Tell me what you think of Colonel Kuklinski, and I'll tell you who you are." That was the phrase being bandied about in Warsaw political circles following the Feb. 10 death of Ryszard Kuklinski, a trusted member of the Polish communists' inner circle in the 1970s--and the greatest of all cold-war spies. Over nine years, Kuklinski microfilmed 40,265 pages of secret information, including documents describing the Soviet Union's plans to invade Western Europe, the location of Soviet command bunkers, details of numerous weapons and the Polish government's plans to declare martial law. Only in 1981, just before the communist regime actually declared martial law, was Kuklinski finally "exfiltrated" out of the country, after a leak from the U.S. government--possibly via the Vatican--had compromised him.

In the two decades that have passed since those dramatic events, lucidly chronicled in Benjamin Weiser's new book, "A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country" (383 pages. Public Affairs), Kuklinski's name has become, in Poland, a byword for the country's continued confusion about its communist past. The former American national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski once tried to describe the uncertainty that Poles still feel about the years when their country, nominally independent, was in fact a part of the Soviet empire: "Was it an authentic Polish state or an imposed satellite? Was opposition to it therefore legitimate or illegitimate?"

As a result of this ongoing and still bitter debate, opinions about Kuklinski remain divided. Former communists consider him a traitor, a man who was disloyal to the Army whose uniform he wore. Former opponents of the communist regime consider him a hero, whose betrayal of what one called a "Polish-speaking unit of the Army of the Soviet empire" was a deeply patriotic act. When the colonel visited Poland in 1998, he was greeted by cheering crowds and was declared an honorary citizen of the cities of Gdansk and Krakow.

Weiser's book, the first to make use of the CIA's extensive documentation of the Kuklinski case, might help straighten out the record. Using transcripts of emotional conversations Kuklinski had with CIA officers, Weiser makes clear that Kuklinski's motives were indeed patriotic. His access to high-level Soviet military plans had convinced him that a nuclear war in Europe would occur almost entirely on Polish soil. He had been disgusted by his country's participation in crushing the nascent opposition in Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring of 1968. His work for the CIA was, he wrote to the agency, "my sacred duty to my own nation and country." Of course Kuklinski's bravery makes those who stayed loyal to the system, and to the U.S.S.R., look cowardly, which is precisely why they continue to campaign against him, even after his death.

At a time when most people are focused on stories of CIA bungling, Weiser's book also provides a blueprint of what an agency success ought to look like. There was no unseemly rush to recruit Kuklinski. Before he began microfilming documents, he was coached in the use of invisible inks and coded instructions, receiving personal attention from agents who knew him and his country's history well. Weiser also notes that Kuklinski was motivated by an idea that America stood for something greater than its own power. "I consider myself a servant not of your country alone, because I work for the freedom of all," Kuklinski told the CIA. "But since this freedom emanates mainly from your country, I have decided to join with you, and I shall continue as long as my strength lasts."

Kuklinski's bravery also took an enormous toll on his family, who knew nothing of his activities until a few days before the CIA spirited them out of the country. This portion of Weiser's book reads like a spy novel, complete with top-secret meeting places, crossed messages and people hidden in shipping crates. Once they were in America, though, the story did not end happily. Both of Kuklinski's sons died in mysterious accidents, which he believed were planned, in revenge, by the KGB (although, curiously, this is not addressed by Weiser). Kuklinski himself died of a stroke, which his friends think might have been triggered by the renewed debate about his career that erupted just before the publication of "A Secret Life." To the very end, Kuklinski, an honorable soldier, was tortured by the thought that his countrymen still questioned the purity of his motives.

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