On the morning of November 9, 1989, my Czech fixer (and, unknown to me at the time, paid informant for the StB), Arnold, picked me up in his car at Prague’s Hotel Paříž to make the 300 km (180 mile) drive down to Bratislava. I had just wrapped up the first leg of a two-city reporting trip to Czechoslovakia for Business International. After spending the first four days of the trip (November 5-8) in Prague, I planned to spend the final two days in Slovakia.
I don’t remember much about the drive, but I must have been in a good mood. The trip, so far, had been a success. I was able to report on big stories, witnessed dramatic moments as thousands of East Germans streamed into Prague, and met interesting people, including a smart, attractive American traveler named Gabrielle. I was also happy to begin the long journey home toward Vienna. Those reporting trips across the Iron Curtain always wore me down. Arnold and I would stay the night at Bratislava’s Hotel Devín. The next day, I would catch a train for the short hop over to Austria.
I can’t recall what our precise agenda was for Bratislava. I imagine that -- as in Prague -- we would meet with officials to gauge the political mood (given the big anticommunist demonstrations then underway in East Germany). I can safely say, though, as we motored down Czechoslovakia’s main D1 highway, neither of us had the slightest inkling that the beginning of the end of the Cold War was just hours away.
I had been in a good mood on the drive down, but looking back, Arnold must have been positively ecstatic – and not because of any jovial conversation or relaxing ride. I had no idea at the time, but while I’d been prepping for my reporting trip, Arnold and the Czechoslovak secret police had been doing some advance work of their own.
According to my file, on November 3, 1989 (two days before my arrival in Prague), the head of the StB’s Section 37 -- identified as “Dr. Karel FALKMAN” -- had officially signed off on the start of “Operation INTER.” This was the StB’s clandestine operation to monitor and entrap me (in flagrante delicto) with a female Slovak collaborator in a Bratislava hotel room. Everything had been orchestrated to the last detail – and Arnold had put in some excellent work so far.
Based on a four-page dossier outlining the operation (see photos), Arnold (“TS ARNOL”) had been tasked with planning out the details of my trip and arranging our schedule so that I would spend the last two days in Bratislava (without, of course, eliciting any suspicion on my part). Curiously, though, Arnold had been intentionally kept in the dark as to why he was bringing me to Bratislava. The file states: “Operative measures and personnel involved are to be kept hidden from TS ARNOL due to secrecy reasons.” Here, the StB was probably employing a technique known as “blocking” – in other words, hiding details of separate operations from individual agents and collaborators. No matter. The plan said bring me to Bratislava, and that’s exactly what he was doing.
From the dossier, I learned the decision to accommodate me at Prague’s Hotel Paříž hadn’t been Arnold’s idea, but rather the choice of an StB agent identified as “KP BARGER.” There’s no indication in the file as to why BARGER selected this hotel, though perhaps he had worked previously with StB operatives, like “ELZA,” employed at the hotel’s reception desk. According to my file, ELZA was the informant who had kept such close watch over me at the hotel and even thoughtfully preserved, for posterity, my note to Gabrielle.
As a short aside, apart from my note, there’s nothing else in my file about Gabrielle, and to this day, I have no idea who or what she really was. I’m reasonably certain she was not a Czechoslovak agent. If she had been, her identity would have been covered over in the files by one of those corny code names (something like “GABI” perhaps?). The question remains open, though, whether she was working for Western intelligence. It was a rare sight back then to meet American tourists anywhere in the Eastern bloc – and even rarer to find women traveling on their own. It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of suspicion with this stuff. Most probably, she was exactly what she told me she was: a girl from Chicago with an interest in Eastern Europe.
Back to the materials on Operation INTER, prior to our arrival in Bratislava, a different StB agent, “DVORNÍK,” had arranged separate accommodation for Arnold and me at the Devín for the night of November 9-10. My own room was to be outfitted with special equipment for audio and video surveillance (courtesy of the Bratislava branch of the StB).
DVORNÍK and another StB agent, “TOUFAR,” had been tasked with securing the services of my Slovak “Mata Hari,” a paid StB informant named “TS INA.” For lack of a better word, she would serve as the “honey” for this honeypot trap. My file states that DVORNÍK and TOUFAR were to brief INA in advance and then “pump her” (their term) afterward for a full accounting of what happened. According to my file, INA agreed to take part in the operation and planned to approach us at dinner at the Devín restaurant on the evening of November 9. Presumably, she would then let the magic happen from there.
And that’s essentially where this story – and my prospective career as a Czechoslovak agent – comes to an end. Across the top of the first page of the dossier, someone (it’s not clear who) has penned the word “nerealizováno,” which translates as “not realized.” In other words, for whatever reason, the operation was called off or never carried out.
My own recollection of the Bratislava part of the trip is frustratingly fuzzy, and I couldn’t find any specific diary entries to refresh my memory. I do remember clearly checking into the Devín that afternoon and having a beer or coffee with Arnold in the lobby on our arrival. I remember stealing one of the hotel’s funky, ‘50s-style ashtrays (see photo) to bring back with me to Vienna (something I’m not proud of). I even have a vague recollection of dining with Arnold that evening in the hotel restaurant. Whether INA ever approached our table – or perhaps merely batted her eyelashes at us from across the room – I really can’t say.
There are two possible explanations for what happened: either DVORNÍK or TOUFAR called off the operation before it could start (perhaps owing to the historic events then just getting started in Berlin); or INA did her best and the sparks just didn’t fly. I wrote previously that I wasn't looking for hook-ups on these reporting trips and I was always careful to avoid ambiguous situations. It’s highly possible, even likely, that while I might have enjoyed the conversation, at some point in the evening, I excused myself and said goodnight.
I do know with 100% certainty, however, that I didn’t bring INA back to my room that night to continue the party. It would have been a very strange (though perhaps strangely memorable) way to celebrate the night that communism collapsed.
Over the past several months, as I've paged through my file and tried to make sense of events that happened more than 30 years ago, the question of why Operation INTER was never “realized” is just one of many I still don’t have answers to. Perhaps all those folders and materials that were lost or destroyed over the years might have helped to fill in the blanks.
Based on what survived, the StB was clearly hoping to use my position in Vienna to help them infiltrate the U.S. Embassy. The embassy had been a long-standing target of their covert “Operation OHEŇ” and they had failed to make headway toward breaching it. Looking back, though, I’m not sure how I could have helped them achieve this objective (even if I had agreed somehow to cooperate). In the 1980s, I knew very few people in U.S. diplomatic circles, and I can’t imagine the State Department would have allowed me to waltz in as I pleased. Forget for a moment the extreme legal risk I would be taking with any of this.
One alternative theory is that, with me at least, the U.S. Embassy hadn't been their only objective. If Business International had been a front for the CIA, as they may have believed, then they could have been counting on me to help them to get inside the company. I couldn't find any documentation to support that theory, but it certainly seems logical.
It’s also not clear how the StB planned to use the damaging material against me if they had succeeded in entrapping me. In a classic honeypot scheme, the compromising material is used as blackmail: “Either you do as we ask or we destroy your life.” The only problem is that I wasn’t married. I had a long-term girlfriend in Vienna with whom I was in the process of reconciling, but we had been separated for nearly a year at that point. The materials would have been humiliating and I would have had a lot of explaining to do (both with her and my colleagues at Business International). It’s not obvious, though, how any evidence of an affair would have been threatening enough to coerce me into working for the other side. “Boy meets girl in a Bratislava hotel” is not exactly national news.
But maybe they had something more-devious, more-insidious up their sleeves. A few lines from the third page of the dossier for Operation INTER indicate that the StB might have been thinking more long-term with me. Reading those words today still gives me chills.
Under point 4 of the “goals” of the operation, the text reads: “In the cultivation of INA and INTER’s relationship, there is the possibility of planting INA into the territory (as the wife or partner of INTER).” Like a bad episode of the TV series “The Americans,” the Czechoslovak secret police may have been trying to plant a sleeper agent as my wife.
Thankfully, while the StB was busy cooking up these schemes, the walls (literally) were crumbling down around them. The Berlin Wall collapsed the very night they hoped to bring me onboard. Within a couple of weeks, revolution fever would grip Czechoslovakia as well and bring that country’s communist regime to an end. Within three months (by February 1990), the StB itself would be disbanded. Arnold would soon be out of a job, and he and the other agents and collaborators named in my file would immediately start scrambling to destroy any incriminating materials.
A couple of parting observations before I bring this tale to a close. The first is simply to note what a colossal, pointless waste of manpower and resources the whole thing amounted to. The StB expended hundreds, possibly thousands, of man-hours in vetting, monitoring and trying to recruit me, and all they got in the end was "nerealizovano." It was insane.
The final irony of all this might just be the strangest. I would never have learned any of this long-hidden history if I hadn’t taken the unusual step of writing and publishing a book on Czechoslovakia and the Eastern bloc. It was my book, “Čas proměn,” after all, that led Dr Tomek to re-examine the archives and eventually locate the documents on me. When I began writing my book, I recognized the risks that uncovering rocks from the past might also expose some worms. I could never have imagined, though, the existence of my alter ego, INTER, and all of the plans that they'd had for him.
(Find links to the previous parts of the story here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).
Check out booking.com for a gallery of how the hotel looks today ? I think they’ve invested a bit into it ?
Have you stayed at the hotel before?
great reading, Mark! I’m looking forward to an updated book in English.