Friday, May 06, 2005

Text of interview with Newsweek on Polish secret police

The following is the text of an online interview that Polish Newsweek correspondent Pawel Szaniawski conducted with this blogger on May 6, 2005. The interview, in the form of a set of written questions, concerned our April 30 post about Henryk Szlajfer, a possible candidate for Polish ambassador to the United States, and a secret police record indicating that he might have been an agent. The text of the interview follows:

Newsweek: Some accusations appeared that your blog post was not uncalculated, coming in time for the long weekend in Poland and just before the current Marek Belka government is expected to hand in its resignation. What is more, you admited to "Gazeta Wyborcza" that you had the materials about Szlajfer for a long time. Why you decided to publish them at this particular moment?

Waller: The blog is so obscure that I had no idea the story would provoke any interest in Poland. If I had "calculated" the story, I would have written it for a magazine or newspaper. I do not follow the Polish press, Polish politics or the Polish holiday calendar. My interest in the Szlajfer case is part of a larger interest in the residue of the secret police of the former Soviet bloc. I have been collecting material from the Soviet-era archives from a number of countries and writing about them for 15 years. Once in a while when somebody’s name comes up in current events, my colleagues and I will exchange information to see what there might be. This was the case with Mr. Szlajfer’s name.

Newsweek: "Gazeta wyborcza" quotes high ranking White House servant who claims that your article is a nonsense and it is an attempt to ovethrow Szlajfer's candidature. Are you trying to play such role?

Waller: No. Mr. Szlajfer and those like him can end the controversy by claiming "victim of Communism" status and disclosing what is in the secret police files. This is a matter of transparency and accountability, not simply the mistakes people made in the past. If people avoid exonerating or explaining themselves when they have the chance, they simply keep alive the unpleasant questions that will cloud their names and damage their effectiveness. People can be very understanding, myself included. However, if the individuals in question get indignant and denounce the questions without answering them, it’s clear they have something to hide.

Governments that choose to post such people to Washington should not try to hide the facts, particularly when the information is on an official record. If an ambassador does have such a past, it should be disclosed fully and explained, pre-empting any controversy and satisfying legitimate questions.

I don’t believe Gazeta wyborcza cited a White House "servant" by name, and I have not read the article, so I cannot judge the validity of its report. Even so, different officials focus on different issues. What might be of concern to a diplomat or trade official might not be of concern to a security-oriented official, and vice-versa.

Newsweek: You have written that: "American officials are concerned that, with the communist-era secret police archives moved to Moscow, the Russian intelligence services are able to compromise the integrity of democratic Poland and, consequently, NATO itself." You also quote "a Washington source with close ties to the State Department and White House. "It would further undermine confidence in Poland's commitment to remain independent from Moscow." Do you agree with this statement?
Waller: I agree with what I wrote on the blog. I am doubtful that former collaborators with the Polish Communist secret police are free from being blackmailed by the Russians, who almost certainly have their files. It stands to reason that Moscow will try mightily to manipulate Polish officials who could be susceptible to blackmail. Consequently, those officials could compromise Poland’s commitment to remain independent from Moscow. Since collaboration was on such a large scale, and since the former Communists in Poland have shown little if any contrition for their past collaboration and even less interest in bringing the truth to light, it is reasonable as a friend of Poland for me to be concerned about its leaders’ commitment to keep the country independent from Russia.

Newsweek: Do you think Szlajfer - as a Polish ambassador in Washington - can complicate a Polish-US relationship and prolong visa restrictions on Polish citizens or other delicate issues?

Waller: I believe that any Polish ambassador to Washington would unnecessarily complicate our countries’ relations if he had an unresolved or hidden history as an alleged agent of the Communist secret police. It is difficult to see how Americans would view such an individual as a credible representative of a truly democratic Poland.

Newsweek: Do you think candidates for Polish ambassadors should be officially checked (by the court?) concerning their possible collaboration with communist secret police?

Waller: It is not my place to tell Poland how it should screen its own diplomats. However, it is hard to see how a court that dismisses official microfilm evidence on politicians [as with the case of President Aleksandr Kwaśniewski, a former communist whose Soviet-era file indicated he was a secret police collaborator] would be a credible venue for screening ambassadors, and to my knowledge many of the foreign ministry records have been destroyed. I think it is very unfortunate that Poland has chosen to cover up the Soviet-era crimes of its officials by rejecting the lustration process that other former Soviet colonies have carried out.

Newsweek: What materials except for Wildstein's List and "sources close to the White House" do you have?

Waller: Nice try.

[End of text.]