Spy who got the cold shoulder: how the west abandoned its star defector

By Donna Ferguson

On a cold winter’s day, eight months before the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, the west’s most valuable double agent went on the run in East Berlin. Warned that his colleagues in both the Polish intelligence service and the KGB were on to him, Michal Goleniewski spent days crisscrossing the city, desperately trying to evade their surveillance for long enough to reach the US consulate – and defect to the west.

The day he managed it proved to be one of the most important of the cold war, a new book published later this month will argue. Drawing on previously unpublished documents, it reveals that Goleniewski exposed 1,693 Soviet bloc agents, including some of the most infamous spies of the period.

“No other defector or agent – before or since – has identified such a vast haul of spies,” said Tim Tate, author of The Spy Who Was Left Out in the Cold.

Despite the remarkable scale of Goleniewski’s successful espionage on behalf of the west, he is not the celebrated spy he should be, Tate argues, because the “mind games” the CIA played with him after he defected made him paranoid and delusional.

Michal Goleniewski in his Queens apartment, New York City, 1964.
Michal Goleniewski in his Queens apartment, New York City, 1964. Photograph: Goleniewski's Polish Intelligence files; courtesy Institute of National Remembrance, Warsaw

“The CIA was primarily responsible for driving its best ever and most effective spy insane,” says Tate. During his research, he used freedom of information requests to obtain the CIA’s files on Goleniewski, many of which had never been made public before. “The agency’s files – and Goleniewski’s own previously unpublished letters and affidavits – reveal how the CIA and the US state department betrayed Goleniewski, reneged on his contract, harassed, smeared and attempted to discredit him and, ultimately, pushed his already fragile mind into full-blown madness.”

As a result, he says, Goleniewski is primarily known as the man who falsely claimed to be Alexei Romanov, heir apparent to the last Tsar of Russia. “His extraordinary contribution to western national security has been largely airbrushed from history,” Tate says.

A former Nazi collaborator, Goleniewski rose to become a high-ranking counterintelligence officer for the Polish intelligence service after the second world war. He was already spying on Polish intelligence for the KGB when, in April 1958, he also decided to start sending KGB and Polish intelligence material and Soviet military information anonymously to the FBI. “What he sends is unprecedented, both in quality and in quantity, and he sends it monthly.”

Unlike most defectors to the west, who primarily wanted a better life outside the Soviet Union, Goleniewski was ideologically motivated, Tate says. “He said later he had this Damascene conversion, this revelatory experience where he realised that the communist system was wrong. And that he needed, as a Polish intelligence officer working simultaneously for the KGB, to do everything he could to counter it, and to start working for the west and democracy.”

Goleniewski’s main condition was that he would only deal with the FBI. “He says: I’ll give you all of this information but I’m only going to deal with the FBI because every other American intelligence agency and government department, I know, has been penetrated by Soviet bloc intelligence.” His material was initially hidden from the FBI by the CIA. “The CIA intercepts it and then deceives him for the next three years.”

He exposed, in Britain, George Blake – the KGB’s man inside MI6 – and the Portland spy ring, a group of Soviet spies who were sending Admiralty secrets, such as details of the UK’s Polaris nuclear submarines, to the KGB. “He names and identifies some of the most devastating Soviet bloc spies who have been betraying British American and Nato secrets to Moscow for more than a decade, and only Goleniewski’s information enables them to be caught and the haemorrhaging of the west’s most vital secrets to be stopped.”

After Goleniewski defected at the US embassy in West Berlin, he was exfiltrated to the US, where he spent most of the next three years being debriefed. “The CIA is gobsmacked by the quality and importance of his material, as is MI5,” Tate says. “It’s absolutely clear, in the CIA’s own words, that he was the best spy the west ever had in the cold war.”

The British spy George Blake with Kim Philby’s second wife, Nishia Philby.
The British spy George Blake with Kim Philby’s second wife, Nishia Philby. Photograph: ANL/Rex/Shutterstock

Goleniewski was promised US citizenship and an employment contract at the CIA, and MI5 sent him a silver tankard as a thank you present. But then another defector, Anatoliy Golitsyn, arrived in the US, and managed to convince the CIA’s head of counter-intelligence that “only he, Golitsyn, is a true defector and everybody else is bogus”.

As a result, in 1964, the CIA started to renege on all its promises to Goleniewski. “His contract isn’t renewed, his payments stop coming and they take away the pistol they had provided for protection. And they know that his former masters in Warsaw and Moscow are looking for him at this point.”

The agency even started briefing other government departments that Goleniewski had “lost his mind”, even though statements from its own officers at this time reveal that he was still providing reliable information.

Caught in the CIA’s web of deceit, Goleniewski suffered an “immense” amount of financial and emotional distress and quickly started to lose his grip on reality. By the mid-1970s, he was accusing prominent politicians of being long-dead Nazi or Soviet intelligence figures. “He’s become completely paranoid, and gone completely insane,” Tate says.

He died in 1993 in New York, still claiming he was Tsarevich Alexei.

Not all the secrets he knew died with him, however. Tate says the one file on Goleniewski he did not manage to access was MI5’s, due to what was described as its “continuing sensitivity”. “I cannot find a legitimate reason for MI5 to withhold it. I cannot work out what ‘continuing sensitivity’ there could be in a file on a man six decades after he defected, and three decades after the fall of the iron curtain. It makes no sense.”

This article was amended on 23 May 2021. In an earlier version, an image caption referred to Kim Philby as “George Philby”.