Czech History Underground agents and plots in the Cold War broadcasting war
In this week’s Czech History we look at one aspect of the Cold War, the use of secret agents to spy on and disrupt the enemy’s propaganda services. In particular, we focus on the circus that surrounded the return of a Czechoslovak double agent Pavel Minařík 40 years ago in 1976 which was aimed at discrediting the US financed and Munich-based broadcaster Radio Free Europe.
Radio Free Europe was undoubtedly a thorn in the side of the Communist regime. Radio Free Europe started its services in 1950 with the first broadcasts to Czechoslovakia. The full service was up and running in 1951. It quickly gathered a team of broadcasters, overwhelmingly anti—Communist exilees and also possessed an impressive information collecting network on the other side of the Iron Curtain. It was such an irritant that the Communist regime quickly developed its jamming services to block the transmissions. Historian at Prague’s Military History Institute and the author of a book about Radio Free Europe, Prokop Tomek takes up the story.
“He had a fairly low grade, he was just an announcer, and did not have the possibility of influencing the programmes day to day or intervening in any other ways.”
“The State Security Service (StB) overwhelmingly wanted to target the exile movement abroad and also to discredit them in the eyes of the Czechoslovak public at home and also to attack Radio Free Europe because the broadcaster was a sort of particular enemy and symbol of opposition for the Czechoslovak regime.”
In the 1950s, the Czechoslovak secret service managed to infiltrate Radio Free Europe with agents. There was even a failed attempt to poison staff of the Czech and Slovak sections with poison in the canteen salt cellars in 1959. But to some extent, Prague’s efforts were outclassed by those of the Polish Communist Secret Service. They sent an agent who functioned for six years before returning to Warsaw in 1971 in a blaze of publicity embarrassing the Western broadcaster and US government. Later than the Poles, the Czechoslovak secret service adopted similar plans. Prokop Tomek again:
“Pavel Minařík was recruited as an agent in Czechoslovakia by the StB in 1967. He was a professional radio announcer in Brno and it was planned therefore that he would be sent abroad, if possible to Munich and Radio Free Europe. That took place eventually in September 1968 and he quickly got a job at the radio and became an announcer. He was tasked with collecting all the information he could about the employees at Radio Free Europe and the broadcast plans. Of course, he had a fairly low grade, he was just an announcer, and did not have the possibility of influencing the programmes day to day or intervening in any other ways, which would obviously have been a lot more interesting from the StB’s point of view.”
But Pavel Minařík also had a broader role which Munich, a centre for Communist exiles, was well placed to fulfil.
“He also collected information about various exile organisations and movements, of which there were many. And that was also interesting for the State Security Service. So it was not just about the broadcaster Radio Free Europe but also the exile movements that existed around it.”
“He also collected information about various exile organisations and movements, of which there were many.”
A lot of the agent’s information, it appears, originated in gossip and loose talk around the canteen table at the broadcaster. Pavel Minařík was not the only agent the Czechoslovak security service managed to place at Radio Free Europe, but the archive information nevertheless portrays him as one of the most active and able agents it had.
The problem for the Czechoslovak recruiters was that they could offer relatively poor financial inducements for anyone to switch sides. One of the most attractive incentives they had was to offer renewed contact with family and friends to those who had left the country. Many of the agents who agreed to cooperate apparently furnished little information of use and Propok Tomek believes that what they did furnish was probably agreed in advance with Western security services so that it would not damage the broadcaster or even confuse the Czechoslovak service what was happening.
Like his Polish predecessor, Minařík was eventually called home to an avalanche of publicity and appearances in January 1976. One hundred and seventy journalists turned up for the home coming press conference, 20 of them from the West. Prokop Tomek again:
“It was basically a big propaganda show. There was not just the press conference, Minařík appeared all over the place on the radio, television, and also on several television broadcasters from Eastern Europe. There were a lot of articles and interviews in newspapers and magazines, so it was a big campaign which was given the codename Infection. The whole idea was to create an atmosphere of distrust in Radio Free Europe and discredit it in the eyes of the Czechoslovak public.”
The downside of such a propaganda and media circus was that the cover of the agent himself, Pavel Minařík, was totally blown and he could not really be used again. According to historian, Tomek argues this was a pretty unprofessional approach from the Czechoslovak State Security service.
“Pavel Minařík, drew up three separate plans for bomb attacks on Radio Free Europe. “
During his undercover activities, Pavel Minařík, drew up three separate plans for bomb attacks on Radio Free Europe. None of them were carried out from Prague. But a bomb attack on the broadcaster’s headquarters did eventually take place in February 1981. Several employees were injured but no-one killed. It later turned out that the Romanian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu was behind the attack.
As long as the Cold War continued, Minařík could enjoy a safe and secure future even out of the public spotlight.
“After the massive propaganda campaign ended, the way was opened for him to study. He studied in Moscow and Kiev. When the studies ended he became the deputy editor and later the chief editor of the magazine Signal which was published by the Federal Ministry of Interior. He stayed there until 1990 when he ostensibly left at his own request from the editor’s post as an employee of state security.”
But the end of the Cold War in 1989 brought the need to find a new job and to try and avoid prosecution which with his former star status always appeared to be likely.
“In the succeeding years, Pavel Minařík attempted to launch himself as a businessman, specialising in deals with the former Soviet Union. He was, however, later convicted of an insurance fraud scam. There were repeated attempts to bring him to justice for the preparations for a bomb attack on Radio Free Europe but these all eventually fizzled out.”
The prosecution case against him was finally closed in 1994.
Ironically, Radio Free Europe was already moving to change itself from the clearcut CIA-financed broadcaster when Pavel Minařík’s undercover actions were proceeding.
“Basically until the start of the 1970s Radio Free Europe was financed by the CIA. That already began to be talked about in the West during the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. That system was eventually ended and the US government moved on to create a totally new framework of financing which was around at the time when Minařík returned. It was a lot more transparent, the Council for International Broadcasting was created and it managed the operations of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, a station which was very similar to Radio Free Europe but directed just at the former Soviet Union. The council ws responsible for financing both stations directly from the federal US government budget. It was very transparent and the same system continues to this day.”