The freighter left the Polish seaport of Gdynia with a highly classified cargo, a state-of-the-art air-defense system built in the Soviet Union. Its ultimate destination - the United States - was a secret, known only to a few people in the U.S. intelligence community.
The shipment, arranged in the late 1980s, was the culmination of an extraordinary intelligence effort coordinated by the CIA: the acquisition of advanced Soviet weapons from Warsaw Pact countries at the tail end of the Cold War.
Using foreign intermediaries, European bank accounts and third countries, the U.S. government made scores of clandestine purchases, paying hundreds of millions of dollars to Eastern Bloc officials who were willing to betray Soviet military secrets.
Reports about the secret operation, including deals made between the CIA and the Communist-era Ceausescu regime of Romania, first appeared in 1990 following the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe. But new interviews with government and intelligence sources in the United States and Eastern Europe make clear for the first time that the most significant collaborator in the program was Poland, which acted on its own or in concert with other Warsaw Pact nations in selling advanced Soviet systems.
In the dozens of deals involving Poland, the sources said, the United States paid an estimated $150 million to $200 million so the Pentagon could acquire top-of-the-line Soviet air-defense systems, radar, armed helicopters, torpedoes, tanks and self-propelled artillery.
In most cases, U.S. intelligence officials believe, the payments, which went through foreign intermediaries, ended up in Poland. The intermediaries also may have paid commissions to some Polish defense officials who made the deals work smoothly or were willing to look the other way.
The Poles "were the chink in the Soviet armor," said one U.S. intelligence source.
U.S. officials said they have no direct evidence that Poland's Communist leader in the 1980s, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, became personally involved in the deals, but several said that because of the scale and the sensitivity of the covert transactions there must have been tacit approval from the highest levels in Poland's Defense Ministry.
The clandestine program to buy Soviet weapons "was the cheapest strategic asset we had," said retired Gen. Edward "Shy" Meyer, the U.S. Army chief of staff from 1979 to 1983, who oversaw its early stages.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment, but other intelligence sources confirmed the deals and Poland's role as the largest provider of Warsaw Pact arms to the United States throughout the 1980s.
The deals were carried out during a period of heightened East-West tensions and subservience by Soviet Bloc defense ministries to Moscow. Poland, in particular, was an object of international criticism and economic sanctions because of Jaruzelski's suppression of the Solidarity labor movement in 1981.
Jaruzelski, in a recent interview in Warsaw, said he had not approved or been aware of such transactions, and he called them "almost completely improbable" and risky. He said Moscow kept a close eye on systems sent to Poland.
But Jaruzelski added that he could not absolutely rule out the possibility that Soviet weapons technology eventually made its way to the United States, perhaps through other countries that might have cooperated in such a scheme. "Theoretically one cannot exclude that," Jaruzelski said.
As with those involving Romania and the other Soviet Bloc countries, the Polish sales were structured to afford Communist officials full "deniability," according to sources. U.S. intelligence typically worked through a select group of foreign intermediaries, such as arms dealers or businessmen, to negotiate the complex transactions. Documentation was prepared listing plausible destinations for the material, such as Soviet allies in the Middle East.
The United States paid the Poles indirectly, establishing letters of credit in overseas accounts. Once the Pentagon gave the order, the payments were made through the intermediaries, typically to an agency called Cenzin that handled Poland's foreign military sales.
The Pentagon kept "a tight string" on the large sums budgeted for each deal, said a former Pentagon official, retired Army Maj. Gen. E. R. Thompson. Thompson, the Army's assistant chief of staff for intelligence from 1977 to 1981 and later a deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, would not discuss the operation in detail but stated that no payments were made to other countries until U.S. military experts inspected the weapons.
The infusions of hard currency appear to have been a major motivating factor for the Poles, U.S. officials said. Poland had a large foreign debt and was increasingly isolated because of the economic sanctions imposed by the Reagan administration from December 1981 until February 1987.