Operation Inter

Operation Inter

In the late 1980s, change is in the air in Eastern Europe. For a young journalist like Mark Baker, Czechoslovakia is an interesting place to be. But Mark has attracted some unwanted attention - a fact that he'll only discover several decades later. Sophia Di Martino joins Mark to travel through the True Spies looking-glass, and discover what it's like to become the target of a recruitment effort by an intelligence agency - whether you know it or not.
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True Spies, Episode 168 - Operation Inter

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 Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies from SPYSCAPE Studios.

MARK BAKER: He said, “This is the gist of your file. They wanted to recruit you as a Czechoslovak agent. They gave you the code name ‘Inter’. The plan was to try to blackmail you into cooperation by introducing you to a Slovak agent named Ina.”

NARRATOR: Operation Inter. Czechoslovakia, 1989. A dour, beige building spans the length of a city block on Bartholomew Street in downtown Prague. They call it The Tile Factory thanks to its gridlike facade. But that’s a rather innocuous nickname given what goes on inside. Namely, beatings. Imprisonment. Torture by electrocution. There’s something in the air in Central Europe. The political winds are changing direction everywhere from Warsaw, to East Berlin, to Budapest. The final months of 1989 would soon become known as the Autumn of Nations - the last gasps of communism in Europe. But inside the Tile Factory, the Czechoslovak Secret Police are stubbornly clinging to power. And as if their world isn’t crumbling around them, they are in the midst of an audacious campaign, a top-secret project called Operation Oheň.

MARK BAKER: Operation Oheň - the word oheň is Czech. It means fire. So Operation Fire was a Czechoslovak covert operation to infiltrate US interests - embassies but also clubs and banks, companies in Europe. 

NARRATOR: Czechoslovakia’s secret police were desperate to break into one particular locale: the US Embassy in Vienna. They were targeting embassy staff, but also people believed to be in contact with staff members. And it wasn’t going well.

MARK BAKER: Operation Oheň's file was long. It talked about all the people with code names that had been tried to be recruited for this operation, and some of the steps that they were planning to take in 1988, in 1989 - so about the time that I come into the picture - to try to get this operation going. And by July of 1989, my name was already being mentioned in conjunction with Operation Oheň.

NARRATOR: How would it feel to read about yourself as if you were a character in a novel? Learning that many years ago, your every move had been watched, recorded, and filed away?

MARK BAKER: When you find out that you have a file and you don't really know the contents yet, or you don't know the full amount of the contents, there are a lot of mixed feelings and there's a kind of ‘Why me?’ aspect to it. It's not a feeling of guilt necessarily, but there is a kind of feeling of naivete. Maybe it feels a little bit like embarrassment. I don't know. There are a lot of funny feelings. 

NARRATOR: If you’re a regular listener to True Spies, you’ve probably heard a lot of talk about recruiting assets. You may have learned a thing or two about how spies assess their targets, develop them, and finally, make the ask. But it’s a rare thing to hear from the potential recruit himself. This week’s true spy was one such target. After the fall of communism, 30 years passed before he learned that his every move had once been carefully monitored and his entire psychology once distilled down to a single, unflattering paragraph. But what he discovered in early 2022 made him look back on those heady final days of the ‘80s in an entirely different light.

MARK BAKER: My name is Mark Baker. I'm a travel writer for Central and Eastern Europe. I went to graduate school in New York City and after I graduated I got a job to come to Vienna in July of 1986.

NARRATOR: There’s a lot of right-place-right-time in Mark Baker’s story. Or, depending on how you look at it, right-place-wrong-time. Mark had a degree in Central and Eastern European studies. He wanted to work in Europe but opportunities for Americans in Europe’s East were limited.

MARK BAKER: This was the mid-80s, so still under communism. There were really no jobs outside the State Department and a couple of NGOs. And I was offered a job for a small publishing outfit called Business International. They had an office in Manhattan and they had a regional office in Vienna.

NARRATOR: If you’ve ever been to Vienna, you might be imagining the opera houses, the palaces, the museums. Of course, all of that has been around for hundreds of years. But according to Mark, in the last days of the Cold War, the Austrian capital had a very different feel.

MARK BAKER: It's funny now. Vienna is seen as one of the top 10 places to live in the world. High standard of living and all that stuff. But the Vienna that I moved to in the mid-1980s was very different. It felt very cut off from Western Europe. It felt very neutral, somewhere between east and west. It was kind of gray. It was obviously doing much better than cities like Bratislava or Prague in Eastern Europe, but it was not the prosperous city that we know today. 

NARRATOR: Austria had been occupied by both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union for ten years after the Second World War. In 1955, the country was made a sovereign state. But the Soviet influence still lingered, and so did the climate of intrigue.

MARK BAKER: The company that I worked for, Business International, had our offices in Vienna's Third District, which was part of the Soviet Occupation Zone after World War II. My boss at Business International was a retired army captain. We would walk out for lunch and he would say, “Now that's a place where so-and-so meets. That's the place where the Russians like to go. That's the place where the Chinese like to go.” It was interesting like that.

NARRATOR: Mark was one of about 10 journalists working at Business International’s Vienna headquarters, reporting on the Eastern Bloc for an audience of international business people. And he was no babe in the woods. He was keenly aware he was surrounded by spies. And in case your suspicions were raised by the rather generic name Business International - no, Mark’s company wasn’t a front organization for the CIA. At least, not as far as he was aware. 

MARK BAKER: I was aware of that spy world that was going on around me but I had no feeling that I was actually part of it at all. I really felt like what we were doing was legitimate journalism. We were reporting on economic and business developments that were happening in the Eastern Bloc, helping Western companies to try to sell their goods into the Eastern Bloc.

NARRATOR: Each reporter at the company was assigned a different country in the Communist Bloc. By luck of the draw, Mark was made responsible for Czechoslovakia which meant he’d spend a lot of time traveling to the Czech and Slovak capitals.

MARK BAKER: Which was fine by me. I love Prague. Bratislava’s interesting. There are a lot of things to see and do in this country. But I was completely unprepared to cover this country as a journalist.

NARRATOR: No matter. He’d have help along the way.

MARK BAKER: Business International hired - as they did in several of the other countries - local people on the ground who would help us to arrange our trips. 

NARRATOR: In journalistic parlance, these people are called ‘fixers’. People who coordinate assistance on the ground, secure paperwork, find translators, that sort of thing. Mark’s fixer was a Czech man named Arnold.

MARK BAKER: He was a man of about 60 years old. He spoke excellent English with a slight British accent. I learned later, as a boy he had grown up in the UK. He also spoke perfect German. He told me that he had been a very enthusiastic communist in the 1960s and in 1968 when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia, led by the Soviet Union, he and many other communist believers were tossed out of their jobs for supporting the reforms that the Soviet Union wanted to put down.

NARRATOR: Those reforms brought political and economic liberalization to the country during the Prague Spring in 1968. The changes were carried out under Czechoslovakia’s communist leadership, who called their approach “socialism with a human face”. But the reforms were frowned upon by the Kremlin. And late one night in August of 1968, 2,000 Soviet tanks rolled into Prague bringing the Prague Spring to a sudden halt. It made sense, then, that Arnold, who had supported the reforms, would have an unconventional job outside the highly conservative Czechoslovak mainstream. 

MARK BAKER: It sounds naive in retrospect, but I didn't suspect that he was an agent or a collaborator with the Czechoslovak Secret Police. Of course, we couldn't rule that out. I had that in the back of my mind, but I didn't act with him like I would an agent from the other side. And I realized that if I wanted to learn about the country, I needed people like Arnold to help me to understand the culture and the economy, politics, and all that stuff.

NARRATOR: So 23-year-old Mark and 60-something Arnold became - not friends, exactly. They didn’t have all that much in common. But Mark liked the guy which was a good thing, because they spent a lot of time together.

MARK BAKER: He would pick me up at the train station when I would take the train up from Vienna to Prague. It was about five hours plus at least an hour on the border where they checked everything. And then he would take me to my hotel and hang around if I wanted to have a drink if it was still early in the evening. We wanted to get a bite or have a drink in the lobby or something like that. And then he would pick me up the next day right after breakfast, maybe eight or nine in the morning. And then we would start our day and he would drive me from meeting to meeting. I just thought he was being a good colleague, hanging out with me, making sure I had somebody to talk to and didn't get too lonely or something like that. Uh, no. 

NARRATOR: Not quite, Mark. Still - nothing overtly alarming happened in the years Mark worked with Arnold. Nothing, in particular, raised his antenna. In 1989, communism fell in Czechoslovakia and a couple of years later he left the job and started a new chapter in his life none the wiser.

MARK BAKER: I moved to Prague in 1991. I left Vienna. I left Business International. I left a lot of that life behind and I left Arnold behind.

NARRATOR: The years passed. Czechoslovakia split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both countries went on to join the European Union, grew wealthier, and modernized. Mark became a travel writer. Life went on devoid of intrigue. But in 2015, he got a blast from the past.

MARK BAKER: I was sitting at home in my apartment in Prague and I opened up my computer and I was thinking, “Whatever happened to my old colleagues back at Business International? What about Arnold? Whatever happened to Arnold?”

NARRATOR: You know how it goes: a little online snooping on people from your past. Call it ‘open-source intelligence gathering’. We’ve all done it.

MARK BAKER: And then I scrolled through the search results and I found something, a report that was written by the Prague Institute of Military History on Arnold, on my colleague Arnold. And the title of the report was his name, Arnold K.: Journalist and Collaborator With the Czechoslovak Secret Police. 

NARRATOR: Nearly 30 years on, all those dinners and drinks together didn’t seem so chummy after all.

MARK BAKER: I learned so many things about Arnold that I had never known before, and I realized, “Oh my God. Huh. Arnold wasn't just a fixer. Arnold wasn't just helping me, but obviously, Arnold had a different agenda.”

NARRATOR: Some of what Arnold had told Mark checked out. He had been a communist. He had lost his job after the Warsaw Pact invasion. 

MARK BAKER: But what he didn't tell me is that he had staged a remarkable political comeback. And by the 1980s, he was a very well-respected collaborator and informant with the Czechoslovak Secret Police and was in charge of working with foreign media outlets like Business International

NARRATOR: Sitting there at his computer in his Prague apartment, Mark has one revelation after another.

MARK BAKER: If Arnold has a file, then I'm definitely in Arnold's file. And then if Arnold has a file and I'm in that file, then I have a file. And then if I have a file, what is actually in that file?

NARRATOR: By then, Mark had made a name for himself in Prague. He’d positioned himself as an international expert on the region. But he worried that unbeknown to him, his longtime fixer had dragged his name through the mud three decades prior.

MARK BAKER: I was very confident that I didn't do anything crazy when I was here. I certainly didn't make any deals or deliver letters or anything like that. I don't break any laws, that kind of thing. But these are not objective pieces of record. It's not like some impassioned observer was writing down what you did. These are embellished. These files can be manipulated. There can be a lot of stuff in there, and it really depends on how the observer sees you and also what the purpose of that observation is.

NARRATOR: Mark had a right to know the truth. Many thousands of secret police files were destroyed immediately after the fall of communism. But thousands of others remained intact. And under Czech law, people who were surveilled by the Czechoslovak Secret Police have the right to access the information that was collected on them. Mark applied for permission to view his file from the Czech Security Forces Archive.

MARK BAKER: They came back to me and said, “Mr. Baker, you have no file.” It was so weird.

NARRATOR: No file? Here was an American guy who had entered Czechoslovakia a dozen different times in the late ‘80s assisted by one of the secret police’s most trusted informants. Could it really be possible there was nothing on him?

MARK BAKER: I made a couple of requests to the archives over the years - if I had a file. And each time I was told that I did not. I, in the back of my mind, I didn't actually believe them, I had to accept it. Maybe I really didn't have a file.

NARRATOR: And so, Mark let it go for a while.

MARK BAKER: When the pandemic came. I had a lot of time on my hands. So I decided to write a book about the 1980s and the 1990s. I told a lot of stories about traveling to Prague and Bratislava, about all the times that I suspected that I was being followed by the Czechoslovak StB.

NARRATOR: The StB: that’s the Czechoslovak Secret Police.

MARK BAKER: About Arnold, of course, there's a big chapter about him in the book. And in the book I explicitly say that although the stories I tell here are true to the best of my knowledge, I don't think I had a surveillance file myself.

NARRATOR: Then, at the very end of 2021, Mark was back home in Ohio visiting family when he got an email that changed everything.

MARK BAKER: An academic for the Institute of Military History wrote to me that if you do an update of your book, you might want to refresh a little bit of the information. I went into the archives on your behalf and I found that you actually do have a file and it's crazy. 

NARRATOR: Well, that made Mark sit up in his chair.

MARK BAKER: He said, “This is the gist of your file. They wanted to recruit you as a Czechoslovak agent. They gave you the code name ‘Inter’. The plan was to try to blackmail you into cooperation by introducing you to a Slovak agent named Ina, an attractive female agent in a Bratislava hotel room, entrap you, and maybe use that to bring you on board to work with the Czechoslovak StB as an agent.”

NARRATOR: And that was that. The academic wished Mark a ‘Happy Christmas’ and told him he’d see him soon. 

MARK BAKER: And then he attached a couple of surveillance photos that they had taken of me in 1989. There I am standing, walking around with Arnold, in a grainy black-and-white photo. So it was true. They were really trying to do that. 

NARRATOR: Another photo was of a handwritten note in Mark’s handwriting.

MARK BAKER: Gabrielle, I'm really sorry that I can't make it tonight. Let me know if you ever pass through Vienna.

NARRATOR: Over 32 years had passed since Mark wrote that short note. But he knew exactly who the letter was for. 

MARK BAKER: I'd completely forgotten about it. And then to see those words come back, it really made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

NARRATOR: It’s January 2022, in historic downtown Prague. Medieval spires pierce the winter sky. Inset like a gem along the river, the National Theater glitters gold in the morning light. But just around the corner, Mark Baker is paying a visit to a more unassuming address. Unlike its neighbors, the Security Forces Archive offers little in the way of architectural achievement. It inhabits an unremarkable gray building caked in years of soot and grime. Fitting, perhaps, for an office that houses the remnants of an unsavory chapter in Czech history. Let’s have Mark give us the grand tour. 

MARK BAKER: You show your ID. You're whisked upstairs to the reading room. Looks like a very small library room in a small city or something. You're not allowed to bring any personal effects into the room. You are allowed to bring in your telephone. You can take photographs of the pages in your file. In my own file, I had a pile of dusty yellowing pages from the 1980s and a flash drive with hundreds of other pages on it, maybe 1,000 pages on it.

NARRATOR: To be clear, there’s a big difference between having no file and having one that’s hundreds of pages long. Sitting there in the archive, Mark learned that he wasn’t just being watched. It was more than that. 

MARK BAKER: Oheň was part of my file. That was part of the digitized things, part of the hundreds of pages that didn't seem to have anything to do particularly with me. 

NARRATOR: As we discovered at the start of this episode, Operation Oheň was the StB’s last-ditch attempt to infiltrate American businesses and embassies abroad. They hoped to do so with the help of people like Mark. 

MARK BAKER: I had never heard of it before at all. I knew nothing about it. And when I saw my file for the first time, that's when I realized, “Ah, they want me for Operation Oheň.”

NARRATOR: But why Mark? Surely there were more powerful people with access to more secrets that the StB could recruit.

MARK BAKER: I had no idea why they were interested in me, aside from I was just a Western journalist coming in. Of course they're going to want to write about what I was doing and make sure I don't pass any books or letters to dissidents or something like that. But beyond that, why were they interested in me? And then that's when I found out.

NARRATOR: The details began to unfold over the course of two hours, as Mark sat in the reading room of the archive thumbing through his file and taking photos of the most important documents. He later enlisted the help of a specialist translator who was able to decode the alphabet soup of acronyms employed by the secret police. Mark learned that it all began in the summer of 1988 when he entered the country for the very first time to take a Czech language class. But things began to heat up a few months later.

MARK BAKER: At the end of ‘88 and the beginning of ‘89, you can see that there's some activity in my file. They send a message to the Czechoslovak Embassy in Vienna. Every time I apply for a visa to come to Czechoslovakia they want to know about it. And then they start to do these, kind of, psychological profiles of me. So obviously there's somebody watching me or filming me or listening to my phone calls.

NARRATOR: The StB gathered information on Mark during his business trips. He often stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel - presumably, that’s how he got the code name Inter. Over time, the secret police compiled a profile of Mark summarizing what they knew about him, or what they thought they knew. 

MARK BAKER: ‘He's emotional at times but tends to be reserved in his personal relations. He has an eye for attractive women but doesn't get many. It's obvious that sex will be a vulnerable aspect of Inter’s psyche. He's not pleased with all areas of his life and perhaps we can exploit this, but he has a good work ethic. With proper handling, in time, he may prove to be a valuable asset.’

NARRATOR: Imagine having someone else’s perception of you laid out on paper in such austere, unflattering terms. Your goals, your motivations, and your vulnerabilities, all reduced to a single, succinct paragraph like a character description in a screenplay. Mark says his profile wasn’t just uncomplimentary. It was inaccurate too. But true or not, the vulnerability of the young American was key to Operation Inter’s success.

MARK BAKER: That set the stage for the whole operation. They had tunnel vision, basically. That's like, “That's how we're going to get this guy and we're going to set up an operation to snare him in this way.”

NARRATOR: As the months passed, the StB kept an eye on Mark. According to the documents, they were unsure whether Business International was a front organization for American intelligence. 

MARK BAKER: So in April or May, they make a decision to elevate me from a person of interest to an actual targeted individual - somebody that they really want to vet, they want to surveil very closely, and then at some point, they're going to make an approach for cooperation.

NARRATOR: Remember, the secret police want to get their tentacles into American embassies and businesses in Europe and it’s not going so well.

MARK BAKER: Operation Oheň at this time is failing. They have never breached the US Embassy in Vienna and that's their target objective, number one. The Czechoslovaks are frustrated.

NARRATOR: The director of the StB operation in Vienna is under fire from his higher-ups in Prague. They want him to find a way into the American Embassy, to start developing contacts and funneling valuable intelligence out to the Czechoslovak Secret Police. Around that time, scrutiny of Mark intensifies.

MARK BAKER: One of the things that they needed to know for sure, for 100 percent certainty, is that I was not a working agent with Western Intelligence, they were completely unsure about Business International. They really didn't know. They didn't think I was a CIA agent. They were pretty reasonably sure because they had observed me and in my observations. It is written in my file that I don't show any outward sign of any professional training or anything like that, but they had to be completely sure. So one way that they wanted to do that is to observe me for one full day, from waking up in the morning to at night. A minute-by-minute surveillance. It's written in the file that they wanted to do this because they wanted to be sure that I didn't meet up with any known dissidents and try to exchange materials or make contacts in any way like that.

NARRATOR: Was Mark really just an American journalist in Vienna, reporting on life behind the Iron Curtain? The StB wanted to know for sure before they went in for recruitment. So, that’s what they set out to learn on June 29th, 1989 - the best-documented day of Mark’s life.

MARK BAKER: It was like, 7:02 am wakes up in his room, 808, at the Hotel Intercontinental in Prague; 8:37 am goes down to breakfast; eats this kind of breakfast; returns back to his room at 9:15 am; appears in the lobby. 

NARRATOR: Really scintillating stuff.

MARK BAKER: It's all laid out like that. It's pages and pages long of the most useless material you can possibly imagine.

NARRATOR: Only in the movies does target assessment make for glamorous work. 

MARK BAKER: I owe the StB a kind of debt of gratitude because that date, June 29th, 1989, would be forever lost to me for all time. But now I have a minute-by-minute record of exactly where I was and what I was wearing, what the color of my shoes were, what the color of the shoes were of all the people around me.

NARRATOR: In hindsight, the StB’s approach seems almost reckless. If they had attempted to recruit a CIA officer - well, that would put information in the hands of a much more powerful intelligence agency. But Mark’s terribly boring day seemed to give the StB the answers they wanted. Inter was very likely just a journalist as he claimed. They could slowly - and safely - make their approach.

MARK BAKER: And then the file goes cold for several months until early November. I had to fly home at short notice and I spent several months at home, so that's probably why the big gap. But, that summer of 1989 was a very transitional year in the history of Central and Eastern Europe. Hungary and Poland had already begun the reform movement in a sense. Poland had had semi-free elections and Hungary had started to cut down the Iron Curtain. So those countries were moving outside of the Eastern Bloc. On the other hand, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia were called the ‘hard-line’ regimes.

NARRATOR: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was pushing for economic and social reforms - changes that countries like Czechoslovakia were resisting. That created tension within the Bloc. And that tension only grew in the second half of 1989. The next time Mark returned to Prague, in November, the scene had been set for revolution.

MARK BAKER: It was crazy. Poland and Hungary were moving firmly away from the communist camp. The regime in East Germany was desperate to hold on. Czechoslovakia was run by a bunch of old men who were way behind the times and they were very, very nervous. Ceaușescu în România was a crazy man, basically, and willing to do anything to stay in power. But of course, the populations sensed the fact that probably whatever happened there wasn't going to be any type of military invasion from the Soviet Union to support the hardliners.

NARRATOR: In other words, people understood that the tide was turning. In places like East Berlin, they were spilling out into the streets and demonstrating for change. They were spilling out into Czechoslovakia, too.

MARK BAKER: People were escaping East Germany and coming to Prague and getting on special buses and trains to go to West Germany. So, on that trip, when I was in Prague in early November, there were hundreds, thousands of East Germans in Prague waiting for their special visas to get on the bus to go to West Germany to start their new lives. 

NARRATOR: It was hard for the people of Prague to wrap their heads around what was happening. Not just because it was a massive historical change, but because at that point, the Czechoslovak government was still populated with hard-line communists. Could change really happen under staunchly pro-Soviet leadership?

MARK BAKER: My editors in Vienna said, “Get to Prague. See what's going on up there. See if there's gonna be a revolution over there anytime soon. See what you can learn on the ground.” And that's what I did.

NARRATOR: Mark arrived on November 5. According to his secret police file, that was the official start of Operation Inter. Of course, Inter himself was too preoccupied to worry that he was being spied on. He had reporting to do. And he made a little time to socialize, too.

MARK BAKER: I happened to run into a solo traveler from the United States, an American from Chicago named Gabrielle. So I thought, “It's fantastic, I have somebody to hang out with, not just Arnold. We can go get beers together, have a drink, or something like that.”

NARRATOR: The two young Americans watched the madness unfold around them together. But their friendship was cut short when Mark had a sudden change of plans.

MARK BAKER: On the last day of my trip, we had planned to meet for some reason, and I couldn't make it. I guess I was gonna have dinner with Arnold, and I couldn't break that plan. So I scribbled out a note in the hotel. Gabrielle, I'm really sorry that I can't make it tonight. Let me know if you ever pass through Vienna. And I asked the hotel receptionist to put it in her mailbox.

NARRATOR: Mark figured the receptionist would pass the note along to his friend, not that it would wind up in the hands of the secret police. And certainly not that he’d see it again, 30 years hence. Arnold picked him up from the hotel, and the two men set out for Bratislava. 

MARK BAKER: The StB employed a technique called ‘blocking’ at the time. Aspects of other operations are blocked from certain agents, so some agents know something about something, but they don't know everything about everything. At least from what I can tell from my file. Arnold only knew that he was to bring me to Bratislava but he had no idea why he was bringing me to Bratislava.

NARRATOR: Little did Mark know, the StB were eagerly anticipating his arrival.

MARK BAKER: The plan was for us to stay at a hotel in Bratislava called the Devin. And we would check in at the hotel. And my room would be outfitted with all kinds of special audio and video equipment courtesy of the Eslava branch of the Czechoslovak Secret Police. And then Arnold and I would go to dinner in the hotel restaurant. 

NARRATOR: A nice place, by today’s standards and those of late-80s Czechoslovakia. Wood-paneled walls. Chandeliers. A cozy, kind of mid-century vibe. 

MARK BAKER: And at some point, a Slovak agent with a code name Ina, I-N-A, would approach our table or make some small talk or find some excuse to come and talk with us. And Arnold or I would invite her to stay at the table and have dinner and have a drink and all the magic would presumably happen from there.

NARRATOR: All the magic? What, exactly, was the plan? Mark’s file laid out all the inconceivable details.

MARK BAKER: They would introduce me to this Slovak agent in Bratislava. And I would be so taken with this person that we would continue our relationship into the future. Probably like a pen pal or a call or something like that. She lived in Bratislava. I lived in Vienna. It wasn't very far away. And the relationship would grow and eventually, I would bring her over to Vienna to be with me. And there's even a line in the file something like, “In the best circumstance, Ina will move to Vienna to be with Inter as his partner or his wife.” They were arranging a kind of sleeper wife for me.

NARRATOR: This wasn’t just a honey trap. It was a full-on setup. If the StB had had its way, Operation Inter would have ended in marriage. Never mind that Mark already had a girlfriend back home in Vienna. But Operation Inter didn’t go according to plan. Mark spent the night in Bratislava alone. He doesn’t even remember being approached by a young woman. He didn’t make a new pen pal, much less meet his future wife. And beyond the borders of Czechoslovakia, history was changing too quickly for the StB to keep up.

MARK BAKER: When I got to Vienna, arrived at my house, my girlfriend was in my apartment and she was listening to the radio and she's like, “I can't believe what's going on. Can you believe this?”

NARRATOR: The Berlin Wall had fallen.

MARK BAKER: It was just euphoric. It was beyond euphoric; it's hard to describe that emotion. It was just amazing. 

NARRATOR: The Berlin Wall was the first domino. After that, totalitarianism came toppling down in country after country in Europe’s east.

MARK BAKER: Just eight days later, the start of Czechoslovakia's own anti-communist revolution would begin on November 17.

NARRATOR: Call it stubbornness. Call it wishful thinking. The StB operatives working to entrap Mark had willingly looked away from the changes happening both east and west of them. But Mark’s file indicates: at some point, they finally realized they had to cut their losses.

MARK BAKER: On my file, on the pages that are dealing with what they call Operation Inter, somebody has written in pen across the top Nerealizovano, and it means in Czech ‘unrealized’ or ‘not realized’. What it means is that the operation was either called off at the last minute or didn't succeed for whatever reason.

NARRATOR: What made them finally throw in the towel? Maybe something failed to go according to plan on Mark’s business trip. Maybe the StB’s attention was diverted elsewhere. Maybe it was called off after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened the night the operative Ina was sent to charm him at the Bratislava hotel. 

MARK BAKER: The craziest thing about the whole story for me is the timing. Not only are these guys in the StB still fooling around with recruiting agents but so late in the game. I mean, literally on the day that they tried to recruit me, the Berlin Wall fell. I mean, you have to be blind not to see what was going on. And it shows me that they were so focused on their goals, that they were not actually thinking about the wider political situation.

NARRATOR: After Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, Mark’s life began to change at a rapid clip, too.

MARK BAKER: After 1989, there was no reason to stay in Vienna if you were interested in this part of the world because the real action was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain, like Budapest or Prague, or Warsaw. So it's very natural to sit in Vienna and think, “I came here to watch these revolutions, now I really have to get in there and get close up.”

NARRATOR: Mark still lives in Prague today. He’s working on an English translation of his Czech-language book Time of Changes, happy to be living in a democratic country, happy he’s no longer being watched. Hopefully.

MARK BAKER: I love a good John le Carré or Graham Greene or whatever, but it's another thing to find out that you were actually going to be one of the main characters in one of these books.

NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next week as we explore the unlikely origins of a Transatlantic investigation that took down a ring of Nazi spies.

Guest Bio

Mark Baker is a freelance journalist, travel writer, and author, based in Prague. He has lived in the Czech Republic, New York, and Vienna.

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