In the fall of 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait but before Operation Desert Storm was ready to take it back, the CIA needed to exfiltrate six American officers from the besieged embassy in Baghdad. Their intel about Desert Storm (among other things) made them targets for capture by Hussein’s forces, with torture or worse to follow, and only a covert operation would have any hope of getting them safely out of the country. Desperate, the CIA turned to the Office of State Protection, or UOP, the Polish intelligence agency. Only months before, the newly ex-communist Poles held clandestine meetings with the CIA to explore ways to share intelligence and cooperate going forward, but this was something else — a full-blown field operation with high-risk stakes and potentially fatal consequences. The Poles jumped at it.

The exfiltration, complete with disguises (as Polish engineers), false passports and cartons of Marlboros to ease their way through roadblocks, is the dramatic centerpiece of “From Warsaw With Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance,” and author John Pomfret makes the most of it. But it’s also the curtain opening of the larger story he wants to tell, the remarkable partnering of two intelligence agencies that went from being adversaries to being allies, often with the same players in place.

And not just nominal allies. Other secret operations were to follow, as well as significant intelligence exchanges. The Poles had access to places where the CIA had little or no presence — North Korea, Cuba, Iran, not to mention Russia — and they were generous colleagues. Ten years after the spy rescue in Baghdad, then-CIA Director George Tenet called America’s work with the Poles “one of the two foremost intelligence relationships that the United States has ever had.”

I suspect the reaction of most general readers (including this one) will be: Who knew? Of course it’s in the nature of these things not to be known — news of the 1990 exfiltration, for instance, didn’t surface until 1995. But Pomfret’s book is eye-opening in the best sense. We learn things we didn’t know. Pomfret, a former Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post and the author of a history of the U.S.-China relationship, talked to a lot of people who had stories to tell — and, this being the secret world, they’re often colorful. I especially liked the Polish spy who titled his memoir “The Name Is Zacharski, Marian Zacharski.” And Pomfret is always alert to the human factor, the personal quirks of the individuals who made this special relationship happen.

Why did the Poles do it? For one thing, there was the money. The CIA bankrolled joint operations and provided the UOP with funds, and is even said to have been influential in getting half of Poland’s $33 billion foreign debt forgiven. Not small change. But money isn’t everything. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Poland needed another ally to guarantee its security. The decision to join NATO needed America’s backing. As did the later move to the European Union. To be an American ally was to be a Polish patriot, working for the future of the country. Pomfret goes even further. He feels that “something intangible drew Americans and Poles together,” something beyond the mutual respect for each other’s tradecraft, a cooperative history stretching back to the Revolutionary War. And there was the mythic aura that America held for millions of Polish immigrants (everyone had an uncle in America or knew someone who did). The Poles didn’t want just any new ally, they wanted this ally. Pomfret’s apt title is only half a joke. The Poles were prepared to do almost anything to cement the relationship.

It’s all the more dispiriting, then, to watch things go sour. The heady days of cooperation under the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations (which, given what followed, seem here a period of enlightenment) took a turn after 9/11. It was in Poland’s interest to fight terrorism, too, but perhaps not to allow the Americans a secret place on Polish soil to interrogate suspects. Only Americans were allowed at this black site, but rumors of torture inevitably got around, and the Poles asked to have it closed down in 2003. That might have been the end of it, but leaks exposed the Polish government’s public denials, and a politically convenient scandal followed. The Poles felt betrayed, and the relationship suffered (not so much that the CIA subsidies stopped, however).

The black site may be a damaging episode in this story, but politics is not a morality play, and “From Warsaw With Love” is careful to survey other factors that affected the relationship, not least of which was time itself. Things changed, priorities got shuffled. Both countries’ domestic politics underwent significant swings. The Polish government’s early accommodation of former communists (as a stabilizing move) turned into a purge, with a petty targeting of pensioners in the intelligence community. America’s attention was diverted from Europe. More recently, the Poles got a homophobic right-wing government and we got — what we got.

Still, it’s possible that the intangible affinity is simply moving into a new, less-exuberant phase. Certainly we need all the friends we can get, and by this account Poland has been one of the most faithful. But the relationship was always unbalanced. As Polish politician Radoslaw Sikorski said, being allied with the United States is like marrying a hippo. At first, it’s warm and cuddly. Then the hippo turns, crushes you and doesn’t even notice. The most valuable thing about this informative book is that it might make the hippo take notice.

From Warsaw With Love

Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging
of an Unlikely Alliance

273 pp. $29.99