intentions toward the United States and he blames the Pentagon for the Cold War. When Cunningham challenges him with the fact that the Soviets supported leftist guerrilla movements, overthrew unfriendly governments, and even invaded his own country to squash a nascent democracy movement, Koecher dismisses all of these as defensive moves by Moscow.
While Cunningham seems unconvinced by these arguments, the two do share the idea that the Cold War was pointless and that intelligence services are useless or worse. From Cunningham, the assessment is surprising: It comes largely without context in a book that has focused on the day-to-day aspects of espionage and the psychology of a particular spy. It would make more sense coming from Koecher, a man who seems to believe in little except himself.
“I don’t give a fuck about belonging,” he says in the book’s final lines. “Sure I would like to belong, but there is nothing to belong to.”
Does that make him “the Cold War’s Last Honest Man”? How so?
One is left with the conclusion that the StB psychologists were right in their intitial, damning assessment of Karel Koecher. He is a fascinating, complicated and contradictory figure. But “honest,” as Cunningham dubs him in the book title? You be the judge.
This article was originally published in Spy Talk. Click here to read the original