Agent Sniper

Agent Sniper

Bigamist. Fantasist. Betrayer. Betrayed. Known only as Agent Sniper, Polish double-agent Michal Goleniewski sold secrets to the US from behind the Iron Curtain. But this complex, ambitious man was no match for his American handlers. In this episode of True Spies, author Tim Tate reveals a life full of romance, tragedy and Cold War intrigue.
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True Spies, Episode 206 - Agent Sniper

NARRATOR: This is True Spies. The podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Rhiannon Neads, and this is True Spies, from Spyscape Studios.

TIM TATE: They open Goleniewski’s safe in his office in Warsaw and discover all these papers have disappeared. They knew every agent, every network Goleniewski knew about in the West would be betrayed.

NARRATOR: Agent Sniper. In 1958, Bern, Switzerland, was hardly a hotbed of Cold War activity. Quite the opposite, in fact. In the global community of American intelligence postings, Bern was considered something of a backwater. And yet it was Bern, in April 1958, where a Soviet spy sent a letter, written in German, to the American ambassador. 

TIM TATE: The writer doesn't give his name. He gives himself only a cover name. The German word is Heckenschuetze. That's what he signed. And that translates as ‘Sniper’. 

NARRATOR: The letter to the ambassador is wrapped around a second, sealed envelope. Within that envelope, Sniper writes, are “enticing leads to Soviet Bloc spies”. Sniper requests that the ambassador forward the envelope and the secrets therein to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

TIM TATE: He deliberately asked for his information and the potential contact to be with the FBI, and he did so because, so he said, his work had revealed to him that the CIA was hopelessly penetrated by Soviet bloc intelligence. So he said, “I will only deal with the FBI.” And for the next 33 months, he believed he was dealing with the FBI. Unfortunately, he wasn't.

NARRATOR: Agent Sniper was a Polish intelligence officer called Michal Goleniewski. If you don’t know that name, well, perhaps it’s time you learned it. 

TIM TATE: Goleniewski was probably the most important and valuable spy in the early- to mid-Cold War that the West ever had. He exposed in total 1,693 communist agents. Names, identities, locations, operations. He gave all that to the West. And yet, no one knew about him.

NARRATOR: If there’s a Zelig of Cold War espionage, it’s Michal Goleniewski. A posthumous CV enumerating all his successful spy hunts would include some of the most famous names and stories 20th century espionage has to offer. But despite that, Goleniewski was the victim of a bizarre act of deception - on the part of his handlers in the United States. If this is the first time you’re hearing Goleniewski’s name that might be why.

TIM TATE: To a very large extent, Michael Goleniewski has been airbrushed from history deliberately.

NARRATOR: Goleniewski’s story came to a strange and disturbing end in the 1990s. But to tell that tale, and to cast light on his overlooked contribution to Western intelligence, we’ve turned to someone who knows him better than just about anyone.

TIM TATE: My name is Tim Tate. I am an investigative journalist, a documentary filmmaker, and the author of, to date, 18 books.

NARRATOR: One of Tim Tate’s 18 books is a biography of Goleniewski. It was the culmination of many years of work, largely because the information Tim needed to write it proved elusive.

TIM TATE: What is undoubtedly true is that Michal Goleniewski was born in Poland in 1922 to an unremarkable Polish family. During the war, he appears to have worked for the German occupying forces, but after that, he joined the nascent Polish communist state and rose as an apparatchik through the ranks of its intelligence services.

NARRATOR: By the 1950s, Goleniewski held a senior post for the Polish intelligence agency [Urząd Bezpieczeństwa], or UB. But he also had another important job on the side.

TIM TATE: Working as the KGB postman in Warsaw. He was essentially tasked by the KGB in Moscow with keeping an eye on his official employers in the UB in Poland, and all of that gave him access to an absolute treasure trove of Soviet Bloc intelligence secrets.

NARRATOR: And you’ll note, as this story unfolds: secretive side projects are a bit of a theme in Goleniewski’s life.

TIM TATE: By the time the mid-'50s comes along, he is married to a woman he says is mentally unwell and who's making his life a misery. He's having a sexual relationship with another woman in Poland and he is conducting an affair, a passionate [affair]. I mean, it's a recipe for real mental turmoil. How do you keep all of those balls in play at the same time as doing a job that requires you to mount intelligence operations and uncover rival intelligence operations? It gives me a headache just thinking about it.

NARRATOR: As is the case with so many double agents, Goleniewski’s complex biography begs the question: What did he believe in? Was there any cause, or any person, to whom he was abidingly faithful? Those who knew him described Goleniewski as a highly competent professional, if exceedingly ambitious, and somewhat arrogant. If he was primarily motivated to succeed - well, he achieved that goal with flying colors. According to Tim, the communist system provided for Goleniewski rather handsomely for a long while. But in the late 1950s, it seems he began to see the relative strengths of democracy and to shift his political allegiance to the West. It was at this point that he wrote his message within a message and sent it to the American ambassador in Bern. And as for his personal allegiances?

TIM TATE: Who did he care about? From everything I found - and I trawled archives across the States and across Europe, as well as in Britain - I think one thing was absolutely clear. Goleniewski loved his mistress in East Berlin, a young woman called Irmgard Kampf.

NARRATOR: Goleniewski met Irmgard Kampf at a restaurant on one of his missions to East Germany shortly after posting his letter to the American ambassador in Bern. He was cautious at first, believing the 28-year-old “secretary” might in fact have been an agent of the secret police. He called himself Jan Roman and introduced himself as a Jewish journalist whose family had been murdered by the Nazis. But his suspicion was misplaced. Irmgard was indeed a secretary. By all accounts, and despite the fact that Goleniewski was married to someone else, she came to mean a great deal to him.

TIM TATE: That didn't mean he told her the truth. It didn't mean he wasn't an incredibly difficult man to be around. But in personal terms, as best as I can tell, he genuinely cared for and loved Irmgard Kampf.

NARRATOR: But Goleniewski stuck to his story. Even as their relationship progressed, he continued to withhold his true identity from his beloved. At the same time, Goleniewski was himself being deceived… not by a love interest, but by his new employers.

TIM TATE: The letter he had asked to be sent to J. Edgar Hoover was intercepted by the CIA. The CIA gets this. At the time, it was desperate for someone like Goleniewski. It had a huge intelligence gap. So human intelligence like Goleniewski was exactly what the CIA and the West needed.

NARRATOR: Goleniewski had made his extraordinary offer with one stipulation: that he be employed by the FBI, not the CIA. 

TIM TATE: Goleniewski knew that the CIA was penetrated and that if the wrong person, if you like, in the CIA, discovered that Polish intelligence and the KGB had a leak who was feeding their secrets to the West then he was in very real danger. 

NARRATOR: But, unwilling to pass up a golden opportunity, the Americans merely pretended to acquiesce. Agent Sniper’s one demand was ignored.

TIM TATE: And for the next three years, the CIA ran Goleniewski as an agent in place undercover in Poland under entirely false pretenses. They never said, “You're dealing with the CIA.” They pretended they were the FBI.

NARRATOR: Working from behind the Iron Curtain, Agent Sniper had no idea that his reports were going directly to the place he’d clearly stipulated they were not to go. Yet even believing that he was working for the FBI, Goleniewski protected himself in one crucial way. He never revealed his true identity to his handlers. For the nearly three years that he worked as an agent in place, the Polish spy was known only by his German code name. And true to his word, Goleniewski dished up some extraordinary intel.

TIM TATE: Among the 1,693 spies that Goleniewski exposed were some of the most senior and dangerous Soviet bloc spies operating undercover in the West. And to take them in no particular order, in Britain in the late 1950s, there was a spy ring. It's known as the Portland Spy Ring.

NARRATOR: The Portland spies were stealing highly classified underwater weapons research and other naval secrets and passing them along to the Soviets. 

TIM TATE: Goleniewski tips the west off. He provides enough detail for Harry Houghton, the primary Portland spy, to be identified. MI5 get on the trail.

NARRATOR: MI5 track down Houghton and his accomplice, and then they identify their handler, a man by the name of Konon Molody, one of the KGB’s most senior agents.

TIM TATE: Britain had never known this man existed. Never mind that he was running spies under our noses. And so they followed him. And that led them to two more spies. They'd been in Britain under false identities without anyone paying any attention to them for several years. And, bluntly, Britain had been asleep at the wheel. 

NARRATOR: You can hear more about the Portland Spy ring in our new sister podcast, A History Of The World In Spy Objects.

TIM TATE: Goleniewski's intelligence enables all of these people to be caught, arrested, tried, and convicted, and that's an enormous story in and of itself. But that's just one. 

NARRATOR: Goleniewski’s leads also identified KGB double agent George Blake, one of the most notorious figures in the history of British espionage.

TIM TATE: Moscow's man inside MI6. It was only because Goleniewski provided those leads and provided the intelligence which was used to break Blake at his interviews with MI6, that George Blake was caught and the hemorrhaging of British intelligence to Moscow via him was stopped.

NARRATOR: And that’s just what Goleniewski accomplished in the UK. He also made a massive impact across Europe.

TIM TATE: Goleniewski identified and exposed Stig Wennerström. Who’s Stig Wennerström? Well, Stig Wennerström was a senior Swedish Air Force colonel. That doesn't sound too bad, does it? Well, yes, it does, because Wennerström had access to all NATO secrets and US intelligence secrets, and had been feeding them to Moscow for more than two decades.

NARRATOR: Twenty years of leaks before Goleniewski came about and tightened the screws. And the intelligence victories went even beyond Europe.

TIM TATE: Then there was a man called Israel Beer. Israel Beer - probably not his real name - was at the heart of the Israeli cabinet. He had been a Soviet agent for more than 10 years. Only Goleniewski's intelligence put an end to that.

NARRATOR: Don’t forget, Agent Sniper was racking up all of these wins within a span of less than three years.

TIM TATE: But above all, if you want one single case that highlights how vital Michal Goleniewski's intelligence was, it's a man called Heinz Felfe. 

NARRATOR: Felfe had been working as a West German intelligence official for as long as West Germany existed. His work and seniority, naturally, gave him access to vast troves of classified material belonging to the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies.

TIM TATE: The little problem with this was that Heinz Felfe was a Soviet spy and had been all the way through. Goleniewski's intelligence was what put an end to that. And Felfe was, thankfully for the West, caught and arrested and jailed.

NARRATOR: Just like I said, an impressive CV. But there is just one problem with exposing mole after mole in the highest echelons of Western intelligence: it’s a bit of an embarrassment for the organizations that those moles penetrated. Goleniewski’s findings might have been invaluable to the likes of the CIA and MI6. But they weren’t anything those agencies would want to sing about from the rooftops.

TIM TATE: Particularly in that era, this was a very masculine trade. This was in many cases men with vast egos and almost untrammeled power on both sides of the Iron Curtain behaving in a way that they saw fit in the interests of the state, which they notionally served.

NARRATOR: In Washington, the unchecked power of one man in particular would imperil Michal Goleniewski. Regular listeners to True Spies will certainly know his name: James Jesus Angleton.

TIM TATE: James Angleton was the CIA's head of counterintelligence. By 1963, he had gained pretty much-untrammelled power within the CIA. He had walk-in privileges to the Director of Central Intelligence offices. It's a big thing. And he controlled almost all of the CIA's counterintelligence operations.

NARRATOR: But Angleton’s character, not just his concentration of power, held sway over his subordinates at the Agency. 

TIM TATE: He was a deeply secretive, horribly manipulative, and frankly, often dishonest senior intelligence officer. James Angleton was a very strange man indeed. He was professionally paranoid. And why wouldn't you be professionally paranoid? Your job is to be paranoid. Your job, as Angleton saw, was to be alert for and to suspect and then see plots, deceptions, every reflected, refracted image that could be seen in what he himself called a wilderness of mirrors. 

NARRATOR: Angleton had become convinced that the CIA had been penetrated by the KGB at the very highest levels. He also knew that the Agency had to be wary of ‘dangles’, or false offers of information from nefarious sources. Not everyone behind the Iron Curtain who promised to deliver valuable intelligence to the West could be trusted, of course.

TIM TATE: Angleton had been suspicious of Goleniewski from day one. He hadn't really wanted the agency to be involved.

NARRATOR: And as Sniper’s intelligence shed light on failures and oversights on the part of the CIA, Angleton accepted his work only grudgingly. It did not at all improve Sniper’s standing in his eyes. As you’ll soon learn, not everyone aroused Angleton’s suspicions. But if you were someone who did - and especially if you needed his protection - you could find yourself in a tricky situation just as Goleniewski did.

TIM TATE: Throughout those 33 months, he delivered an absolute cornucopia of intelligence. What he provided was top-grade intelligence, the best the West had had by that point in the Cold War. But he also knew he was on borrowed time.

NARRATOR: An agent in place is a dangerous thing to be. Goleniewski knew that it was only a matter of time before Polish intelligence and the KGB caught wind of the fact that someone was leaking secrets. At that point, Agent Sniper would want to be in another place entirely.

TIM TATE: He specifically warned his handlers, his Western handlers, in a letter after the first indications that he was going to be blown emerged. He said, “Please, please be careful because if you don't, I will end up being stood up against a wall and shot.” It's there in black and white. The warning he gave to the West. He pleaded with them to be careful. But they weren't. They just weren't.

NARRATOR: As 1960 draws to a close, Goleniewski has been at work for the CIA for nearly three years. But he’s also still clocking in each day to the UB, the Polish intelligence service, responsible to the KGB in Moscow.

TIM TATE: Believing all the time that he's dealing with the FBI, at some point he says to his handlers, anonymously, via letter or via microfilm, “There's a problem inside the American embassy in Warsaw.”

NARRATOR: Americans at the embassy have been compromised by Soviet intelligence, he reports. And they’ve also been caught in some compromising positions - ensnared in so-called “honeytraps”.

TIM TATE: It's a measure of how amateurish in many ways American intelligence was that instead of keeping this very safely compartmentalized, the information was farmed out across Washington, D.C., and it came back to the State Department, which is responsible for the embassy staff. The State Department, which Goleniewski had warned, compromised itself. Word began dribbling back through this channel to Polish intelligence that it had a leak. Simultaneously, word dribbled back to the KGB in Moscow that there was a leak.

NARRATOR: And so, naturally, Polish intelligence springs into action. They appoint a senior intelligence officer to spearhead the search for the double agent. 

TIM TATE: Unfortunately for Polish intelligence, the officer they tasked with investigating this leak was Michal Goleniewski, the man who was leaking it himself. But at that point, he knows the game is almost up.

NARRATOR: Goleniewski acquires a subminiature Minox camera and begins covertly photographing everything he can get his hands on. He also starts padding out his personal coffers with Western currency he pilfers directly from the UB. And he begins to make plans to defect. Because the moment he’s found out, he knows, he’ll be quite literally up against a wall. But there’s another reason he’s ready to head west.

TIM TATE: He's now in the throes of this passionate affair with Irmgard Kempf, the East German school secretary, and desperately wants to be with her. Indeed, he's promised to marry her. The fact that he's actually still married in Poland has apparently escaped his memory. But his masters in Polish intelligence are contacted by the East German secret police, the Stasi, who say, “Did you know that your spy is having this torrid affair with one of our citizens and is showering her with gifts and money which must come from you?”

NARRATOR: Suffice to say, Polish intelligence did not know.

TIM TATE: So they called Goleniewski in. They haul him over the coals, and make him write a vast mea culpa document which he uses to plead for tolerance, saying, “I love this woman. She loves me. I need to be with her.” Nope nope nope nope, says Polish intelligence. “It's over. You're done.” And they make plans, also, to sack him.

NARRATOR: But the higher-ups at the UB do make one concession for their lovelorn spy. They allow him to go to East Berlin and break it off with his mistress in person. While he’s there, he can tie up loose ends with his agents in Germany.

TIM TATE: And so on Christmas Day, 1960, he hightails it out of Poland to East Germany and he spends the next few days dodging his surveillance from East German secret police and from his masters in Polish intelligence, and trying to make contact and seeing Irmgard Kampf, and trying to prepare her for the fact that actually they're going to defect.

NARRATOR: Irmgard, mind you, still doesn’t know her boyfriend’s real name, much less that he’s a spy.

TIM TATE: Finally, he phones the emergency number he's been given, a defector line, and says, “This is Heckenschuetze. I'm coming in.”

NARRATOR: The Berlin Wall won’t be built for another few months, so Goleniewski and his mistress can make their way across the city without obstruction. But still, Goleniewski knows that the UB, the KGB, and the Stasi, could all be hot on their heels. The Americans know it, too, which is why they dispatch cars to patrol the street and send their senior spy handlers to the consulate to meet the defectors.

TIM TATE: They turn up at the embassy. They're met at the embassy. They're bundled inside. And they sat down. And he said, “Yes, I am Heckenschuetze. I am Sniper. I want to defect and I want political asylum, both for me and this lady with me.”

NARRATOR: The intelligence officials had no idea who Irmgard was. But never mind.

TIM TATE: They said, “Okay, yeah, we can do that. But you've got to tell us who you are.” They had no idea this man's real name. And he said, “Hm, that's a problem. Could you please take my lady friend out of the room?” “Well, yes. Okay.”

NARRATOR: A CIA officer waited with poor Irmgard in the corridor while her boyfriend came clean.

TIM TATE: Goleniewski finally said, “Okay, I'll tell you my real name. It's Michal Goleniewski. I'm a colonel in the UB. I am this, that, and the other. But please don't tell Irmgard because she doesn't know. And she doesn't know we're going to defect to the United States. And I think it may come as a bit of a shock. Please be careful, because it could be such a shock that her mental health could be destroyed forever.”

NARRATOR: One thing Golenewski doesn’t disclose is the fact that he’s already married to someone else, with three children. But, again - no matter. Golenwski’s main concern is not with his existing wife. It’s with Irmgard, and - so he claims - her mental health.

TIM TATE: I think discovering that the man you have given yourself to for 18 months and who has promised to marry you, discovering that he is not who he says he is, that he is not a nice, safe Polish journalist, but is, in fact, a senior Polish spy, I think that could really destabilize anyone's mental health.

NARRATOR: On the 5th of January, 1961, Goleniewski and Irmgard Kempf boarded a military plane and flew to Wiesbaden, just west of Frankfurt. There, amidst endless debriefings at the CIA’s Defector Reception Center, unspoken truths began to spill out. One of Goleniewski’s debriefers came clean to him as a CIA officer, not an FBI agent, a revelation to which the Polish spy did not respond happily. And Goleniewski finally took it upon himself to clue Irmgard in on his real identity - just in time to change it once more. Because in America, the couple would be known as Franz Oldenburg and Irmgard Henschel.

TIM TATE: What ensues is something that the CIA should be very, very ashamed of. Unfortunately, that's only the first of a succession of identities that they will use for him, and they will keep swapping between these identities. By the time everything began to fall apart, Goleniewski didn't know whether he was Franz Roman Oldenburg, another identity he'd been given for another safe house, or Michal Goleniewski. Essentially, the CIA appears to have played mind games with him.

NARRATOR: But why would the CIA want to play mind games with such a valuable asset? The answer might have something to do with yet another Soviet spy who defected to the West at around the same time. A man who’d won the favor of CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton.

TIM TATE: A man called Anatoliy Golitsyn. Golitsyn was frankly a con man. He had very little in the way of KGB secrets, but he blagged his way into the inner sanctum of the CIA and indeed MI5 in Britain. And he began, he gained access, via James Angleton, to all CIA files, intelligence files that he wanted to see, and from them, he constructed a vast, overarching conspiracy by the Soviet Union.

NARRATOR: Golitsyn said that the KGB was masterfully manipulating the West, with the help of fake defectors - in essence, everyone but him.

TIM TATE: The only true defector, he claimed, was himself. Anyone who had gone before and anyone who came after was, according to Golitsyn, a dangle or a provocation. In other words, a double bluff. A trick by the KGB. And that is what began causing Michal Goleniewski’s downfall.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, the UB in Poland has wised up to the fact that their longtime intelligence officer, sent to Berlin to tie up loose ends with his girlfriend, has vanished. 

TIM TATE: Panic ensues. They open Goleniewski’s office safe in Warsaw and discover all these papers have disappeared. They suddenly realize what damage has been caused and according to their own estimates, it put them and their Soviet masters back at least five years because they knew every agent, every network Goleniewski knew about in the West would be betrayed. And so telegrams go out from Moscow and from Warsaw, cables to agents and agents, runners saying, “You're at risk. You're going to be exposed.”

NARRATOR: There’s no punishing Goleniewski if they can’t find him anywhere. But Soviet leadership do their best to exact revenge. 

TIM TATE: So Goleniewski is tried in absentia by a Polish military court.

NARRATOR: This wasn’t a show trial. It was a tightly held secret. Only military judges weighed in on his case, and only senior military officers put forward evidence.

TIM TATE: And it reaches a single verdict. Guilty. And it condemns Goleniewski to death for his crimes. From that moment onward, Polish intelligence would dispatch agents to the United States to search for his whereabouts so that the death sentence could be carried out.

NARRATOR: Thousands of miles away, Goleniewski doesn’t know the details of what the UB has discovered or what the court has convicted him of. But from the moment he disappears from Europe, he presumes the worst. 

TIM TATE: Michael Goleniewski had been in the Soviet bloc intelligence services long enough to know that what happens to defectors and what happens to spies who betray their own country is death. The Soviet Union and Soviet intelligence had a long history of sending assassins out internationally to get rid of those people who had transgressed.

NARRATOR: But what Goleniewski doesn’t realize is just how much his support from the Americans has dwindled. Not, at least, until the spring of 1963.

TIM TATE: His intelligence is being slow-walked by his CIA handlers and he complains, “Look, why is nothing being done? Why are you slow-walking all this material I give you?” And his handlers say, “Yeah, I know, I'm really sorry. We're doing our best.”

NARRATOR: But the sluggishness on the part of the CIA is coming right from the top of the organization. Because by mid-1963, Golitsyn has James Angleton eating out of the palm of his hand.

TIM TATE: All that neglect, if you want, transforms by the end of 1963 into outright hostility from Goleniewski's CIA handlers. They confiscate his gun. They remove his pistol permit. They suspend him without pay. They put him on leave without pay. Crucially, he is denied health insurance benefits that came with his contract, and Irmgard develops first a breast tumor that needs surgery and then becomes pregnant.

NARRATOR: Michal Goleniewski is left out in the cold. And at the same time...

TIM TATE: Polish intelligence operatives are scouring the country, scouring the eastern seaboard of the US, tapping up every contact they could find to discover where the hell Goleniewski was so that they could kill him.

NARRATOR: According to Tim, all of this comes to a head in the early months of 1964.

TIM TATE: From there on they denounced him. They leaked information about him. They briefed against him. And they constantly switched his identities.

NARRATOR: Goleniewski had claimed that his first wife suffered from mental illness. And he’d kept secrets from Irmgard, to whom he was now bigamously married, arguing that the truth would destabilize her psychologically. Now, Tim argues, Goleniewski himself was the victim of mind games. That’s when his own mental health began to spiral. And, at the same time, that’s when he entered the public eye.

TIM TATE: The New York Journal American publishes what is frankly a sensational story of Goleniewski, this defector, this brave man who has come to the West, who was fed all this intelligence, and yet, is being kept away from Congressional committees and his intelligence, which points to ‘Reds’, as they called it, inside government departments, is being suppressed. Suddenly, Goleniewski, who has kept a completely hidden profile until this point, has been outed and begins very genuinely to worry for his own safety.

NARRATOR: Goleniewski is broke. His wife needs medical help. His family is growing and his employer has kicked him to the curb. Polish intelligence is out for his life. Now he’s fully vulnerable on the public stage. Under pressure, Goleniewski makes a gambit that will seal his fate in the court of public opinion.

TIM TATE: At the time, there was what you might call Romanov fever in the United States and throughout the West. The supposed romance of the last Tsar and his family in Russia, who were assassinated by the Bolsheviks in 1918, was big business. It was ‘box office’ in the US and the West at the time. But their bodies had never been found and there were constant pretenders cropping up to the Russian imperial throne saying, “Oh yeah, I'm one of the surviving children,” or, “I'm one of the surviving relatives, and you didn't know about me, but here I am.”

NARRATOR: Some of the people who claimed to be lost Romanovs wound up becoming overnight celebrities. What’s more, it was widely believed that Tsar Nicholas had kept millions of dollars in Western banks - money that would presumably one day go to a rightful heir. One can see how it might be appealing to a man in dire straights to lay claim to a vast family fortune. Goleniewski seized onto the fantasy and dragged his family into it along with him. Most notably: his newborn daughter.

TIM TATE: She was christened as Tatiana Romanov. When Goleniewski married Irmgard again for the second time, still bigamously in the United States, he was married by the most senior priest of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia in the name Alexei Romanov. He backs himself into this Romanov fantasy out of greed and thereafter can't get out of it.

NARRATOR: On the 10th of August, 1964, Goleniewski makes an appearance on a local radio station in New York, with the gambit that will ultimately become his undoing.

TIM TATE: That's when he first goes public claiming to be Alexei Romanov, the miraculously surviving son of the last tzar of Russia who has come to America not just to expose spies, but to seek the long-lost and fabled Romanov imperial fortune. The transcript of that interview is eye-watering. You can hear through the pages of this old radio show transcript the host not quite believing his ears, and he says, “I don't know whether this is true. It's either the scoop or the century or I'm being gulled. But here we go.”

NARRATOR: After that, Goleniewski only leans into the claim further, and begins speaking with a newspaper journalist about his bogus backstory. And the more he talks, the more he seems to convince himself. 

TIM TATE: He has, by the mid to late 60s, absolutely convinced himself that he is Alexei Romanov. He has lived this fantasy for so long now that he's become Alexei Romanov in his own mind. It literally spins out of control for a decade, in which he knocks around with some of the craziest elements of right-wing America - the John Birch Society, the bogus offshoots of the Knights of Malta - and he is peddling an increasingly bizarre fantasy of a global conspiracy. The man went mad. Did he go mad on his own? No, I don't think he did. I think the CIA helped push him there. But did he bear a great deal of responsibility for his own insanity? Oh, God. Yes.

NARRATOR: And that, in essence, is how the extraordinary story of Michal Goleniewski comes to a strange, sputtering end. As the former spy succumbed to mental illness, so, too, did he retreat from public awareness. Even Tim knows little about the twilight of Goleniewski’s life.

TIM TATE: There's an old saying in my business, “The absence of evidence is not evidence.” Except in this case, it kind of is. I searched high and low for Goleniewski's death notices. I know when he died and I know where he died. He died in a hospital in New York in 1993, though the exact date is a bit more squirrelly, but nowhere and nowhere under any of the numerous identities he either adopted or was assigned can I find a death certificate, a grave notice, an obituary - nothing. The man simply disappears from history, without so much as a paragraph recording his death.

NARRATOR: But Tim did find one important part of Goleniewski’s legacy. He found his daughter, Tatiana.

TIM TATE: I tracked her down, found where she lived, and found her phone numbers. And I made every effort to get her to talk to me because I was fascinated to try and know more about Goleniewski the man, her father. She refused every approach I made until the end when I finally, despairing of any other way, rang her cell phone. She said, “Please don't call me again.” And you know, I've been a journalist for 40-odd years. I haven't heard anxiety and fear in someone's voice like that for a long time.

NARRATOR: Tatiana has changed her name. She’s made it clear she wants nothing to do with this story. And though Tim has moved on to other projects, other books, he’s left wanting more when it comes to Goleniewski - not the superspy, but the man, the husband, the father. 

TIM TATE: I have a particular beef about spy stories, and it's that whether we've seen too much James Bond or Jason Bourne or all of this stuff, they're invested with a false glamor. We kind of want the roulette wheel and the svelte creature draped over the card table, and a dry martini, shaken or stirred, depending on your taste. The reality, as Goleniewski shows, is so much more banal and so much more viscerally dangerous than any of this nonsense. These are real people with real lives, and real lives are messy. 

NARRATOR: You can learn more about Michal Goleniewski in Tim Tate’s book Agent Sniper, sold in the UK as The Spy Who Was Left Out in the Cold. I’m Rhiannon Neads. Join us next week for another liaison with True Spies.

Guest Bio

Tim Tate is a journalist and the author of 18 books including Agent Sniper. He has also won multiple awards for his documentary films and has been honored by the Royal Television Society, UNESCO, the New York Festivals, and others.

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