Before GROM were formed, Polish forces had to work hard to win over their new NATO and the Western allies. New, because until then they had been the arch enemy on the other side of the iron curtain. Here’s how the story began.
In July 1990, half of the Iraqi army was deployed to the southern part of the country and massed near the Kuwait border. Diplomats in Bagdad suspected that Saddam Hussein was preparing simply another power show. While in Iraq, diplomats from the Arab countries disregarded the situation. Saddam Hussain was trying to force the Kuwait to transfer some of the oil profit to Iraq. It had never lead to open conflict before.
At the end of July, the American ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, met Hussein and was assured by him that no war would be declared. Glaspie got back to her country and everybody thought the crises was over. Also, the diplomats in the Polish embassy in Bagdad felt at ease – this was a month before the last Communist ambassador went back to the country, and the person in charge was from then on charge d’affaires. The new ambassador was expected to arrive soon.
A week later, the Iraqi army attacked Kuwait and within a few hours took control of the country. The invasion proved a complete surprise. From that time on, all diplomats and intelligence officers who hadn’t managed to leave Iraq and Kuwait found themselves in the middle of a diplomatic and military crisis. Although the American ambassador in Iraq was assured by Saddam that the war was not on his mind, the CIA didn’t trust him.
In Summer 1990 in Kuwait, not far from the border with Iraq, six CIA, DIA and NSA officers arrived. Their mission was to monitor the movement of the Iraqi army using state-of-the-art equipment. When Saddam Hussein entered Kuwait, the Americans found themselves in a trap. The Iraqis didn’t know about their existence so they used this chance to get to Bagdad and wait for an opportunity to leave the country.
Unfortunately, the American Embassy didn’t have the capacity to do it.
American diplomats were under constant surveillance and weren’t even able to meet the officers. Britain, France and Germany refused to help. Only Poland agreed. Office of State Protection (an intelligence unit that does not exist anymore) in Warsaw decided that the success of the evacuation might help Poland to begin cooperation with Western partners. For Polish politicians, this was the first step for Poland on the way to join NATO.
In the second half of September 1990, the Iraqis did everything to stop the foreigners from leaving the country. Each day, a number of idiotic regulations and new laws concerning exit procedure arose. In a telegram to the President, the HQ in Warsaw revealed their plan to get the American officers out of Bagdad. The representative of Polish intelligence in Bagdad could not believe his ears. It seemed unreal. What if it didn’t work out? How would that influence the lives of all those thousands of Poles living in, and who were perceived as friends to, Iraq? But an order was, of course, an order.
The details of the mission were known only to the supervising Lieutenant from Warsaw who, using a false passport, arrived in Bagdad on 13 October 1990 as a new employee of the Polish Embassy. Jan, that was his name on the diplomatic passport, was an attaché to the Polish Ambassador. He explained that the operation was of political nature and that the highest authorities were involved in it. It had to be done regardless of the risk.
Two days after his arrival, on one of the streets of Bagdad, the Lieutenant met one of the six hiding Americans.
In the world of intelligence, it’s a norm that only the essential knowledge is passed on, so nobody knew where the Americans were hiding and how they had reached Bagdad. They were not well; they were, in fact, exhausted, scared, and overwhelmed by the situation. The evacuation date was set for 25 October. Although it wasn’t certain that is was possible, the work began.
The most important question was, of course, what would be the best way to evacuate these men? An airplane was out of question, as it was virtually impossible to place six men on board without the knowledge of the Iraqi intelligence. The border with Jordan was highly protected. The only possible working border crossing was with Turkey, at the north of Mosul – 500 km one way.
The Polish Lieutenant brought six brand new passports with him to Bagdad. To everybody’s surprise, however, it turned out that there weren’t any exit visas in the documents. Without them, it was virtually impossible to leave the country.
A disaster was looming!
At that time, Iraq was one of the most computerized countries in the world. Western corporations had built a network of secret police who had their men on every checkpoint on every highway. Not only did these visas have to be in their passports, but also in the computer system to avoid any suspicion at the border.
There is a Polish expression, “A Pole can,” meaning that we’re resourceful. Well, three days before the evacuation, an officer from Polish Intelligence found out that one of the Polish employees had “good contact” with an Iraqi woman who either was high in the ranks of the secret police or had a cousin there. Either way, this woman was the key to success. To this day, the Lieutenant hasn’t said a word about how he convinced her to cooperate. The important thing was that the next day, the visas appeared both in the passports and the computer system.
On October 25 at 4am, two Toyotas with “completely normal” Polish employees set off from the Polish Embassy. The Americans were convinced they would be discovered at any moment. Sometime later, after the operation, Polish media talked about drunk US citizens who had been taught Polish swear words “kurwa mać” (“fuck”) because one guard at the border crossing knew Polish very well. They were supposed to cross the bridge in an orderly fashion so as not to draw attention to themselves, but as one officer described it, “They broke the world record in sprint.”
It wasn’t until 4 pm that a telegram came to Warsaw, announcing that the CIA agents safely had crossed the bridge. On the other side were Poles who transferred them to Warsaw. The Iraqis never found out how Poland rescued CIA spies from Iraq in 1990. However, a year later, the information about the evacuation was published in American press.
At the end of 1990s, during the debate on enlarging NATO, the CIA thanked the Poles for saving their employees. This operation allowed Poland to gain the trust of the West and opened the door for the creation of GROM.
Thanks for listening,