Top secret: inside Poland’s elite spy school
Hidden amidst the serene lakes and picturesque landscapes of Mazury, lies a facility that is now gaining unexpected attention as an unlikely tourist destination.
This at least is according to leading internet portal Onet, which in its travel section recently made the surprising recommendation to readers that “it is worthwhile during an outing to the Mazury region to visit one of the most mysterious areas in our country famous for its ‘school of spies’.”
The ‘school of spies’ is Poland’s elite Intelligence Personnel Training Centre in Stare Kiejkuty, which was set up exactly 50 years ago to train intelligence officers who would go on to form the backbone of Poland’s formidable communist-era civilian intelligence service.
At the time, it was the only intelligence training facility in the Eastern Bloc located outside the Soviet Union.
Despite its intriguing history, those enticed by Onet's suggestion to visit the centre are in for an unexpected disappointment, and perhaps even a potential nasty surprise.
The complex, which still functions to this day, maintains a strict policy against outside visitors, safeguarded by buffer lanes, guard towers, and patrols, all working to ensure no one gets too close to its enigmatic secrets..
The Intelligence Personnel Training Centre, known to insiders as JW 2669, received its first students in 1973 after party leader Edward Gierek decided that Poland needed a modern civilian intelligence service that could keep pace with technological change and its rivals in NATO countries.
After the war, Polish intelligence staff were trained at the Soviet school in Kuybyshev in modern-day Samara. In the following decades, officers of Department 1, as the civilian intelligence department was known, were trained in a building on Długa street in Warsaw and in Moscow.
The first step was to find a suitable plot in a discreet place, cut off from the world, where the future spies could hone their skills.
An ideal plot was found in Stare Kiejkuty, nestled between two lakes to the northeast of Szczytno in Mazury.
Previously owned by the scouts, the land was commandeered and the facility was built at an express tempo in less than two years.
The location was specially chosen to prevent snooping by possible Western spies. The nearby village was slated for a slow extinction as no new residents were giving permission to settle there, a requirement in communist Poland.
Students had no contact with the local population. If they were seen, locals would have assumed that they were ordinary soldiers, as they wore basic fatigues.
Since the graduates were being trained to operate in the West, it was important that they felt comfortable in Western conditions and not make any silly slip-ups that could expose them as Soviet-bloc spies.
To achieve this, students in Stare Kiejkuty were immersed in what was considered luxury at the time. They lived in high-standard, double-occupancy, ensuite apartments. They had access to a gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool and a canteen.
There was also a library, a marina, canoes, Coca-Cola and a shoe-cleaning machine of the type that could be found in Western hotels.
In the evenings, students had access to a free bar, which was open till midnight. However, they were closely observed while consuming alcohol. All students adopted aliases while at the school, and revealing personal information while drinking was considered a huge red flag by instructors.
A chef from Warsaw's Grand Hotel was hired whose job was to serve dishes from around the world, as students had to learn the art of eating different foods.
During the year-long course, students would wake up at 6.00 a.m. and go for a 3.5-kilometre run. After, they would shower, eat breakfast and then attend classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Much emphasis was placed on learning foreign languages. Other classes focused on psychology, the art of observation, report writing, cryptology, setting up wiretaps, recording and building secret caches.
An important part of the training was learning the art of recruiting agents, the bread and butter of an intelligence officer’s work.
Students also learned about computers, map reading, photography, and surveillance and counter-surveillance – in other words how to follow a target and lose a tail.
While the aim of the training was not to produce Polish versions of James Bond, there was still time for firearms training and extreme driving.
Women, the first of whom appeared at the school in the mid-1970s, made up only a few percent of students back then. Today, they number around 50 percent.
When students graduated they would take their vows under a huge carving of a Światowid, a deity of the Swabian Slavs who looked out to the four corners of the world.
After graduating, many took up jobs in Polish embassies working undercover as diplomats. Their tasks in the West were to steal military, economic and political information, mainly in NATO countries, but also in Israel and Japan.
Another target was Poles abroad associated with Solidarity and Radio Free Europe.
In 1990, the centre was taken over by the State Protection Office, and after its dissolution in 2002, it came under the Intelligence Agency.
In 1990, Polish intelligence officers led six U.S. intelligence officers out of Iraq who were stranded there after Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait in an operation involving graduates from Stary Kiejkuty.
The site gained unwanted attention in the 00s, when it was alleged that it had been used as a CIA black site. Jets were said to land at nearby Szymany airport and detainees would be taken to the site for interrogation as part of the US’s War on Terror.