December 10, 2010

Operation SPOTLIGHT: The Defection of Colonel Jozef Swiatlo and RFE

In West Berlin, on Saturday, December 5, 1953, Jozef Swiatlo, a lieutenant colonel in the Polish secret police, "defected" to the West, reportedly after he had been sent to West Berlin, with the purpose of intimidating or killing Mrs. Wanda Bronska-Pampuch, a former Communist Party member and effective Radio Free Europe Polish Service free-lance broadcaster since 1952. She had previously worked for Radio Liberation in Munich, before moving to West Berlin.

American Journalist Flora Lewis has written in her book The Red Pawn: The Story of Noel Field:

He was a man with the ineradicable spot of blood on his hands; he personally had been a torture master. His nickname was the ‘Butcher’. When the United States agreed to give him asylum it was in the knowledge that he would have to be protected for the rest of his life because the number of his victims and relatives of victims sworn to exact retribution was so great.

According to one biography, Jozef Swiatlo was born as Izak (Isaac) Fleischfarb to a “poor Jewish family” in the village Medina, Ukraine (now Poland), on January 1, 1915 and attended public school for only seven years. He was a member of a Zionist organization “Gordonia” and joined the Communist Youth Union in 1933. For "political reasons and his youthful inexperience" he was twice arrested for his political activities. In 1938, he was drafted into the Polish army.

After the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, he was captured by the German army, escaped, and fled to the Eastern Section of Poland then under Soviet army control. He joined a Soviet-backed force and marched westward with the army as a political officer in the Kosciuszko Division that remained in a Warsaw suburb during the Uprising in 1944.

Afterwards, he joined the University of Public Security and became a Polish Security Service officer in 1945. He rose to the rank of Deputy Chief of Department 10, which was responsible for protecting the Communist Party from non-Party subversive forces and "protect the purity of the Party from within the Party" by screening all appointments and conducting surveillance of Party and Government officials.

After this defection in West Berlin in 1953, the Americans sent him to a “Defector Reception Center“ in Frankfurt, Germany. There he was “debriefed” by CIA official Ted Shackley, who established his bona fides as a “defector” and sent his findings to CIA headquarters. In his memoirs, Spymaster: my life in the CIA, Shackley wrote:

The wealth of detail that Swiatlo was able to give me about the organization, functions, and misdeeds of UB, soon made it evident that Swiatlo was uniquely able to provide answers to questions that had long remained unanswered, and I was bombarded by cable demands from headquarters that I tackle Swiatlo on other subjects.

After a debriefing that lasted five hours a day, seven days a week for three months, Shackley and Swiatlo then flew to the United States in April 1954.

The CIA then gave Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America access to Swiatlo. RFE’s Voice of Free Poland, started broadcasting his “revelations” on September 28, 1954, when Swiatlo “officially” surfaced in the United States at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

On October 20, 1954, RFE’ began a series of 78 programs entitled “Inside Story of Bezpieka and Party” that were broadcast until January 31, 1955. They were not verbatim interviews but were prepared scripts based on Swiatlo’s material. Swiatlo voiced the scripts. Other programs were broadcast throughout 1955 for a total of 141 Swiatlo programs.

Cord Meyer, one CIA officer responsible for RFE, has written: “He turned out to be a gold mine of detailed and accurate information on the corruption and personal rivalries that flourished among the leadership of the Polish Communist Party.” 

Swiatlo’s name is translated as "light" and, since listening to RFE was considered a crime, listeners referred to his programs by asking "will there be any light at your house tonight?" For the next months, RFE's other language services as well as the RFE’s sister station Radio Liberation used his “revelations.”

Swiatlo's broadcast over Radio Free Europe reportedly caused a major chain reaction in Poland with the dismissal, transfer, and worse, of thousands of Communist Party members and government officials. Perhaps as many as 150,000 party members, according to one estimate, were affected by RFE's programming.

RFE’s radio programs about Switlo were described, "a brilliant tactical decision that brought unforeseeable strategic gains," and "one of the most successful pieces of radio propaganda ever." The Polish regime responded with silence for a few weeks before it launched a heavy counter-propaganda campaign of radio commentaries, articles, poems, and cartoons.

Based on experiences in its previous balloon programs, on February 12, 1955, the Free Europe Press started sending copies of a forty-page summary of his testimony, “The Inside Story of the Bezpieka (Security Apparatus) and the Party,” to Poland.  This balloon campaign was called Operation SPOTLIGHT, which “was designed as a means of bringing to the Polish people the revelations of corruption and immorality in the hierarchy of the Polish Communist regime.”

The purpose of the Free Europe Press balloon launching-leaflet program was "to weaken the Communist control apparatus, and through, detailed exposure of Communist techniques, to enable the Polish people better to defend themselves against the Communists.” The FEP pamphlet’s forward was hard hitting:

Swiatlo is a man who has drunk from many a filthy well.  Does he regret it today?  Has he resolved to improve his ways in the innermost recesses of his heart? Does he treat his story of his experiences as an act of contrition or does he regard it as an act of vengeance of his former Party comrades.  We have no first hand information on this matter. We only know that he is to be believed.

This booklet is like a hand-grenade. It may become dangerous should you try to keep it in your possession. It may also be dangerous to repeat the text of this booklet to your neighbor. On the other hand, no harm will be caused to the public good should this pamphlet reach the hands of representatives of the regime.

From February through May 1955, over 260,000 pamphlets were launched into Poland, with only 30 per balloon, because of the pamphlet’s weight. The number of launchings would have been greater but for the weather: in April, for example, no launches took place because the winds blew from East to West. Additional brochures were sent via postal mail to members of the Polish Communist Party bureaucracy and distributed in Paris and elsewhere in the West. 

The Polish government reacted with counter-propaganda, e.g. this cartoon in the publication Szpiliki on March 13, 1955 with the caption: "The Free Europe Committee in Munich sent over Poland balloons carrying libelous booklets of the agent-provocateur Swiatlo."

RFE also put out details of Swiatlo in the March 1955 issue of News Behind the Iron Curtain, a monthly subscription journal published by the Free Europe Press. 

The short introduction explained the importance of the Swiatlo revelations:

Here is the mirror of what it means to “build a Socialist state,” and “what Socialist morality” is truly like. It is a tale of the evils done by the police, Party and Government to their own adherents, and horrible as it is, it is far less horrible than what all of these combined have done to the Polish people.

The Swiatlo programs also affected Radio Free Europe as the Polish broadcasting service in Munich and management in New York were divided on the programs. Robert Lang, the Director of Radio Free Europe, stationed in New York, wrote an eight-page resignation letter on March 4, 1955, in which he complained to the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Free Europe Committee, that the Deputy Director of RFE in New York had turned down the balloon program and was not consulted before the Free Europe Press in Munich started Operation SPOTLIGHT. He explained in the letter how the Polish émigrés in the United States were unhappy with the RFE’s use of Swiatlo and “the Polish press in this country broke out in rash of angry editorial comment, and, in brief—poof--there went our carefully built up validity.”

Lang also reveals in his letter that Swiatlo had once sued RFE for “uncoordinated publishing on his material in News From Behind the Iron Curtain” and received $2,000.  He threatened to sue again, this time for $10, 000 because he was “infuriated—particularly by the introduction that was flown in with his materials in which, among other things, he was labeled a man, “Who has drunk of every shame.” Also, Swiatlo, apparently, had first learned about SPOTLIGHT two weeks after it had started.

The controversy came to a head in a meeting of CIA, VOA, and RFE officials on October 7, 1954, at which CIA set ground rules for further interviews with Swiatlo.

In December 1956, Poland expelled Life magazine photographer Lisa Larsen, when he visa expired.  According to her, the Polish Foreign Department explained that her visa was not extended due to Life magazine’s November 26, 1956 article published under Swiatlo’s name.  The Polish press department complained that “This article by one of Poland’s worst criminals was sensational and untrue and its publication was an unfriendly act. Polish newspapers accused Swiatlo of “robbing prisoners, using illegal methods of interrogation and ordering the liquidation of at least one political prisoner while he was a police officer.”

In the February 1956 Crusade for Freedom campaign, Swiatlo’s story was used by in the United States with this nation-wide newspaper appeal prepared by the Advertising Council:


            Broadcasts cause removal of Polish Police officials

MUNICH--A series of-broadcasts by Radio Free Europe have caused great upheaval and embarrassment in Poland.

They were based on highly inflammatory information about corrupt Polish police operations obtained from Josef Swiatlo, Polish Security Ministry official who had defected to the West. As a result of the broadcasts, the Reds were forced to dismiss four of Swiatlo's former chiefs and reorganize the ministry.

This is just a single example of the influence of Radio Free Europe's words of truth. Up to 20 hours of truth a day are broadcast to five key satellite countries—Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. And the truth is getting through, despite costly Red jamming attempts.

Millions take the risk daily to listen. Millions more hear the truth from Radio Free Europe as it is passed cautiously from mouth to mouth.

Truth builds hope and continued resistance. Each dollar sponsors a minute of truth. Send your truth dollars to: CRUSADE FOR FREEDOM, c.o. Local Postmaster 

The CIA prepared part 7 of a National Security Council report dated March 2, 1955, in which it was written: “the Polish Security Official, Josef Swiatlo, although defecting early in 1954, made outstanding contributions to U.S. intelligence and psychological warfare programs during this period.“

By the 1960s, Jozef Swiatlo, once called "the most successful Western agent in the history of the Cold War," effectively had become a nonperson. Former CIA Director Allen Dulles' book, The Craft of Intelligence, published in 1963, contained only a two-sentence and incorrect reference to Jozef Swiatlo saying that he had defected in Berlin in 1954, not 1953.

Former CIA officer Ted Shackley wrote:

Once he had fulfilled his obligations to the U.S. government, he sank quietly into private life as a legal resident of the United States.  According to what little I have heard about him, he moved to New York—whether City or State I don’t know—and opened a small business. The absence of any news to the contrary gives me confidence that his resettlement was a success.

Another CIA officer who had the chance to interview Swiatlo, after his arrival in the United States, was Tennent H. Bagley, who wrote in his book Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games:

Gave important and high-level insights into Soviet operations and techniques....This information, sent to Poland by leaflet and radio, shook the regime and led to reforms that, developed in later years, made Poland a factor in the eventual collapse of Soviet Communism.

On November 24, 1982, the Polish Intelligence service decided to "close" the examination of his case because "the lack of information where he lived, where he is, and what he did.“ 

In January 2009 the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) asked the U.S. Justice department for current information about Jozef Swiatlo. A year later, the response was one sentence advising only that Jozef Swiatlo died on September 2, 1994 in the United States.

For more information:

A. Ross Johnson, The Inside Story of the Secret Police and the Party; Origins of the Swiatlo Broadcasts on RFE, (Last viewed December 2010)

L. W. Gluchowski, The Defection of Jozef Swialto and the Search for Jewish Scapegoats in the Polish United Workers' Party, 1953-1954, Intermarium, Columbia University electronic journal of modern East Central European postwar history. 

It is available only in the Polish language, but the most thorough study of Swiatlo’s life and the repercussions of his revelations in Poland is Andrzej Paczkowski, Trzy twarze Józefa ´Swiatły (Warsaw: Prószy´nski Media, 2009)

Operation SPOTLIGHT: Regime, Press and Radio, Western Press and Radio and Internal Reactions, Feb. 12 - Mar 13, 1955, Free Europe Committee, New York, March 1955, Free Europe Press. RFE/RL Collection, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, California

The Inside Story of the Bezpieka and the Party: Jozef Swiatlo Reveals the Secrets of the Party, the Regime, and the Security Apparatus, English translation, RFE/RL Collection,

The Open Society Archives in Budapest Hungary, has most, if not all, of the interviews of Swiatlo that were broadcast over Radio Free Europe plus other documents related to his programs in eight containers, HU OSA 300-50-6.

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