The Czech Spy and Me

Oct 8, 2000 | Uncategorized

Stories often start with an oddity. In 2014 a Czech radio station aired a news report that the files of the Czechoslovakian Secret Police, the StB, had been opened, and it was “revealed” that I had been a secret agent for the Czechs. I wrote an article clarifying what had occurred (I was no such thing) and believed that was the end of it.

It was not. This week my media office received an email from a reporter, Jake Ryan, at the Mail on Sunday, the Sunday paper for the Daily Mail in London. They had, the reporter said, received the files from the old Czech StB, and I was implicated as having been an agent for Mr. Jan Fila, who was an StB intelligence officer in New York. The secret “evidence” he had included some hand written notes between Mr. Fila and myself, the fact that we had had numerous meals together in New York, and the fact that he had my Curriculum Vitae (CV) in the file.

For those unfamiliar with the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, the front page headlines of the paper last Sunday included stories on how an actress “sizzled” in a skimpy outfit, an actress secretly split from her husband and he has been seen kissing another woman, a scandal over a COVID research grant, the “truth” behind Harry’s snub of William, parents explaining why “children ruined their marriage,” and yet another actress “as she slips into a skintight purple jumpsuit for sizzling snaps.” Entertaining, but not exactly an authority on international politics or intelligence.

And while Mr. Ryan, the Mail reporter, apparently feels he has a hot exclusive on my secret life as a spy, the truth is in some ways more interesting, and certainly more revealing of life in diplomatic circles during the Cold War.

I met Jan Fila in the late 1970s, while I was living in New York and working as the UN Representative for the Liberation Movement of East Timor, my country. We met in the Delegates Lounge of the United Nations, where diplomats mingle. He had a position as a junior diplomat in the Czech Mission to the United Nations in New York. As one would expect, he did not introduce himself as a spy but as a diplomat who was interested in the cause of East Timor.

I was the lone voice in the diplomatic community for the Timorese people as they suffered under a brutal invasion and occupation by Indonesian military forces, accompanied by torture, mass executions, and forced starvation. I had one purpose in New York: to make the voices of my people heard by the international diplomatic community, and bring about an end to this illegal invasion.

Of course, to achieve this, I would speak to any diplomat who would listen to me.

Over the years Mr. Fila and I developed what I believed was a professional friendship. We shared many meals together. According to Mr. Ryan, the file says we met approximately 50 times. I can recall a maximum of about 10. But even if it were 50 over the years, this would not have been unusual. At least 75% of my work involved reaching out and talking to the diplomatic community. A high percentage of these conversations took place over meals. There are many in the United Nations community that I have had many, many meals with over the years.

Yes of course Mr. Fila would have had my CV. I would guess that most UN diplomats from the time received my CV. It is what you send on initial contact, with a request for an audience, so that the recipient knows who you are.

While I tried to clarify these points with Mr. Ryan, I believed he confused my sending a CV to someone I had been introduced to as a diplomat with sending it to someone I knew was a spy chief. These are very different scenarios and exhibit two entirely different motivations. I have tried to provide the correct information. I believe it makes a better story if it appears I am secretly sending my CV to someone I know is a spy chief. But it is a gross misrepresentation. I only knew Mr. Fila as a diplomat.

Then there is a question of abjectly false information in the file. There is a note in the file that Mr. Fila paid me $1200. I never saw this money. At one point Mr. Fila bought me a winter coat, as I did not have one, which I thought was an act of support for my work. It certainly was not a $1200 coat. It was more like a $150 coat, poorly made and cheap fabric. Perhaps the balance went into his pocket?

According to Mr. Ryan there was a note in the file about a lunch I had with Mr. Fila in 1979 when he successfully and officially “recruited” me as a spy for the Czech government. I have not seen this note. If Mr. Ryan’s description is accurate, this is a fabrication. I do not know whose fabrication it was. Mr. Fila did bring up the possibility of my working with Czech intelligence at one lunch, much later in the 1980s, and I was not interested. Why this would have been reported falsely is mysterious to me.

Then there are the documents I supposedly “passed” to Mr. Fila. Mr. Ryan doesn’t say that there is actually any evidence that I passed these, but asked me if it “isn’t the case” that I passed Mr. Fila  “sensitive” communications from the US State Department to UN Missions in New York. I do not know if Mr. Ryan has seen anything actually linking me to these documents, or if he has just watched too many courtroom dramas and was trying to “extract a confession” from me by insinuation. Mr. Ryan then implied that by 1982, I was afraid of being ‘found out” by the US government so severed contact with Mr. Fila.

At this point I’m afraid that the conversation was becoming humorous to me. If Mr. Fila was looking for secret agents, well normally you would look for people who work for a government and have access to sensitive or confidential information. I was the representative of a liberation movement from one of the world’s smallest and poorest countries. I was not employed by any country. I had no office and no staff.  I had zero access to any communications from the US State Department to UN Missions.

I was well read on world politics and up to date on current affairs, and able to discuss international events from a well informed viewpoint. But any information I imparted to Mr. Fila he could have found himself, from media, from NGOs, universities, etc. He had at times asked me for my sources and I had told him just this. I had access to virtually nothing privileged on diplomatic channels. I would have been the worst secret agent one could pursue.

As we conversed with Mr. Ryan it began to feel like a Monty Python skit was unfolding. I could imagine John Cleese playing Secret Agent Boss Fila and Eric Idle as the useless supposed spy. I imagined Cleese holding a paper and yelling that the “top secret document” was actually the menu of a Chinese restaurant.

After sending the clarifying information to Mr. Ryan, we became curious and looked for more information on Mr. Fila that could perhaps explain these bizarre files. After not seeing him for more than 30 years, I recognized his photos right away.

While he was meeting with me and evidently filing false reports on our meetings, in the 1980s, Mr. Fila was very busy on another front. A Czech agent, Karel Koecher, had become the only foreign agent ever known to have infiltrated the CIA, achieving top secret clearances. Between 1965 and 1976 Koecher established himself as a “high value” mole, passing valuable information to both the StB and the KGB in Moscow. before retiring and settling in New York in 1976.

In 1982, Fila met with Koecher in New York and successfully recruited him to come back into action as a spy.

With interesting timing, in 1985, after investigating Koecher for three years, the FBI arrested him for espionage. While Koecher was incarcerated, a new cellmate inexplicably arrived one day with a pair of scissors and lunged at Koecher with the scissors while in a lunch line, in an apparent assassination attempt. The attacker was tackled by Sandy Alexander, a Hell’s Angel who had become friends with Koecher. The mysterious inmate was “transferred to another prison” shortly after and could not be located years later.

According to the Guardian, “It now appears that Fila, the Czech agent who reactivated Koecher in the early 1980s, betrayed him. Official CIA historian Benjamin Fischer has written that the US government was receiving information from a Czechoslovak intelligence officer at the time and Fila would later go missing in December 1989, a month after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution – probably with a new identity in the US.

“Amid this tangle of double agents and polygonal narratives, if this theory is correct, it would mean it was ultimately a Czech working for the Americans who betrayed a Czech-American working for the Russians.”

A tangle is correct. So while Mr. Fila was apparently sending fabricated reports back to his superiors at StB, it appears he was sending real information to the US government. In the end, the person who would have had access to “sensitive State Department communications” may have been Mr. Fila himself.

I do not know what role Mr. Fila imagined my playing in his duplicitous dirty tricks. Perhaps the US State Department wanted information on East Timor, and knew that I was in touch with the resistance forces in my country. The US was not only an ally of Indonesia, but was selling them arms and training the military who were invading and killing us. It was President Ford and Henry Kissinger who had authorized the invasion. Perhaps Mr. Fila was looking for information on our resistance activities for the Americans, while at the same time passing misinformation to his superiors in Prague to make it appear he was continuing to work for StB. But this is speculation.

I will not try to untangle it. It was a long time ago. I would suspect that Mr. Fila never expected the papers in that file to be viewed outside his own Bureau. He certainly never anticipated that by virtue of my having won the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps, or a Presidential election, an English tabloid full of scandals, women in skimpy outfits, and the sex lives of celebrities would deem his file a “scandal” worthy of their paper. Whatever the reasons behind this tangle of misinformation, in the end, there is one truth that stands above the rest — East Timor, a small, poor South Asian island, was used as a disposable pawn by both the US and a fake diplomat from the Soviet Bloc, for their own geopolitical aims. The suffering of my country meant nothing.

Regardless, I am happy to say that my years of sending out my CV, having countless meals with junior diplomats, and speaking to anyone who would listen about the cause of my people were ultimately successful. The occupation was ended. East Timor, now Timor-Leste, stood on its own feet, proud, as the first new democracy of our millennium. Mr. Fila and his cohorts have faded into history.