The Swinging Spies

The Swinging Spies

Karel 'Karl' Koecher always knew he was destined for greatness. At the height of the Cold War, he arrived in New York City - a Communist sleeper agent, hell-bent on infiltrating the highest echelons of American society. And with the help of his beautiful young wife, the American dream was well within reach. Sophia Di Martino and author Benjamin Cunningham tell the story of two glamorous Czech spies in swinging NYC - charting their unlikely rise and inevitable fall from grace.
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True Spies, Episode 190: The Swinging Spies

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.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: When you're living this intense life of living a lie, there is some sense that it's some outlet, right? So, much as there's anything in the public sphere about them, the ‘swinging spies legend’ is what circulates, and they certainly were that. They were spies. They just liked to party. 

NARRATOR: The Swinging Spies.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: So the trade happens in winter 1986 in Berlin. The Glienicke Bridge, often called the Bridge of Spies.

NARRATOR: On a crisp Berlin morning, a crowd gathers for an old favorite of Cold War theater. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: It's a snowy dramatic setting. There's a line in the middle of the bridge that divides East and West Germany, and they shovel the snow off of that line so you can see it when you cross it. 

NARRATOR: This is a performance that, by 1986, has become familiar to the players on either side of this stage. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: There's this amazing Cold War character, Wolfgang Vogel, an East German lawyer, who was like the main broker for many, many years of East-West spy trades. He drives a gold Mercedes.

NARRATOR: Journalists and photographers hop from foot to foot, rubbing their hands together in the freezing winter air. Though several spy trades are scheduled for this morning, everyone knows the headline ticket.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: So Karel and Hana show up and they are dressed… Hana has got a fur coat, fur hat. Karel has got a trench coat and a fedora. They look fancy. He's got a Brooks Brothers suit on. 

NARRATOR: Immediately, the cameras start flashing. The glamorous couple beams. As they make their way across the bridge of spies, from Berlin to Potsdam, his Gucci loafers leave tracks in the fresh snow. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: They're dressed luxuriously, giving the middle finger to the people who had arrested them and held them. It's a real classic visual of the late Cold War. They cross that line, get in the golden Mercedes, and drive away over to the eastern side and they are toasting champagne with the other people that got traded back.

NARRATOR: For Karel and Hana Koecher this must feel like more than just a homecoming. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: It was a whole… celebrity event. And so the media is there and it's a real big deal.

NARRATOR: What the swap represents to the two triumphant spies, at last returning home, is recognition. Long overdue, but all the sweeter for it. A comfortable retirement beckons.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: And now here in this final chapter, it's like, “Okay, now here I am going back to communist Czechoslovakia. They're going to hail me like a god. I'm the guy who penetrated the CIA. I'm going to be a celebrity.”

NARRATOR: Except, that’s not what happens.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He goes back and they don't trust him because he's been living in the United States for 20 years. And then a couple of years later, so in ‘89, communism collapses. And then somebody who is associated with the old regime is a dinosaur, persona non grata. So now, almost a shameful figure in the public discourse. 

NARRATOR: Until - perhaps - now. Karel Koecher always knew he was destined for greatness. And he did everything he could to seek it out. At the height of the Cold War, he arrived in New York City - a sleeper agent, with one near-impossible mission: to infiltrate the highest level of American society. And against all odds, he actually succeeded. Karel’s is surely a story that belongs in the Cold War history books. Instead, it was relegated to the footnotes of a forgotten time. And then, in 2016, Benjamin Cunningham found himself in a village outside Prague knocking on the door of a modest country home.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: I heard this urban myth about the Koechers, Karel Koecher specifically, and was just curious. And so I had been a journalist in Prague for a number of years, started poking around, and - a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend thing - got through to Karel and reached out to him.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: I was pretty nervous when I went there. It's this mythical reputation of a double agent, a spy, a Cold War guy that's done some pretty wild things. 

NARRATOR: The wild things were exactly what Cunningham wanted to find out about. He’d heard whispers of a rogue agent who played the two teams on either side of the Iron Curtain against each other like it was nothing; a dangerous and intelligent man with an allegiance to little but his own advancement; a glamor-seeking communist with a penchant for swinger parties and New York nightlife. However, when the door opened, he was greeted by an innocent-looking old man. Bald on top, but still sporting a thick, white brush of a mustache. He peered out at his visitor from behind wide, aviator-framed glasses. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: A little standoffish and didn't trust me, probably doesn't trust too many people in general. But pleasant enough, had coffee, talked with him.

NARRATOR: And soon enough, their conversation found its groove. Over the course of this encounter - and many more after it - Karel Koecher began to open up to his young guest. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: One, I think he is a supremely confident guy who thinks he can spin any situation to his advantage. I think too… he probably was bored. He's an older guy who lived this racy, exciting life. And then three, I do think he feels somewhat aggrieved that he's not recognized in history. And so, I think he in some way thought this was an opportunity to set a narrative where he's a part of it, a Cold War narrative where he is a major character.

NARRATOR: In the book that Benjamin Cunningham eventually wrote about Karel Koecher called The Liar, he would come to agree with the old spy’s assessment. Contained within his story was indeed a parable of Cold War history - just perhaps not the one that Koecher had imagined. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: I mean, I guess the subtitle of the book - How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War's Last Honest Man - that's what I was trying to get at. Right? It's not that he's honest in the traditional sense, but I think his story is an honest representation of a lot of what happened in the Cold War. Okay. So we have heroic stories. And no doubt there are real stories of real heroes and real injustices and real politics and real near misses at nuclear war, those things did happen. But on a day-to-day basis, all day, every day, a lot of it is complete nonsense.

NARRATOR: To step into the world that Koecher so skilfully navigated is to step into a world of Cold War confusion and chaos. Agents, double agents, triple agents. Vast defense budgets are devoted to the business of frustration and deception. The way Cunningham sees it, there’s very little space for true heroics in such a duplicitous world. Perhaps if Karel had been born in another place, another time, it would have been different.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: If Karel had been born in the 1970s in Silicon Valley, California… He was an ambitious, intelligent guy. I would argue he'd be a billionaire. But no, he wasn't born in that situation. 

NARRATOR: Instead, Koecher was born in Czechoslovakia, in 1934.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Czechoslovakia was a country that was formed in 1918. So the country was less than 20 years old, a tumultuous region. You had the Nazis coming to power in Germany. And Karel's mother, Irena, was Jewish.

NARRATOR: When Karel was just four years old, his family left the rural town in which he’d been born and headed to the more cosmopolitan capital of Prague. There, they felt Irena might be safe from the growing threat of anti-semitism. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: The Nazis invade and occupy the Czech part of Czechoslovakia in 1939. And so she, essentially - the short version - is she never leaves the apartment for the duration of the war. It's not entirely clear how she avoided more serious repercussions. Her whole family, her extended family, which was in Slovakia, perished in the Holocaust. She did not.

NARRATOR: Perhaps his mother’s miraculous survival created, in Karel, some sense of exceptionalism. What’s clear is that from early on, he saw himself as different.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: So Karel as a young, young guy essentially learned English on his own. This already puts him on a weird track in that time and place. He's intelligent. He's ambitious. He's anti-authoritarian. 

NARRATOR: At a time when submissiveness was the expectation, Karel started to rebel. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: The communists take over Czechoslovakia in 1948 and in the ‘50s, as he's a young boy in school, a teenager, and things like this. This is when communist repression is. It’s the Stalinist period. 

NARRATOR: Being anti-establishment in 1950s Czechoslovakia was a dangerous game. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He and a bunch of classmates organize a group where they're trying to acquire weapons, believing they're going to overthrow the communist regime, and actually do acquire rifles. Some of them go to the US Embassy and talk to someone there to try and get support from the US Embassy. 

NARRATOR: Already, the boy believes he is destined for greatness. But he’s about to learn an important lesson.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: It turns out one of the kids was a government informer. So this nascent rebellion is stamped out pretty quickly. And you really might be put to death for that. 

NARRATOR: For the first time, Karel has been caught playing with fire. Yet somehow, he walks away unscathed.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: I guess all societies, even Stalinist societies, accept that 16-year-olds act like jackasses sometimes. 

NARRATOR: This close shave is his first encounter with the StB.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: So the StB is - it stands forStátní bezpečnost, which is state security. And it was basically the equivalent, the Czechoslovak equivalent, of the KGB. They spy domestically and they spy internationally. They engage in intelligence and counterintelligence. And so, they are the sharp end of the stick in a totalitarian or semi-totalitarian system, as well as the foreign intelligence-gathering service, this massive bureaucracy.

NARRATOR: And part of the job of this massive bureaucracy is to keep tabs on young troublemakers. By the time Karel’s leaving school, the StB has a thick file on his many childhood rebellions. Karel, always a brilliant student, wants to study physics at university. Mysteriously, his application is rejected. When he applies again, the next year, it’s the same.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: These Agencies are highly influential. Contrary to the myth of a communist utopia, it's not a fully merit-based system based on who gets what job and who gets to study what at the university. There are elites and there are people who are blacklisted. And more or less he's blacklisted.

NARRATOR: This system of obstruction is designed to extinguish any rebellious spirit but in Koecher, it does something else.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: With his personality, a guy who really is ambitious, this is like pouring fuel on that anti-authoritarian fire that he's got burning inside of him.

NARRATOR: He refuses to accept a diminished existence. If he can’t go to university, fine. He’s got other options.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Karel is a young guy who speaks English, and he's actually a tour guide for foreigners who come to Prague. 

NARRATOR: It’s in his work as a young tour guide to visitors from beyond the Iron Curtain that Karel Koecher gets his first glimpse of life in the West. He meets interesting people. One of them is an American academic called George Kline.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He was a literature professor and he was coming to Prague to study Czech literature, Eastern European literature, whatever. 

NARRATOR: But that wasn’t Kline’s only reason to be in Prague.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Kline is aligned with American intelligence. 

NARRATOR: The visiting professor is impressed with his young Czech tour guide, who is able to show him Franz Kafka’s grave and discuss literature in fluent English. Meanwhile, Karel is finally admitted to university to study physics after an old teacher vouches for him. When he graduates, inspired by his time with Kline, he decides he wants to see the world. But he finds his path obstructed once again.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He applies for this United Nations program to teach in Cameroon for a year. They deny him a passport.

NARRATOR: Koecher begins to understand that leaving the country is not an option for young rebels like him. He applies for a job at the national radio station and somehow makes it through the interview process with no red flag being raised.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He's actually a comedy writer there. That's a state organization.

NARRATOR: But just as his life appears to be getting on track...

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: There's an incident where he is out on a date with a girl. And he's kissing the girl. And then some undercover StB agent comes over to him and starts harassing him for being a kid kissing a girl in the street. And Karel snaps and yells at this guy. This guy arrests him. He goes to court. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: A local Communist Party official digs up his record from the past, and takes it over to Czechoslovak Radio. He gets ousted from that position. 

NARRATOR: Faced with one more setback, Karel decides to change tack. In a belated demonstration of lip-service loyalty, he applies for membership to the Communist Party. But his application is turned down. He’s just too tainted by his rebellious past. There remains one route left open to him.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: So he's got this friend, Jan Liška, who works for the StB. And Karel comes to the conclusion if you can't beat them, join them. Right? I'm not going to achieve anything with these people on my back. 

NARRATOR: Koecher weighed up what was more important to him - his anti-authoritarian ideology or his advancement? He chose the latter. With his friend, Koecher cooked up a plan.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He basically goes and starts meeting his friend Liška at the cafeteria, where the StB guys eat lunch. So you go there at lunchtime, have a couple of beers, and people start to think, “Hey, this guy, he's not half bad.” And he speaks German and he speaks French and he speaks English and he speaks Russian, right? 

NARRATOR: Somehow all of those liquid lunches pay off. Karel is given some basic tradecraft training, and then he’s in. A paid-up agent of the StB. And shortly afterward, he meets someone who will change his life forever. Her name is Hana.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: She's this beautiful young woman. She's younger than him. She's 19. He's approaching 30 at this point. He's this older guy, a suave character. She's a young woman and he's giving her all this attention. He's sophisticated. She's not that sophisticated. So it's this genuine love story. And she's young and young people are willing to do stuff. They're willing to take risks. 

NARRATOR: Karel intends to put Hana’s appetite for adventure to good use. He has begun signaling to his seniors in the StB that he’s ready for a bigger assignment than the bread-and-butter neighborhood watch of a domestic spy agency. He marries Hana and shortly after gets the call he has been waiting for.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Someone comes to him and asks him to pose as a dissident refugee and move to the United States to try to penetrate the US government. 

NARRATOR: Which sounds preposterous, of course. And just a little short on detail.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: The plan is, “Let's get you to the United States and then just penetrate the White House, penetrate the CIA.” Do something, right?

NARRATOR: In the assignment, Cunningham detects a revealing slice of warped StB logic.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: I would say it was not a data-driven decision. Right? It's a crapshoot. And it's, “What the hell, maybe something will come out of this?"

NARRATOR: Karel Koecher must know that the task before him is deranged. But that doesn’t put him off. Quite the opposite, in fact.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: It feeds his ego. He's like, “Finally, they are giving me something important.” And he also has the sense of like, “All right, I can go to the US. I’m ready to take this on.” Somewhere inside him himself, he believes he could do this.

NARRATOR: And not without good reason. Karel Koecher may be showing up to a crapshoot. But he has every intention of emerging the winner. After accepting his assignment to infiltrate the upper echelons of American society -  Karel and Hana Koecher receive a crash course in sleeper agent tradecraft.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: They go through brush passes. This is how you literally - if you're being followed on the street and you're actually handing off microfilm or documents to somebody else that's passing by you - how you do that and conceal it. How you detect if you're being followed on the street, Karel goes through training to beat a lie detector test. 

NARRATOR: Those skills will play a vital role in protecting the Koechers in their new life. The risks they face are profound.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: They are moving to a country, working for a foreign intelligence Agency, and lying about that. They are illegal plants. Sleeper agents. Illegals. If you get arrested in that case you can be executed. You can go to prison.

NARRATOR: But if pulled off convincingly, this mission will be far more effective than any diplomatic posting. And Karel does have a convincing story behind him. In 1965, he writes a letter to his old friend, the influential American academic - and probable spy - George Kline. He tells Kline that he’s sick of being held down by the oppressive regime of communist Czechoslovakia. That the story is essentially true makes it all the easier to sell. It’s unclear what strings Kline pulls at home - and in which capacity he pulls them -  but things begin to move very quickly for the Koechers.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Within a couple of days, they're able to get exit visas from the US Embassy in Vienna. This is highly unusual. 

NARRATOR: On December 5, 1965, the young couple board a charter flight organized by the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees. When they arrive in New York City, at the height of the happening ‘60s - they must experience the most profound culture shock imaginable. But they waste no time getting settled in. Once again, their friend George Kline opens doors for them. Karel lands a scholarship at Columbia University, where Kline teaches. Hana also finds work easily.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: So she gets a low-level job to start working in New York City, diamond dealing in shops.

NARRATOR: New York’s diamond district was just about as far from communist Czechoslovakia as a young woman could find herself. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: She's young, she's pretty, and she's a pretty good salesperson. You go in and you're going to buy your wife a diamond ring and or an engagement ring or whatever. And there's a pretty young girl there that's going to sell you a diamond. Maybe she's going to get you to spend a couple of extra dollars on that diamond by batting her eyelashes at you or whatever. 

NARRATOR: Hana had been an exemplary student of communist indoctrination. But now, as she immersed herself in one of the most glamorous cities in the world, she began to see a different way of living. And Karel too was happy to finally be in a context where his talents were recognized.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He is advancing through elite academia and people are recognizing that he's an intelligent guy.

NARRATOR: But he’s also painfully aware that in America, prestige alone doesn’t keep the lights on.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He wants recognition, praise, and status. But he also wants the material goods that should go with that. Maybe he had that in him all along. Maybe it's the taste of the American dream. And he gets that, he craves more. 

NARRATOR: Karel is surrounded by wealth at Columbia. Some of his fellow students come from vast fortunes. Sure, he wants to be renowned for his academia. But he also wants to live comfortably - like they do. Part of the job of a sleeper agent is to convincingly integrate into a new context. On this front, the Koechers were proving extremely adept, happily devoting themselves to the ‘never-enough’ quest of capitalist growth. But something else is happening. Now that Karel is actually inside the United States, he seems to be getting cold feet when it comes to fulfilling his duties as a spy. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He is starting to consider, “What are they going to do to me? How about I just become a professor at Columbia and say, to hell with the StB?”

Then, just two years after Karel’s arrival to the US, our story takes another turn, when dramatic events begin to unfold back home. For a brief moment, Czechoslovakia entertains the prospect of liberalization and ideologically unchaining itself from the monolith of the Soviet Union. The events are described, on the news broadcasts that reach the Koechers’ New York apartment, as the Prague Spring. But then Warsaw Pact forces, led by the Soviet Union, invade the country, and brutally stamp out this revolutionary moment. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: I think it is fair to say that the Prague Spring is a psychological pivot in Karel's mind. He knows that he's working for the StB, but the StB is an underling of the KGB. And then, the Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia. And that's a shock, right? That's like, “Well, who am I helping here? I thought they were on my team. I thought I was on their team.”

NARRATOR: In the chaos following the Prague Spring, Karel’s superiors at the StB are all purged and replaced with KGB loyalists. And they begin to take more of an interest in their sleeper agent in New York.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He's questioning his loyalty to the regime. He's not entirely satisfied with his own professional trajectory in the American context. He wants to be wealthy. He has ambition. The honeymoon period of being in the States is over on its own.

NARRATOR: Finally, the StB sent word via a coded message that they’d like Karel to meet with his handler. At a Manhattan diner, Koecher is given a dressing down. He needs to get his act together. Start delivering actual intelligence of import, or risk being cut off completely. His response?

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He essentially just explodes, blows up at him, starts threatening him.

NARRATOR: “How dare you ask more of me?” Koecher demands. He insists their mission - of infiltrating high American society - will be impossible without more money. In Koecher’s pale eyes, the StB handler sees white-hot fury.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: The meeting ends with the guy actually taking evasive measures. This is in the file - that his supervisor takes evasive measures to go back to his apartment after that because he's afraid Karel is going to be waiting in the dark to attack him in New York City.

NARRATOR: The handler makes a note in Koecher’s file. He is dangerously volatile, and unpredictable. More committed to his own financial gain than the communist mission. But despite appearances, Karel is making progress in his outlandish assignment. At Columbia, he met an influential academic called  Zbigniew Brzezinski.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: At this time, Brzezinski is a professor at Columbia. Karel is studying for a philosophy Ph.D. But Brzezinski is running an internal think tank at Columbia about Russian studies, Cold War strategy, and things like that. And Karel starts hanging out with those guys, attending seminars, giving lectures, and things like that. So he's in this network of people that are either angling to be or actually are the American foreign policy elite. 

NARRATOR: Not a bad contact for an StB spy to nurture.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: That's the place the CIA's looking for candidates. Karel more or less fills out an application to begin the process of getting the job.

NARRATOR: Of course, the CIA won’t let just anyone in -  particularly a Czechoslovak refugee, during the Cold War.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: There's obviously multiple steps, interviews, and what not. He eventually does have to pass a polygraph test to be approved to get the security clearance he needs to get the job he needs. 

NARRATOR: But the StB has trained Karel for that. He passes the polygraph with flying colors and begins his work at the CIA.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: The CIA has wiretaps, phone taps, bugs in rooms at Soviet Embassies in Latin America, ambassadors, residences in Latin America, and things like this. They're recording conversations on phones. And in these rooms, those people are speaking in Russian. Karel speaks Russian and other useful languages they have. His job is to listen to these recordings. 

NARRATOR: After a couple of months on the job, Karel informs the StB of his new position at the CIA. “Might this be of any use, do you think?”

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He starts feeding morsels back to the StB about, “Hey, maybe the CIA is targeting this guy for recruitment at the embassy in Caracas or whatever.”

NARRATOR: The StB, in turn, feeds Koecher’s intelligence up the chain of command, to the KGB.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: And the KGB then takes notice that this is unusual. That, in fact, he's the first - and as far as we know, the only one -  a foreign illegal sleeper agent that's able to actually obtain a job inside the CIA. And people in Moscow are impressed by this.

NARRATOR: Finally, Karel senses he’s beginning to get the recognition he deserves. With his new-found success as a double agent, Koecher seems to forget his misgivings about working for the KGB. Once again, ideology takes a back seat. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He actually writes this letter to Yuri Andropov, who is the head of the KGB. He later becomes, in the early 80s, one of the last leaders of the Soviet Union. But he writes Yuri Andropov, going over his supervisor's head. “I'm telling you, Yuri Andropov, these guys are all idiots. You got to recognize what you have here. I'm in a social circle now with the elite of the elite. I need money. I need cool clothes. Otherwise, I'm not going to be able to keep going.” And Yuri Andropov just says, “What the hell? I agree.” And he sends them $20,000.

NARRATOR: Like I said, if Karel Koecher was going to take part in a crapshoot, he was going to play to win. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: And Karel then takes that money and uses it as a down payment on his apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on 89th Street. So, it's like two blocks from Central Park. It's the Park Regis Building. Beautiful building. Robert Redford parks his Jaguar in the parking garage of the building. On the mortgage, though, of the apartment, the down payment is financed by the KGB, and the guarantor of the loan, his employer, is the CIA. 

NARRATOR: The Koechers sign the contract on their new Upper East Side home in January of 1976. It marks a high point in their career as spies. It also marks the peak of their assimilation into the excesses of America. Hana has climbed the ranks of the New York diamond business - and is making a healthy paycheck of her own. Karel is under the lucrative employ of not one, but two security agencies. Celebration is in order.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: So Karel and Hannah get involved in swinging spouse-swapping parties. They are really in an elite neighborhood with elite friends. In the diamond district scene. And so, they do, they get into parties, do drugs. There's the late ‘70s, there's cocaine floating around. And they fully embrace this almost classical caricature of late ‘70s New York nightlife. 

NARRATOR: But, at the very same time, the Koechers were flying dangerously close to the sun. In Soviet Russia, this bold spy who’d infiltrated the CIA had caught the attention of a powerful figure in the KGB.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Oleg Kalugin is the KGB head of foreign counterintelligence. His job is to uncover people who are betraying the Soviet Union outside of the Soviet Union. So he's looking for double agents.

NARRATOR: Kalugin sees cause for concern in the volatile spy with a case file overflowing with insubordination. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: And so Karel and Hanna are on vacation in 1976. September, August, and September of 1976. They're called back to Czechoslovakia and they're put up in this villa in this small village outside of Prague. Čtyřkoly, it's called, and it's a famous StB safe house. 

NARRATOR: There, Oleg Kalugin personally interviews Karel Koecher.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: And he's more or less put through the wringer, days of interrogation, and things like that.

NARRATOR: This is an unusual level of attention for someone so senior in the KGB to pay a lowly foot soldier of the StB. But Cunningham believes he knows why Kalugin was prepared to go the extra mile. Oleg Kalugin was an informant for the CIA. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: And the story that I posit is that Oleg Kalugin is afraid that Karel, because he is inside the CIA, is going to find out that Oleg Kalugin is collaborating with the CIA. And so Oleg Kalugin decides he needs to get rid of Karel before Karel exposes Oleg Kalugin. 

NARRATOR: Which is exactly what Kalugin attempts to do.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: The meetings end with Oleg Kalugin alleging that Karel is a traitor, that he's ostensibly gone over to the American side and he recommends to the StB that they sever cooperation with Karel. 

NARRATOR: The StB demands that the Koechers stay in Czechoslovakia and make an appearance on national television to out themselves. Karel outright refuses.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Essentially, the StB is afraid to kill him or jail him because Karl and Hana are both American citizens at this point, and this might create more problems - do more harm than good. So they let him go but they basically order him to stop working for the CIA and they more-or-less sever communication with him. 

NARRATOR: When Karel and Hana return to the United States, they are out in the cold. Disconnected for the first time from the StB.

​​BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: The irony here is that in November 1976, Jimmy Carter is elected president and inaugurated in January ‘77. And his national security adviser is Zbigniew Brzezinski.

NARRATOR: The same Brzezinski that Koecher had grown close to at Columbia University. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Pretty much at the exact time where one of his contacts achieves the absolute maximum, in a most sensitive position he could possibly achieve - a couple of months before that - the StB had severed communication with Karel. 

NARRATOR: So Karel was never called upon to utilize his high-power connection. Instead, the Koechers try something radical. They attempt to live an honest life - Karel, back in the circuit of academia; Hana, still working in the diamond district. For the first time, the Koechers are exactly what they say they are, and nothing more. Just another bourgeois New York couple. Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain - in the ever-shifting playing field of Soviet loyalties - Oleg Kalugin is slipping out of favor. There are whispers that the influential spy hunter is himself compromised. As a result, his denouncement of Karel Koecher is suddenly seen in a new light. In 1981, the StB make contact with the Koechers after five years of silence.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He was approached by this guy, Jan Fila, who's a StB agent who operates out of the United Nations. And Jan Fila comes to him and asks him to get back involved, to reactivate. 

NARRATOR: By this point, Karel has had time to acquaint himself with the realities of ordinary life - the petty career frustrations, the marital troubles, the never-satisfied itch of desire. He wants more. He has always wanted more. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Karel can't help himself, right? It's this thing of, like, the one last bank robbery, the one last job, whatever, from every movie you've ever seen. He’s going to come out of retirement for one last go at it. And that's the one that gets you. 

NARRATOR: Karel had always believed the rules did not apply to him. But this one did. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: So Jan Fila seems to have been working for the CIA. Jan Fila - I think in 1987 or so - disappears off the face of the earth, and leaves his wife and his children behind in Czechoslovakia. Strong circumstantial evidence. Just disappeared into a witness protection program in the US. So a strong indication that Jan Fila was, when he re-recruits Karel, that he is doing it on behalf of the CIA. 

NARRATOR: Shortly after Karel begins his second stint as a StB agent, things begin to to feel off.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: They start to notice strange things. They suspect their phone is bugged. There's a guy in an apartment across the street with binoculars.

NARRATOR: Karel’s training tells him that danger is nearby. But he hasn’t been arrested yet, which means there is still a narrow path to escape.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: As the walls are closing in on him, Karel decides that they should get the hell out of here. They decide they're going to move to Austria. 

NARRATOR: The Koechers make plans to sell their apartment and settle their affairs. But at the same time, the FBI and the CIA are quietly collaborating on a case against the Koechers. The Bureau wants to see the couple arrested, charged, and made an example of. The Agency is more interested in damage limitation. How much did Koecher give up? Who else is active in his network? It’s only a matter of time before they strike.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Karel goes to visit Hana at her office in the diamond district. He comes out on the street and there's a guy waiting for him on the sidewalk. Hana is also picked up and they go to this hotel, the Barbizon-Plaza.

NARRATOR: There, the FBI and CIA interrogate them individually. “The jig is up,” they’re told. “We know exactly who you are.” And the CIA makes Karel an offer: “Tell us everything, and we’ll let you go home.” Karel is faced with the choice of loyalty to the StB or self-preservation. I don’t need to tell you which path he takes.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: And so, Karel makes a deal. And they say, “Okay, we'll let you go, let you leave the country and go back to Austria if you tell us everything you did.” He does that. And leaves. 

NARRATOR: It’s the last in a long line of close shaves. But Karel should know better than to take the promises of an intelligence agency at face value. The CIA may have made him an offer but the FBI didn’t.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: On the night that they're going to leave the country, Karel is arrested and the FBI - and then the Justice Department, the prosecution - attempt to use his confession as evidence to convict him of crimes, espionage.

NARRATOR: Hana - who had stayed tight-lipped in her interrogation - remains free, while her husband is taken to jail.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He's kept in the Metropolitan Correctional Center. It's a big prison in Manhattan, a high-rise building, but it looks like a fortress. It's where people charged with federal crimes are kept in New York City awaiting trial. So there's a bunch of gangsters, like mafia leadership, in there. So it's a hardcore prison for people who committed hardcore crimes in New York City. 

NARRATOR: Outside the jail, the prosecution’s case against Karel encounters hurdles. The only evidence they have is his confession. It’s unclear if that will hold in court. Meanwhile, the spy is left to rot.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: There is an actual incident that occurs where someone tries to stab him, a psycho that gets transferred in and tries to stab him. In Karel's estimation, that guy was a plant trying to assassinate him.

NARRATOR: Karel knows he will not survive much longer in this place. He desperately considers his options. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: He comes up with an idea to write a letter. He writes a letter and he gives it to his lawyer. And he tells his lawyer to take the letter to Prague. And the idea is that he wants Czechoslovakia and the Soviets to offer to trade Karel for Natan Sharansky.

NARRATOR: Natan Sharansky was a prominent Soviet dissident who had been imprisoned, behind the Iron Curtain, since the late 1970s. 

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: Ronald Reagan had spoken of making it a priority to free this guy, to get this guy out of the Soviet Union. And Karel did have the idea to propose this trade and to write a letter and set the wheels in motion to make this trade happen. 

NARRATOR: And what do you know? The StB and the KGB took the bait. They offered up Sharansky in return for their stranded sleeper agent. Staring down the prospect of an unwinnable trial against Koecher - and seeing a Cold War PR opportunity in Sharansky’s release - President Ronald Reagan authorized the trade. After more than a year held in the MCC - Karel Koecher, alongside his wife, Hana, was sent to West Berlin in the early part of 1986. And just like that, we’re back where we began. With a glamorous couple crossing the Bridge of Spies to freedom, adorned in the expensive costumes of their Upper East Side posting. This would end up becoming the last major swap of the Cold War. Not that anyone knew it, at the time. When the Berlin Wall fell, just a couple of years later, it came as an enormous surprise to the security agencies on both sides of the border. In that irony - Cunningham sees a fundamental truth about the Cold War as a whole. It’s the key to understanding the Koechers’ story.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: By the time you get to the late Cold War, the tangled mess of stuff that was going on is so mystifying that we are incapable of even grasping the original purpose of what we're doing.

NARRATOR: Karel Koecher believed he was destined for greatness. But ultimately Cunningham sees him as just another bit player, caught up in the complex web of espionage and counter-espionage as the entire Cold War circled the drain. He should consider himself lucky to have escaped with his life. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: They live on a quiet street, in a quiet town, in a house near the forests. So their lives now are not a tortured existence. 

NARRATOR: But whether that existence is enough for the Cold War’s last honest man? That’s another matter entirely.

BENJAMIN CUNNINGHAM: I think for a guy who internally thought himself potentially a leader, a historical figure or somebody that was going to achieve great things... still seething on the inside, that that never happened and probably isn't going to happen.

NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. Next time on True Spies, an elite military intelligence unit comes up against a worthy foe.

Guest Bio

Benjamin Cunningham is a Barcelona-based writer, former correspondent for The Economist and editor in chief of the Prague Post.

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