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The covert action undertaken by the Reagan’s administration from 1982 to 1989 in Eastern Europe attempted to covertly support the Polish Solidarity Trade Union and undermine the Soviet Union’s oppression of Poland. The political action was successful and was in conjunction with the U.S. policy to roll back Communism and neutralize the Soviet Union. The risky operation was thoroughly planned and had clear objectives. Its targets were the Soviet Union and the Polish government on the one hand and the public of Poland on the other hand. The main challenges were the lack of adequate internal intelligence of Poland and the lack of contacts to Solidarity as well as the logistical problem of transporting the equipment and money into the country. Communication between the CA planners, policy officials and Congress were very limited but adequate due to the risk involved in case of a leak.
2. Covert Action Background
In the 1970s and 80s, the economy of the Soviet Union experienced a deep crisis which was used by the Reagan administration to proactively engage towards the permanent threat of Communism. This new policy included not only increasing economic pressure on the Warsaw Pact and a new arms initiative but also covert action in Soviet proxy countries such as Poland. During the time when Reagan became President the riots and strikes in Poland had already been going on for several decades. The public in Poland was at odds with its government. The Solidarity movement found its leader in Lech Walesa, gathered millions of members and was widely backed by the public, who was not willing to accept further shortages in food supplies and other basic needs. The Soviet Union perceived the movement as a major threat to the Socialistic bloc and increased pressure on the Polish government in the late 70s. When General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on December 13, 1981 and the survival of Solidarity was at stake (US had threatened the Soviets to not send troops), Ronald Reagan approved of covert action to support Solidarity and roll back the Soviets. DCI William Casey worked out the plan which included Israel’s Mossad, the Vatican and the AFL-CIO. Seen as too risky, Reagan did not issue a specific President’s Finding for this very sensitive operation in the Soviets backyard. The plans did not even include the entire NSC to prevent leaks. The CA was a part of the broad NSDD 32 policy approach (issued in May 1982) to neutralize the Soviet Union. The political action mainly consisted of providing funds, equipment and propaganda material to the underground movement. The operation was extremely well timed to coincide with the direction of the Polish people and found its end after seven years with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the round table talks in 1989.
3. Specific Challenges
During the planning process, Bill Casey mainly lacked of adequate intelligence about the internal events in Poland. The security lockdown of the Warsaw Pact didn’t allow the CIA to ship equipment and mainly office supplies directly into Poland. When Casey became DCI, he had to rebuild intelligence capabilities that the U.S. had lost before due to the budget cuts under Carter. The only asset and source of information was Col. Wladyslaw Kuklinski inside the Polish general staff. Since martial law was declared and thousands of Solidarity members were arrested and propaganda equipment was seized, the union was in need of communication technology and office equipment for propaganda activity.
Even though the Hughes-Ryan Act of 1974 requested a Presidential Finding and reporting to Congress’ committees for any covert action, Reagan and Casey wanted to keep the support for Solidarity truly covert due to its high risk when discovered. Reagan perceived the economic decline behind the Iron Curtain as chance for a roll back, but was very well aware of the immense risk affiliated with an operation in the Soviets sphere. At that time, the Kremlin had a hysterical angst about losing Poland, and has already militarily intervened in several other countries. A possible disclosure of any plans in Poland could have easily stalled the underground movement and possibly even caused further Soviet retaliation against the U.S. and its allies.
When Col. Kuklinski had to leave Poland due to the fear of discovery after he leaked the information on the upcoming martial law, Casey, as a former member of OSS during WWII, had to rebuild the capabilities of the CIA inside the Soviet bloc. He gained access to the Israeli intelligence sources and assets in Poland by visiting Yitzhak Hoffi, chief of Mossad. At the end of January 1982, after an angry DCI called Tel Aviv, the CIA was provided with all Israeli intelligence on Poland in exchange for America’s state of the art satellite images. In June 1982, after Ronald Reagan met with Pope John Paul II, the CIA gained access to the Vatican’s network inside Eastern Europe and was able to boost the already existent Vatican support to Solidarity. Bill Casey had already met before with Cardinal Casaroli, the Vatican secretary of state, to ask for help and insight into the situation behind the Iron Curtain. Another possible way to gain access was through the AFL-CIO. The American labor organization was already supporting Solidarity financially and strategically. Even though Irving Brown, a senior official of AFL-CIO, gave Casey admission to his knowledge and sources, he declined any further cooperation with the CIA. To circumvent the problems in logistics, Casey set up a network of financial institutions and cooperated with European companies who were already sending money to Poland for official purposes. The financial flow did not have to rely solely on the Church anymore. Through this web of relays, the CIA was now able to send in more money and equipment. By the mid-80’s the budget for Solidarity rose from $2 million to $8 million. The network of the CIA allowed Solidarity the use of fax machines, copiers and other printing machines to publish leaflets, periodicals and newspapers. The C3I program could provide the underground movement with new ways of setting up infrastructure for command and control. The technology could be shipped through Sweden to Gdansk, where the shipyard manger (a member of the Mossad connection) had to take the shipments out of the loop before it was inspected. Solidarity was even able to break into the national TV network and have its own radio station. The CIA achieved to quickly increase its human resources in Poland and was able to gather enough information about the plans of the Polish government. A way of forwarding the information to Solidarity was through public broadcasting. Voice of America was able to send complex codes at specific times to reach the underground.
“In the end, the operation was funded and executed outside traditional government requirements.” At the request of William Casey, Reagan created a special screening committee called the National Security Planning Group. It was de facto a subcommittee of the NSC, where most of the covert action was planned and discussed. The high risk of a leak in the approval and planning process forced Reagan to rely only on a highly selected small group of high-level members of government. To keep all plans secret, handouts and briefing papers were only handed out during meetings; decisions were taken without the knowledge of the staff (Policy Coordination Group). In retrospect, Reagan and Casey did not abide the laws and ran this specific operation off the record. This attitude would later in the mid-80’s become a problem in the Iran-Contra affair, where Reagan clearly operated against the explicit will of Congress. However, this had not yet happened at the beginning of the Reagan era. The support of Solidarity, which only consisted of political action, would easily have passed the Washington Post Test. The citizens of democracies never really had a problem with people rising up against their oppressive government, especially if it was Communist. The new proactive policy towards the Soviet Union has fundamentally changed the way on how the U.S. fighted Communism. Before the 80’s the U.S. were very passive and too scared to directly engage the Soviet bloc. This situation in mind, Reagan’s decision has to be considered adequate.
The major challenges to support the “Independent Self-governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity'” were a lack of intelligence assets in Poland which could be used to channel information back and forth between the CIA and the underground movement, as well as a supply chain to provide Solidarity with adequate funding and equipment. William J. Casey succeeded in acquiring and building up both through negotiations with the Vatican, Mossad and the AFL-CIO. The plan was carefully planned through and took advantage of every accessible means to infiltrate the Soviet bloc. In regards to its objective of helping the Polish underground movement to survive and keep it going, the covert action was very effective and proved to be a political success. It was a major contribution to the Reagan administration’s effort of rolling back Communism. Under the rule of DCI Bill Casey, the American effort to support Solidarity can be seen as a role model of how effective covert action can be, when a state falls short of military and diplomatic options. The possible consequences of discovery were a high risk to the security of the Western world and the survival of Solidarity. The decision by Reagan and Casey to keep it as covert as possible and limit the planning and approval process to a minimum of personnel can therefore be justified and reviewed as adequate.
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