The Guardian: How a Czech 'super-spy' infiltrated the CIA
On a cold February night in 1986, Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge became the scene of the cold war’s last ever prisoner exchange – a dramatic hand-over involving a Soviet dissident and Karel Koecher, the only foreign agent ever known to have infiltrated the CIA.
Koecher was a Czech citizen who had been living undercover in the US for 21 years. Alternately codenamed Rino, Turian or Pedro, he had moved to America in 1965 to establish himself as a mole within the CIA. Koecher’s KGB case officer, Colonel Alexander Sokolov, would later call him a super-spy.
According to files held by Czech secret police, his wife, Hana Koecherova, codenamed Adrid, had distributed secret messages on Koecher’s behalf during their decades abroad but was never charged with espionage.
For years she had been a New York City diamond dealer. Everyone in the business loved her. Living in the couple’s flat at 50 East 89th Street in Manhattan, a block from the Guggenheim, Hana’s neighbours were Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and tennis star Ivan Lendl.
But in 1986 Hana was on her way back to a very different world – Czechoslovakia was a stifling place in the mid-80s.
Koecher was eager to cross the bridge. After spending years as a sleeper agent he had eventually obtained a job and top secret security clearance with the CIA. When he fell out of favour with his Soviet handlers in Prague, he bypassed the Czechoslovak state security, the StB, and reported directly to the KGB in Moscow.
After two decades in the US he was finally arrested by the FBI, and by February 1986 he had been held for 14 months awaiting trial in New York City’s Metropolitan Correctional Centre, where a fellow prisoner had tried to stab him to death.
Speaking of the prisoner exchange, Kocher remembers: “There [was] a car” – a gold Mercedes – “and this German lawyer [Wolfgang] Vogel who arranged all the swaps, beginning with Gary Powers [the US pilot featured in Steven Spielberg’s recent film, Bridge of Spies],” Koecher said. “So, I crossed the line, and got in with my wife. The feeling was, I am superman.”
On the Potsdam side of the bridge, Koecher had a glass of champagne and went to a party at “some Stasi villa”, he said. He flew back to Prague the next day and was interrogated in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary for two months. When the questioning ended, he and Hana moved into an apartment with Koecher’s mother.
In penetrating the CIA Koecher had done something no communist spy had done before but he was still not a welcome repatriate – decades abroad made him suspect. Following the wholesale purge of Czechoslovak leaders in 1968, Koecher had drifted towards relative autonomy and was forced to survive in the margins of obvolute cold war interests. His volatility made him enemies but his intellect and placement meant that top officials returned to him for information repeatedly. Years later the KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, would equate Koecher’s experience as a spy to falling “into a meat grinder”.
In the end, despite years of intrigue and enormous cost, neither Koecher nor his contemporaries would anticipate the imminent collapse of the Eastern Bloc.
Today, it is nine tram stops from Potsdam’s main station to the end of the line, the Glienicke bridge. This faded green scaffold once linked West Berlin with communist East Germany and the pavement’s hue still changes midway. A bronze stripe embedded in the sidewalk reads Deutsche Teilung bis 1989 (German partition until 1989).
On a recent Saturday morning tour buses dispensed affluent, middle-aged Spanish visitors who strolled across the former frontier. Near the woods in the former American zone, some stopped at a historical marker with black and white photos documenting earlier times. Though the Soviet dissident, Anatoly Sharansky, features prominently the images, there are no references to Koecher, who lives a quiet existence with Hana in a village outside Prague.
Retired, Koecher takes daily exercise in the nearby forest. Hana still works, arranging seminars that bring together construction professionals and professors from technical schools. Their upstairs study includes a menorah, a hefty collection of books on the history of espionage and texts on philosophy and logic, among other topics.
Now 81, Koecher buys shirts from the American mail-order company and is quick to offer visitors coffee and sometimes poppy seed cake. A TV guide, an encyclopaedia of wine, a dictionary and a clothing catalogue cover the living room table. Koecher looks like your grandfather, if your grandfather could beat lie detector tests, speak five languages, and had spent ample time in the 1970s at both swingers parties and battling wits with the KGB and CIA.
During a series of lengthy conversations, Koecher spoke openly about his past as a double agent. I was able to check his account against thousands of pages in declassified files from the communist-era Czechoslovak Státní bezpečnost, the StB.
Koecher’s recollections underscore the fickle nature of spycraft, its unfortunate (if inevitable) dependence on unreliable and deceitful personalities and its flagrant exploitation of rivalries. They also provide a glimpse into the inner workings of an agile secret agent.
By his own account, Koecher was never one to follow rules, and he still reacts sharply when his opinions are questioned. He spent most of his youth and young adulthood in conflict with authority. Starting from age 14, that meant the Czechoslovak Communist party. “Trouble is an understatement,” he said.
Born in 1934 in Bratislava, the capital of today’s Slovakia, Koecher’s mother Irena was a Slovak Jew and his father a Vienna-born Czech. The family moved to Prague when Koecher was four. Though family life was “not satisfying at all”, his father was an anglophile and the house was full of English-language books. He even attended an English language grammar school with the children of interwar elites. But times were changing.
In February 1948 the communists seized power in Prague. “There was practically no resistance,” Koecher said. “It was all over by 1950, they had executed everybody, and had spies everywhere.”
In 1949 Koecher was approached by Rita Kilmova, a young Stalinist (who would shift her politics with the times, become an aide to Václav Havel, and apparently coin the term Velvet Revolution). “She was looking for someone to spy on the other kids,” Koecher said. “I told her to go fuck herself and that was the end of grammar school.” At 15 Koecher was already drawing attention from the StB.
Long before he became an agent, Koecher was the target of surveillance. One file from the StB archives noted: “From 1949 to 1950 Koecher was part of an anti-state group that wanted to get involved in espionage. At the end of 1949 he and the group established a relationship with an American agent in order to get support from the US embassy.”
In 1950, when he was 16, Koecher and a group of friends were arrested and held overnight after security services discovered them stockpiling guns. Koecher was released, but when, the following year, one of his classmates shot a soldier, Koecher was considered guilty by association and the StB began tracking him regularly. The classmate was later hanged.
Koecher went on to study physics and maths at Charles University, as well as film at Prague’s Academy of Performing Arts. “In 1958 he was sentenced conditionally to three months to one year [in jail] for insulting a public official,” reads another StB account. The offence? “Kissing girls while a policeman stood nearby.”
After graduation, Koecher worked in various jobs: high school teacher, reporter for state television, comedy writer for radio – but StB entanglements remained constant. “They followed me and ruined every career move I made,” Koecher said. When he won a 1961 competition for a job with Unesco based in Cameroon, the Czechoslovak government would not grant him a passport, calling him a “politically dangerous citizen to travel abroad”.
In May 1962 he received a suspended sentence of eight months to two years for “morality violations”, including a “party-scene at his apartment and the presence of underage girls”, according to the StB. This saw Koecher fired from his radio job.
“I was really scared stiff,” Koecher said. “It was obvious this wasn’t going to stop. I got this idea that I could simply resolve the problem by getting the intelligence service to take a professional interest in me. I thought, first, they would stop all the counterintelligence by taking me over. Second, they could possibly send me abroad.”
A friend already working for the StB began dropping hints to superiors about Koecher’s language skills and he started hanging around at a cafeteria frequented by agents. The ruse worked.
As Koecher’s relationship with security services warmed, there was a more general thaw in Czechoslovakia too. Domestic oppression eased, most obviously in the arts, in the days leading up to the Prague Spring. In the corridors of power, the idea that reform was not only possible, but necessary, took hold. For two years, Koecher trained and worked in counterintelligence in Prague, targeting West Germans. Then in 1965 he got a call from an StB official requesting a meeting at his apartment. The official asked Koecher to go to the US.
“I asked, ‘What should I do there?. He said, ‘You are going to penetrate the CIA’. I asked, ‘How?’ He said “That’s up to you.’ I thought, this is like some sort of dare. Can you do it? It’s insane … I said yes immediately,” he recalls.
In a psychological evaluation from that year, the StB described Koecher as “over-confident, hypersensitive, hostile towards people, money driven, showing a strong inclination to instability, emotionally unstable, possessing an anti-social almost psychopathic personality, touchy, intolerant of authoritarianism”.
In other words, just the man for the job.
Koecher had married Hana Pardemecova, an attractive 19-year-old, in 1963. “I prefer to be Mrs Colombo, if you know what I mean,” she recently said over coffee at a Prague cafe, referring to the American TV detective whose wife is oft-mentioned, but never seen. Together the couple entered the US in 1965 by way of neutral Austria, posing as dissident defectors.
“I had no hostile feelings toward the United States, I knew nothing,” Koecher said. “I thought well, if I don’t like, maybe I would stop. I didn’t really see it as a commitment to spying on the United States.”
The couple lodged at a home designed and built by sociologist C Wright Mills in the New York City suburb of West Nyack. Koecher had met Mills, famed author of The Power Elite, through Mills’s Ukrainian-American wife during a visit to Poland. “I had no job and no money, but a house and a car,” Koecher said.
Few suspected the couple of anything untoward. “They said they wanted to escape communism,’’ Michael Reinitz, a friend that the couple met on an early visit to Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains, told The New York Timesyears later. “Hana said her father was a Communist party member, and I got the impression that she was rebelling. I never heard Karel say anything good about Russia.”
Koecher’s language skills and defector credentials scored him a job at the CIA-backed Radio Free Europe, followed by a year-long fellowship to study at Indiana University. In 1967 he moved back to New York City to pursue a PhD in philosophy at Columbia, studying Russian affairs on the side.
“It makes you feel bad, because ethically it is questionable,” Koecher said. “You do benefit from the freedom and the mobility you are offered, and you are abusing it. At that point, I still thought it was a good cause, that I was lying for a good cause – there were threats to my country and I was there to deflect the threats, the idea was not to hurt the United States.”
Though nominally working for the StB, Koecher had few official responsibilities and his primary goal was to integrate himself into American society. As a so-called “sleeper” he had few demands from his Eastern Bloc handlers, but they would increase as he gained access to higher echelons of the American intelligence community. Koecher refers to his time at Columbia as the best years of his life. “Pretty soon in the game I realised [penetrating the CIA] might be possible,” Koecher said. “If you were really good at an elite school, the sky was the limit.”
One of Koecher’s Russian studies professors, Zbigniew Brzezinski (who would later become National Security Advisor to US president Jimmy Carter), ran invitation-only seminars, and Koecher joined. According to Koecher, Brzezinski would later recommend him to the CIA – though Brzezinski’s office said he had no recollection of doing so.
Back in Czechoslovakia, the August 1968 Soviet-led invasion annihilated any hopes for an end to totalitarianism. During a purge of the StB’s counterintelligence branch, Koecher’s superiors lost their jobs and he was cast adrift in the US.
Discouraged by these developments, and with little loyalty to the hardliners hand-picked by the Soviets to lead the country, Koecher went to the FBI in an attempt to turn himself in – a story the FBI confirmed. Though Koecher had provided little in the way of formal intelligence to the StB thus far, his status as a foreign agent amounted to a crime. In coming clean, Koecher thought he might avoid arrest, become a candidate to be redeployed reporting back to the Americans on the Soviets, and be allowed to stay in the US.
“They weren’t interested at all,” Koecher said. “The FBI was not exactly sophisticated in terms of foreign intelligence; they were focused on the mafia.”
StB files from the time hint at Koecher’s wavering loyalties. “I would have gladly changed sides,” Koecher admitted. The Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia had soured his optimism that his country might initiate a new way forward - so-called “socialism with a human face”. Once driven in part by idealism, self-preservation had become his primary motivation.
A 1969 StB report described Koecher as “lax in terms of cooperating with the operational line”, and noted, “he did not give a single tip”. In 1970 and 1971 the Czechs claimed his “newsfeed is below average” and criticised him for not taking advantage of “good contacts among employees at Radio Free Europe”.
Although unenthusiastic about working with his new superiors at the StB Koecher did not quit, nor did he take more assertive steps to turn himself in to American authorities. On the contrary, he continued to pursue work with the CIA. “That still bothers me, it was simply inertia and maybe curiosity,” Koecher said. “Faust sold his soul to the devil to find out about everything, to be powerful – and there was certainly an element of that for me.”
In November 1972 he passed the CIA’s pre-employment screening and was hired as a translator and analyst. Until then he had been merely a germinating resource from a middle-sized communist country. Suddenly top officials in Moscow were very interested in this Czech who rooted himself where no Soviet agent could – in the core of the US intelligence apparatus.
In the meantime, Hana was working in the diamond trade and the Koechers accumulated wealth. Their nightlife picked up and they began attending swinger and spouse-swapping parties. The swinging spies became the stuff of lore after a colourful 1988 book by former Washington Post journalist Ronald Kessler, but Koecher downplayed the relevance such extracurricular activities had in his work, as have former Czech and Russian intelligence officials.
“It’s not so popular now, but a lot of people were doing it then,” he said.
As Koecher reported back to Prague from inside the CIA, the Czechs were unsure how best to use their chess piece. By 1975 Koecher grew frustrated with the StB’s pedestrian demands. “They wanted intelligence like all the license plate numbers of employees and so forth, absolutely asinine,” he said.
Impatience is a trait frequently mentioned in the StB files, and under its malign influence Koecher sent a memo to Prague criticising StB operations. Appalled by such insubordination and uncertain of how to handle it, the Czechs forwarded the document to Moscow. It ended up on the desk of Yuri Andropov, then KGB chief and later Soviet premier.
But rather than censure Koecher, Andropov commended his initiative and ordered that he be sent $40,000 (£27,000). Just half that money made it to Koecher, but it was enough to contribute to a down payment on an expensive two-bedroom apartment in the newly constructed Park Regis building in Manhattan. The couple also bought a blue BMW.
Now detested in Prague but valued in Moscow, Koecher’s notoriety began breeding what KGB chief Kryuchkov called “misfortune” as the cold war meat grinder began to turn. In one of the StB files, in a lengthy passage that is mostly critical of Koecher’s work, his Soviet backing is clear. “Our friends [the Soviets] say his notes have highly informative character. Even though screening them will be difficult, they could lead to the uncovering of [American] agents.”
In September 1976 Koecher was summoned to Prague for what he thought would be routine meetings with superiors. They were anything but. Because he had spent more than a decade abroad both the KGB and the StB were suspicious that Koecher might have been turned to the American cause. Amid secluded hills 30km south-east of Prague in a three-floor StB villa in the town of Čtyřkoly – once a safehouse for international terrorist Carlos the Jackal – Koecher was interrogated, or “mined” in StB parlance, for seven days.
His chief interrogator was Oleg Kalugin, the youngest KGB general in history, head of Soviet foreign counterintelligence and one of the most elusive figures of the late cold war era. Their exchange is documented in audio recordings and transcripts, and the face-off spurred a bitter rivalry that continues to this day.
“They tried to break me,” Koecher said. “They tried to order me to appear at a press conference and accuse Havel and company of being paid by the Americans. I said, ‘Fuck you, I won’t do it’.”
With less colour, the StB files noted that officials ordered Koecher to appear on Czech TV and publicly discredit the work of the CIA in the developing world. He refused. According to the StB, Kalugin “correctly concludes” that he “cannot exclude that [Koecher] is cooperating with the CIA”.
Years later, a 1985 document would surmise that both the StB and KGB – meaning Kalugin – were wrong about Koecher switching sides, and resolved that his “inappropriate behaviour and negative character features were again misinterpreted as betrayal”.
Though Koecher admits he considered it, he never did jump to the American side. At the time, however, Kalugin’s opinions counted for a lot and he recommended that Koecher be cut out of the intelligence loop. Koecher was released from his interrogation on the 16 September 1976.
The StB ordered him to quit the CIA or face “physical liquidation”, Koecher recalled. According to the StB files, he was added to a list of “undesirable people” and records show the StB would screen his and Hana’s post for at least the next six years. The files also portray Koecher growing weary of espionage.
“I was already old, and fed up with deceiving people,” Koecher said.
According to the StB files, Koecher told the Czechs that he wanted to settle down and buy a house in Austria. Instead, he was en route to New York.
“I think I am free,” he said.
He was not.
Koecher claims his most substantial work on behalf of the Soviets was to sabotage American efforts to recruit agents in Latin America, including one infamous case in Bogota, Colombia.
Though he insists his spying never directly resulted in anyone getting killed, Koecher has been linked to the 1977 death of Aleksandr Ogorodnik, a Soviet diplomat who had worked at the foreign ministry in Moscow. That case, more than any other that came up in conversations with Koecher, sheds light on the tangled loyalties inherent in intelligence work. It also raises questions about espionage’s capacity for obtaining reliable information.
Competing narratives have emerged about what happened to Ogorodnik, and almost none of the principles involved are entirely reliable. Ex-CIA agents have been unusually outspoken about the circumstances surrounding Ogorodnik’s death, but elements of the communist-era security files casts doubt on their accounts.
One reading of the files raises questions about the potential involvement of the aforementioned Kalugin, today an American citizen living in the Washington DC suburbs with a second home in the Atlantic beach resort of Ocean City, Maryland. The StB files detail a 1976 encounter between Koecher and Kalugin, which indicate that Czechoslovak intelligence later concluded that Kalugin had secretly been working for the CIA at the time.
Koecher’s dislike for his old adversary is palpable. He alternately referred to Kalugin as “vile”, “scum”, “lowlife” and “a killer”. Others have used softer language, but conjure a nonetheless intriguing picture. Ex-CIA chief William Colby once described Kalugin as: “Smooth as silk, the smoothest guy I’ve seen in years … With his own agenda, of course.” Spy novelist John Le Carré referred to Kalugin as: “One of those former enemies of western democracy who have made a seamless transition from their side to ours. To listen to him you could be forgiven for assuming that we had been on the same side all along.”
Perhaps they were.
Koecher worked on a CIA project to find Soviet officials based in Latin America that might pivot to the American side. He listened to wiretaps from various Soviet embassies as the CIA sought turncoats. Koecher said he regularly alerted the Soviets to American targets, who Moscow then warned, monitored or transferred elsewhere.
According to the accounts of ex-CIA officials, the agency recruited Ogorodnik (codenamed Trigon) to work for them in 1973.
Once Ogorodnik returned to Moscow in 1975, so the CIA narrative goes, Koecher told the Soviets that he was an American spy. In June 1977, the Soviets arrested Ogorodnik.
According to earlier published accounts, Ogorodnik was compelled to sign a confession while in custody. He asked to do so with a favoured Mont Blanc pen. Inside was a cyanide pill, which he swallowed and died on the spot. Aldrich Ames, an ex-CIA agent serving a life sentence for spying on behalf of the Soviet Union, is said to have been Ogorodnik’s handler and has publicly claimed he provided the cyanide.
Koecher disputes this account and denies that he betrayed Ogorodnik by informing Moscow of his CIA recruitment. During his week-long 1976 interrogation by Kalugin, Koecher had vouched for Ogorodnik’s loyalty to the Soviet Union – the audio recording of this still exists.
Instead, Koecher and others suspect that Kalugin was a double agent working for the CIA, and that he played the leading role in Ogorodnik’s death. Koecher points to his 1976 encounter with Kalugin, and his own insistence that Ogorodnik remained loyal to the Soviets.
Kalugin has denied that he ever worked for the CIA, or that he played a direct role Ogorodnik’s death.
Koecher said he told the KGB that the CIA was targeting Ogorodnik as a potential asset. He believes Kalugin then ordered Ogorodnik to play along, before transferring him back to Moscow under the pretence of funnelling disinformation to the Americans. According to this theory, Kalugin sacrificed Ogorodnik to preserve his position in the Soviet hierarchy and as a fount of information for the CIA.
A KGB report, which cannot be verified, said that Ogorodnik died of heart failure, not suicide. He was known to have a heart condition. That same story appears in the Russian-language memoirs of Igor Peretruchin, a KGB agent and Ogorodnik’s original arresting officer.
Peretruchin also describes an unorthodox arrest scene when a second team of KGB agents arrived, pulled rank and ordered Peretruchin and his colleagues to leave Ogorodnik’s apartment while he was still alive. If true, this could suggest the hand of Kalugin.
Only a handful of people will ever know the truth about the Ogorodnik case, but, given the documentation showing Koecher vouched for Ogorodnik’s loyalty to the Soviet Union, it seems highly questionable that Koecher was the primary cause.
Kalugin, on the other hand, has been linked to a number of other high-profile assassinations. In a 1995 piece in the New York Times, writer Le Carré quotes Kalugin admitting to masterminding the KGB’s 1978 murder of BBC journalist Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident assassinated on London’s Waterloo bridge. Agents allegedly used an umbrella to inject him with a ricin pellet. Kalugin told Le Carré: “We’re not children. I was the head man for all that stuff, for Christ’s sake! Nothing operational could be done unless it went across my desk, OK?
“Markov had already been sentenced to death in his absence by a Bulgarian court, but the Bulgarians were terrible. They couldn’t do a damn thing. We had to do it all for them: train the guy, make the umbrella, fix the poison.”
In 1994 Scotland Yard arrested Kalugin at Heathrow airport on suspicion that he was involved in the Markov murder, but released him citing a lack of evidence.
The KGB brass had their suspicions about Kalugin after he failed, as counterintelligence chief, to expose American agents. KGB chief Kryuchkov, orchestrator of the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev,– told a 2004 Canadian television documentary: “While Kalugin was head of counterintelligence, we did not expose a single American agent … That fact alone says a lot.”
After the mining session at the hands of Kalugin, Koecher returned to New York and got a job teaching philosophy. Hana continued working with diamonds. Amid StB threats, Koecher left his job with the CIA, though he took on occasional consulting jobs with the agency. Things were quiet, life in Manhattan was good and the Koechers began thinking they might live out their days in the US. But in 1982, a man left a letter in Hana’s office mailbox at East 47th Street and Avenue C. It asked Koecher to meet him on a street corner later in the day. “I went there thinking I would see what’s going on,” Koecher said.
The man Koecher met was Jan Fila (codenamed Sturma), a Czech agent operating out of the UN. The StB was seeking to reactivate Koecher. “He apologised in the name of the Czech intelligence services and asked me to come back,” Koecher said.
StB files from the time note renewed confidence in Koecher as a spy, including “confirmation of Rino’s crucial findings” from the past and his backing by “Soviet friends”. His revived reputation, with Moscow as his biggest advocate, is paralleled by the decline of Kalugin, who was demoted from chief of foreign counterintelligence to deputy head of the Leningrad branch of the KGB in 1980.
At the time, the Soviets were particularly spooked by the new rhetoric from Washington. “The Russians went ballistic because the team that came with Ronald Reagan, people like [assistant secretary of defence Richard] Pearl and [secretary of defence Caspar] Weinberger and so forth, were real crazies and the Russians genuinely believed that they were preparing a surprise attack, which they were,” Koecher said.
He began to spy again, reconnecting with old acquaintances. The files from these years refer to meetings that are managed “by friends” – Russians. Though not officially an agent Hana was “an agent worker”, according to the StB files, and made drops as a courier passing messages on Koecher’s behalf in packs of gum or cigarettes (Benson & Hedges, Dunhill or Kent). For each drop she would receive payments of $500 or more.
In December 1983, Koecher and Fila held a meeting in a Vienna sauna. Koecher suggested establishing NGOs as a means of conducting intelligence work – an idea presented as almost absurd in the StB files but common practice in 21st century spycraft. According to the StB the year “ended well”, but 1984 would not.
The FBI had begun following the Koechers. They claim to have done so for three years, bugging Koecher’s home and car, Hana’s office, and deploying “all the accoutrements you use in an espionage case”, said David Major, a top FBI counterintelligence official at the time.
At 4.15pm on 27 November 1984, outside the Barbizon Plaza Hotel, Koecher was arrested on espionage charges. The man set to prosecute him was US attorney for the southern district of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, who would later become the city’s mayor. At the time Giuliani held a press conference and claimed that “virtually every piece of information that came into [Koecher’s] possession was turned over” to the StB. But Giuliani’s prosecution ran into problems almost immediately.
Before arresting Koecher, the FBI – according to Koecher and confirmed by Major – offered to return him to work for the CIA, spying back on the Soviets. This would have made Koecher a highly dubious turnaround double agent. Inherently unreliable, such agents have already proved a willingness to lie about their loyalties. “You can’t do it long term, you can never trust them, and it has never been successfully done,” Major said.
Facing life in prison Koecher said he “gladly” agreed to flip and told the FBI some of what he knew. “I was rather happy when they offered to turn me,” Koecher said. “I was happy living in the States.”
Hana was detained as a material witness after she refused to talk and asked for a lawyer. When the FBI reneged on its offer to grant Koecher immunity, the confessions he had made became inadmissible in court. Getting Hana to talk was the last hope for a conviction. “We use this as a case study about how you do things wrong,” Major said.
The Justice Department charged Hana with contempt of court for refusing to testify before a grand jury. They alleged that she was complicit in committing the crimes and that as such, spousal privilege did not apply. She spent four months in jail before being released pending appeal.
She won that case but the Justice Department then appealed against that decision. The case ended up before the US supreme court with the American Civil Liberties Union agreeing to represent Hana. Columbia law professor Gerard Lynch was brought on as attorney.
“She reminded me of an Upper East Side society lady,” said Lynch, who is now a federal judge. “She struck me as calm and collected for somebody who had spent so much time in jail.”
Lynch argued the case but there was never a ruling. “I began to hear indirectly that a trade was in the works,” he said.
Koecher, incarcerated with gangsters and murderers, developed a friendship with Sandy Alexander – a Hells Angel doing time for drugs. According to Alexander, one day a new cellmate inexplicably arrived with a pair of scissors. Within days, as inmates lined up for lunch, the man attacked Koecher. Alexander tackled him and the guards took the man away. They never saw him again.
Now fearing for his life, Koecher had his lawyer take a letter to the Soviets, which ended up on KGB chief Kryuchkov’s desk. “It simply said that my life is threatened. They can’t convict me,” Koecher said. “I suggested that they trade me for Sharansky.”
A few months later, in early 1986, Koecher phoned Hana. “You get one call every day,” he said. That day, she told him he was with a lawyer named Vogel, he said. Within weeks Koecher was sitting in a gold Mercedes with Vogel’s wife Helga at the wheel, heading for the East German border. As Major noted, there is always a tip-off when a spy is exposed, before declining to say who tipped the FBI off to Koecher.
The official KGB account blamed Kalugin. Sokolov, Koecher’s KGB handler, put it directly in 2004 when he claimed: “Koecher was betrayed by General Kalugin who was working for the CIA.”
The Americans, are equally adamant in refuting the charge. “I assure you that he was not compromised by Oleg Kalugin,” Major said. “You can take that to the bank.”
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. While everyone was busy sorting this out, the cold war ended, catching them all by surprise.
From an armchair in a small Czech village, the irony of it all is not lost on Koecher. Once at home living the Manhattan high life, he is now in khakis, among stacks of scholarly tomes. Amid all the duplicity and excitement, at least one enduring truth looks to have emerged.
“The world is really fucked up and intelligence services have a lot to do with it,” he said.